Let’s Call Quiet Quitting What It Often Is: Calibrated Contributing
For employees who are rationally matching their effort at work to what they get in return in an increasingly unbalanced system, quiet quitting is not the right term.
Janet is a pharmacist who worked in person throughout the pandemic, enduring daily risk to her own health and a stream of abuse from scared, frustrated customers. For this commitment, she made less than 1% of the salary of her company’s CEO in each of the past three years.
Alex works in IT support. For several years, he actively tried to help improve his group’s efficiency and culture but found his ideas repeatedly ignored. When the pandemic hit, he figured management would finally listen to and act on his insights about how to keep virtual workers positive and productive. He was wrong.
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Like millions of other Americans, Janet and Alex eventually concluded that what they were getting out of work — be it their financial compensation or a sense of control or respect — didn’t match what they were putting in. They were, in short, giving more than they were getting, so they decided to scale back their efforts. Janet still does her job well, but she won’t stay late or take extra shifts. Alex still handles the same volume of support calls, but he has stopped speaking up or investing effort in coming up with potential improvements.
Apparently, this makes Janet and Alex “quiet quitters,” a fuzzy term meaning either doing a job’s bare minimum or no longer trying to overachieve. I’m not doubting that this is happening a lot these days. It’s been happening for decades among employees who are disengaged and disillusioned with their jobs.
What I’m bothered by is the label: Quitting seems like a decidedly derogatory, adversarial term for situations like these. Why not call Janet and Alex calibrated contributors — employees who are rationally matching their effort to what they get in return?
The notion of calibrated contributing would recognize that Janet and Alex are simply trying to enact their views of fairness or balance, having concluded that their employers and our laws in the U.S. aren’t going to do that for them. Their choices illustrate equity theory’s core prediction about motivation.1 Put simply, equity theory says that fairness is a relative judgment — the ratio of what one puts in and gets out compared with some relevant other’s contributions and rewards.
1. J.S. Adams, “Inequity in Social Exchange,” in “Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 2,” ed. L. Berkowitz (New York: Academic Press, 1965), 267-299.
2. L. Van Dyne, L.L. Cummings, and J.M. Parks, “Extra-Role Behaviors: In Pursuit of Construct and Definitional Clarity (A Bridge Over Muddied Waters),” in “Research in Organizational Behavior, Vol. 17,” eds. L.L. Cummings and B.M. Staw (Greenwich, Connecticut: JAI Press, 1995), 215-285.
3. N.P. Podsakoff, S.W. Whiting, P.M. Podsakoff, et al., “Individual- and Organizational-Level Consequences of Organizational Citizenship Behaviors: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Applied Psychology 94, no. 1 (January 2009): 122-141.
4. L. Van Dyne and J.B. Ellis, “Job Creep: A Reactance Theory Perspective on Organizational Citizenship Behavior as Overfulfillment of Obligations,” in “The Employment Relationship: Examining Psychological and Contextual Perspectives,” eds. J.A.M. Coyle-Shapiro, L.M. Shore, and L.E. Tetrick (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2004), 181-205.
5. N. Fairclough, “Language and Power,” 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2013).