Worried About Quiet Quitting? How to Create an Environment Where It Doesn't Happen
You've likely heard or read about the idea of quiet quitting that emerged a few months ago. At the time, there was quite a bit of disagreement about what the term meant. As the New York Times explained, “For some, [quiet quitting] was mentally checking out from work. For others, it became about not accepting additional work without additional pay.”
At its core, the debate around quiet quitting was a question of what it means to “do your job” and the responsibility an employee has to their company, their team, and their manager. In this article, I’d like to flip the framing a bit. Instead of focusing on whether an employee is doing enough or not, I’d like to discuss how, as leaders, we can create an empowering environment that reduces the need for all kinds of quiet quitting — and quiet firing.
What It Means to Do Your Job
Doing your job sounds like it should be straightforward. Most roles have a job description or clear list of responsibilities outlined during the hiring process. So, in theory, as long as you check off those boxes, you should be good, right?
The reality is often not so clear. Many times when someone is perfunctory about performing those responsibilities and refuses to do more, they are seen as ‘not a team player’ or ‘just phoning it in’ or ‘quiet quitting.' Why is that? Well, in work culture today — in another article we can discuss the societal and generational factors that cause this — there’s often a belief that teammates should be motivated problem solvers. Many jobs even state this in the job description. And what this implies is that if there is a problem in your area of work, you’ll solve it — even if it’s outside your normal job.
And that’s where the difference of opinion comes in because there’s often a qualitative assessment: how far outside of your normal job is too far? What if it’s the middle of the night? What if it’s someone else’s fault? What if you already worked late last week?
These are the types of questions that lead to disagreement and to employees feeling like they need to draw better boundaries — or quietly quit — in order to return to a normal relationship with their work.
As leaders, we have the opportunity to change this dynamic by setting clear expectations and creating an environment that empowers teammates, instead of frightening them. Below, we’ll discuss a few ways to create this type of environment and reduce the need for quiet quitting.
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A lot of problems with team workload can be solved in advance when you’re hiring or planning for the role and team. Here are a few specific tips:
- Be honest with yourself (and new hires) about the expectations for a role. Write responsibilities down, including expectations about being available outside of normal business hours — e.g., occasionally vs. frequently. Since overtime isn’t a consideration with salaried workers, you can use language that allows for flexibility while still creating a shared understanding of what’s expected. For example, you might write: “We expect teammates to be available during core business hours. Urgent work happening outside of core business hours is infrequent, but happens one to two times per month.”
- Set realistic goals for your team, and coach managers to adjust timelines and scope where needed. If a team is overcommitted, it’s going to be difficult to not ask the team to work extra. Having that conversation with other leaders can be stressful, but try being open about the tradeoffs that they’re making. For example, “I understand why we want this product shipped by this date, but given the scope, that’s likely to put my team at significant risk of burnout. We can make that decision on this project, but we’ll need to plan for significant recovery time for my team afterwards. If we can’t commit to that, I suggest reducing the scope or extending the timeline.”
- Plan for a reduced team. Are you planning your timelines and roadmap based on 100% of your team? Consider re-evaluating. In reality, it’s pretty rare that an entire team is able to execute at 100% consistently. The odds of someone getting sick, having a family issue, etc. increase the more people you have on a team. Not to mention there is frequently unplanned work that is important and often urgent, which takes precedence over the plan. Taking both these factors into account when planning timelines and scope can help reduce overstressing the team. And if something external is going on, like a pandemic, recent company layoffs, natural disasters, etc., then plan for even lower capacity. (And invest in activities that build capacity like game time, offsites, wellness days, and more.)
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Build the Right Culture
A big part of creating an empowering environment for your team is building a culture where everyone feels motivated and safe. Here are some ways to approach that:
- Create team ownership of problems, and avoid having only one person with knowledge of an area. Single failure points are the death knell of work/life balance. If no one else — truly — can do your job, then how can you ever really take vacation or personal time? At small companies, it can be difficult to create redundancy, but investing in good documentation and setting aside time for training can allow teammates to educate others to at least temporarily handle their responsibilities. Creating team ownership means it’s never one person’s job to fix the problem, but rather a topic discussed with the team.
- Create safety to say no. When we create an environment where a teammate can safely say no to work, then we’ve really succeeded. I know that may sound counterintuitive — don’t we want to build a team where everyone is excited to say yes? We do! That’s the goal of motivating our team, but the counter to that is that someone has to feel like they can actually say no. Otherwise, the yes is coming partially out of fear. And when teammates say yes out of fear, they won’t be as committed to the outcome. Instead they’ll be trying to check the box for doing the work. To create an environment where teammates feel safe to say no, role modeling can be powerful. For example, letting the team know that you said no to a new project because you’re still finishing the last one, doing live prioritization in a meeting to rebalance workloads, or asking how someone’s workload is in 1:1s.
- Avoid using emotional arguments to guilt a teammate into helping out. Saying things like “the team really needs your help” can be manipulative, capitalizing on an employee’s emotional relationship with a team. This doesn’t mean you can’t ask a teammate for help, but instead focus on being clear about their ability to say no. E.g., “I am checking if you have the ability to put in a bit of extra time this week to help us meet the deadline. I completely understand if that's not possible for you this week, and it’s OK to say no — it won’t impact my opinion of you.”
- Focus on creating a motivating environment for the team. This sounds great in theory, but it can be hard to understand how to do it. First, there are things you can do at the team level like clarifying the team’s primary goals (and how it connects to the company mission). You can also include the team in deciding what to work on, so they feel more ownership of the work that’s happening. And then for each individual, you can use 1:1s to focus on their personal development, creating a deeper understanding of what they’re looking to get out of work. From there, it becomes easier to identify how to motivate them by creating opportunities that help them achieve their own goals.
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Learn and Make Changes
Finally, it’s important to acknowledge that no leader is perfect. We all have times where we need to ask the team to work extra, and it’s important that when we do that, we try to learn and improve. To do that:
- Take accountability. If you’re feeling trapped between a choice of letting down the company or imposing on a teammate, take a step back. What created this situation? Could you have done a better job scoping the project? Should you have hired more or trained the team to allow for duplication of knowledge? Even if the outcome of this examination is that you still need to ask a teammate to do something outside their normal work, it can be extremely helpful to hold yourself accountable when asking them. E.g., “It looks like we’re going to miss this deadline. I should have done a better job scoping and creating an appropriate timeline — this is a clear learning for our next project that I will be putting into practice.”
About the Author
Jen Dennard is the COO and co-founder of Range, the team success software used by Twitter, New Relic, CircleCI, and more to keep their teams in sync and connected (even during covid).
Prior to Range, Jen led the organization design team at Medium, deploying custom software and training to help scale the company.