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Tech Founders: Don't Be Fooled By the Quiet Quitting Narrative

Could a shift in perspective help tech leaders build a more engaged workforce?

Twitter is overrun with this idea that American workers are checking out. But the data suggests that employee engagement remains high.

An HBR study suggests that quiet quitting might have less to do with employee motivation and more to do with management.

Like most issues in the workplace, the root of problem relates to poor communication.

Do a quick google search of "quiet quitting" and you’ll find a number of articles pushing the narrative of a lazy workforce. Most are backed by a recent Gallup report, warning fearful employers that “Quiet quitters make up at least 50% of the U.S. workforce,” and the trend “could get worse”. 

Ah the internet—a place where you can find the exact information you need to help you validate your fears.

According to Gallup, the number of disengaged workers rose to 18% in 2022—the highest it’s been in nearly a decade. This information alone has leaders across the country worried about the consequences a disengaged workforce could have on their company's productivity. 

The problem with this statistic is that it lacks context. Between 2018 and 2020, employee engagement increased from 34% to 36%. In 2022, it barely declined at 32%—and from a quick look at Gallup’s report, you can see that this number is still higher than any year prior to 2014.

Why all the fuss around quiet quitting? 

In a recent article for The Atlantic, Quiet Quitting Is a Fake Trend, Derek Thompson speaks up on what the mainstream media narrative has failed to point out: Quiet quitting isn’t actually about empowering employees, instead, it’s being used to validate managers who think that the reason their team is unengaged is because they are slackers.

Earlier this month, recruiter Bonnie Dilber, a recruiter at Zapier, posted on LinkedIn about a similar frustration with the term quiet quitting. The post quickly went viral, with over 36,000 reactions from other professionals sharing Dilber’s outlook. Dilber takes issue with the term quiet quitting, which blames the employee, and instead suggests that management should focus on providing the support necessary for their team to succeed. 

According to Dilber, the conversation around quiet quitting needs a shift in perspective. “Instead of worrying about ‘quiet quitting’, I'd encourage companies to look at their management practices and identify places where people are being ‘quiet fired’ by poor managers who don't want to do the work to support, train, and coach their teams.” 

The post received enough attention that it was picked up by Time. According to Time, the term "quiet firing" was first seen this past August, when Social Media Influencer DeAndre Brown made a viral TikTok video describing quiet firing as what happens when a workplace fails to recognize and reward employees for their contributions. 

And while quiet quitting might be a response to poor management, it also might not be that deep. Shini Ko, a millennial software developer told Time, “It’s negative and dangerous that we frame a healthy work-life balance as quitting,” Ko continues, “Can we just call it what it is? It’s just working.” Like Ko, many tech workers across the country see quiet quitting as nothing more than a rejection of hustle-culture in exchange for work-life-balance. 

Whether or not quiet quitting is real, the economic downturn and the ongoing Great Resignation have made employee productivity levels a major concern

Okay, but what even is quiet firing?

Like most issues in the workplace, the root of quiet firing stems from poor communication. Managers are people too—and sometimes that means they avoid conflict or ignore problems instead of addressing them.

Janice Gassam Asare, a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) consultant told Time, “I have clients that sometimes say, we don’t know how to deal with this employee, right? We’re afraid that this employee will react in a negative way if we give them feedback about their performance,” Asare explains, “So rather than giving them constructive feedback, which would help them to grow and develop, they just avoid giving feedback altogether.”

According to Asare, a passive approach to managing could turn even the most ambitious workers into quiet quitters. In a poll conducted by LinkedIn News, 35% of participants reported having experienced quiet firing themselves, while a whopping 48% have seen it happen to their colleagues. Honing in on employee wellbeing might help to chip away at the cost of a disengaged workforce—a loss of $7.8 trillion globally.

The importance of internal mobility

As a tech founder or exec, the quiet quitting narrative could lead you to worry that a disengaged workforce is going to tank your company's productivity—or worse, lead you to look at your younger employees through a less forgiving lens. But maybe there's something else at play here.

Gallup found that nearly four in ten Gen Z workers listed praise from their managers as a priority. For entry-level workers, a pat on the back can be a road map to growth and a guide to knowing what they’re doing right.

There is a strong desire among younger workers to be recognized for their work, and according to McKinsey, 55% of employee engagement is driven by nonfinancial recognition. Employees who reported receiving "authentic" recognition were more than 5x as likely to envision a path for growth in their company, ultimately leading to less employee turnover.

A passive approach to managing could turn even the most ambitious workers into quiet quitters.

When surveyed, 52% of 20,000 Gen Z and millennial employees said they were considering changing jobs this year. When asked “why,” respondents said that changing companies is the best way to further develop their skills—73% said they would stay at their jobs if it were easier to change roles and develop new skills internally. 

Career growth is a major factor when it comes to employee engagement, and in order to retain star talent, employers need to embrace role mobility. By doing so, you can prevent employee churn and create new opportunities for their workers so they don’t have to go looking elsewhere.

The antidote to quiet quitting is trust 

The drop in employee engagement occurred during the second half of 2021, amid the Great Resignation. Among the engagement elements Gallup measured, the greatest declines were directly correlated to a lack of clarity around expectations, fewer opportunities for employees to learn and grow, workers not feeling cared about, and an absence of attachment to the organization's mission or purpose. Which, according to Gallup, is a clear indicator of the growing disconnect between employees and their employers. 

A recent report by the Harvard Business Review substantiates the idea that quiet quitting is less about a lack of employee motivation and more about a manager’s ability to build a relationship with their employee. Across 2,801 managers, 13,048 of their direct reports were surveyed to determine the correlation between poor management and low employee engagement. According to their findings, managers who were rated highly by their employees only saw 3% of their direct reports quiet quitting—the worse the rating the higher the percentage of quiet quitters. 

Organizations need to think about the whole person, not just the worker.

The proof is in the people. This HBR survey says employee output directly correlates to effective leadership. But is there a secret sauce to maintaining a good relationship between leadership and employees? There is, and it has to do with one simple, yet difficult-to-find ingredient: trust

According to Gallup, “organizations need to think about the whole person, not just the worker.” Trust is built when managers put their efforts into caring about the well-being of their employees. In other words, companies need to recognize their employees as people first and workers second. 

If unengaged employees are nothing new, why all the sudden media attention? One reason could be that for the first time, employees have the power

In 2021, 47 million people quit their jobs—not due to a lack of work ethic, they quit because they were driven to pursue better and more sustainable opportunities. The point of quiet quitting isn’t employees not working; the trend is about workers recognizing their value. 

An engaged workforce begins with leaders who not only prioritize employee well-being but do the hard work of providing consistent feedback. Quiet quitters aren't infiltrating the workforce—the numbers show that engagement is steady. But maybe there is one thing that’s changed: Today’s workers expect a higher standard of management.

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