How can IT leaders address ‘quiet quitting’?

As the pandemic has changed the way people work, many are less willing to go above and beyond for their jobs – so what can managers to do adjust?

Since videos about “quiet quitting” went viral on TikTok this July, the concept has scarcely been out of the headlines.

The notion that employees simply stick to their job description and decline to get involved in any discretionary effort above and beyond the essential has resonated widely with both employees and leaders, sending frissons of fear down many a manager’s spine as a result.

A poll conducted by Gallup in September revealed that as much as 50% of the entire US workforce was quiet quitting. While there are no equivalent figures for the UK, Gallup’s state of the global workplace: 2022 report did indicate that the country is home to one of the most dissatisfied working populations in Europe.

Engagement, it seems, has declined steadily over the past decade, with a mere 9% of UK staff currently feeling enthusiastic about their work compared to 33% in Romania, Europe’s most engaged labour force.

In the tech sector specifically, a Europe-wide survey of 2,000 20 to 30 year olds by HR platform provider HiBob and venture capitalists Eight Roads revealed that 57% would not recommend their workplace to either friends or family. Poor management practices and a lack of clear career progression were the most popular reasons behind such disillusion.

But the key question is whether quiet quitting is actually the same as good, old-fashioned disengagement, which HR professionals have been wringing their hands over for years, or is it a rather different beast? Opinions are mixed.

Katherine O’Halloran, principal consultant for people and change at professional services firm PA Consulting, believes that, while the two are linked, part of the reason why the term has taken such a hold is simply because it has been assigned a name.

“Disengagement doesn’t sound very sexy, but quiet quitting is a ‘thing’,” she says. “So it’s got a brand now, which has captured attention in a workforce which includes often heavy users of social media and means it’s reached a wider audience.”

Ali Shalfrooshan is head of international assessment research and development at talent assessment and management solution provider, Talogy. His description of quiet quitting is “disengagement plus the context we’re in”.

“It’s reflecting a work-life rebalancing for people following the pandemic, a widespread shift in the nature of work to hybrid, and the general uncertainty we’re all experiencing due to the world situation,” he says. “So it’s just adding fuel to the fire of existing disengagement, and why it’s resonating so much is that it’s tapping into a general sense among many of disconnection with their organisations.”

Acting your wage

But Anthony Klotz, associate professor at the UCL School of Management, is not so sure. He believes the two phenomena are quite distinct.

“Why quiet quitting is so controversial and why leaders have had such strong reactions to the idea of people simply doing what they’re paid to do – or ‘act your wage’, as some workers describe it – is that for years they’ve been saying ‘the only way to advance your career is to do extra’,” he explains. “But that isn’t the same thing as disengagement.”

While most IT leaders themselves go above and beyond and consider it part of their role to motivate staff to do the same, the challenge they face is that growing numbers of “employees are now saying they’re content just to do their job and no more”, Klotz adds.

To make matters worse, there is “no evidence” that younger generations, who tend to be the biggest TikTok users, are the only ones buying into the quiet quitting idea.

“It theoretically stands to reason that this would be happening across a pretty wide range of employee groups given the elevated number of resignations over the past 18 months,” Klotz points out.

Moreover, as fears of global recession mount, there is concern that quiet quitting levels could actually increase as an alternative to the potentially more risky real quitting.

According to a recent survey by people analytics tools vendor Visier, for example, even though 46% of the 2,003 UK workers questioned would like to change jobs, four out of five said they planned to ride out the recession with their current employer. The key reason was anxiety over being hit by a “last in, first out” policy should redundancies start taking place (67%).

Quiet quitting implications

As O’Halloran points out though, the whole quiet quitting debate also raises the question of whether “companies are sometimes just exploiting people by expecting them to go above and beyond” too routinely.

While this is less likely to be an issue if staff are driven by the organisation’s vision and purpose, as is often the case with tech startups, it is still “important to look at what the expectations are on both sides, what’s reasonable and where compromises could be made”, she says.

Klotz also suggests that part of the reason why some IT leaders, among others, have reacted so negatively to the idea of quiet quitting idea is over concerns that “paying extra for everything” could hit profit margins, which in turn could put the company out of business, particularly in economically difficult times.

But he also points to the dynamic nature of the tech industry, which requires discretionary working at times simply to deliver on projects.

“It’s only if you ask people to go above and beyond without compensation that it gets exploitative rather than being part of a healthy functioning relationship,” Klotz says. “But many companies ask employees to do extra almost as part of the job description, which is partly why they provide amazing benefits and such good compensation – people know what they’re getting into and are rewarded for it.”

As for the implications of quiet quitting, one of the most significant, indicates Justin Kearney, group senior vice-president of HR at IT services provider Logicalis, is the impact it has on other team members, particularly if such teams are “tightly resourced”.

“If some people are quiet quitting and doing the bare minimum, more engaged team members often end up picking up what they’ve decided not to do,” he explains. “Ultimately, that means they end up being overworked, which can lead to resentment in the team.”

Voluntary turnover can also start increasing, but due to “the current war for talent, it can be really challenging to backfill leavers, especially for tech roles, which means it can be very disruptive to the business”, Kearney adds.

What can IT leaders do?

So how can IT leaders best spot signs that quiet quitting is taking place, particularly in a hybrid or remote working environment where it can be more difficult to pick up cues? Even more importantly, what can they do about it?

Klotz indicates there are a number of behaviours that people tend to display before they either quit or quiet quit, one of which is simply contributing less in meetings. Other common indicators include developing a more cynical attitude and appearing to be less confident in doing their job.

As to what action can be taken, he believes that a good starting point is for IT leaders to work with their HR colleagues to explore how much of an issue “job creep” has become within their teams. The aim here is to undertake a job analysis and audit to evaluate whether job descriptions are still accurate and to what extent individual’s roles and responsibilities have increased over the past few years.

Just as vital though is demonstrating the “new leadership superpower” of listening.

“It’s about less doing and more understanding how employee are feeling – so do they feel they’re doing something of value, how do they feel about their work-life boundaries?” Klotz says. “It’s evidence-based leadership, which is about collecting qualitative data by listening and figuring out which parts of the job bring someone to life and add value to the business, and which are toxic and draining.”

Kearney agrees. He cites research from Gallup, which indicates that the most successful line managers, whether working in tech or otherwise, hold a 15-30 minute coaching conversation once a week to share information and discuss the progress individuals have made towards hitting their goals.

Another secret to success, meanwhile, is demonstrating “purpose-driven leadership” as a means of keeping employees motivated and engaged with their work. To illustrate the point, O’Halloran cites Dan Pink’s book Drive, which posits that motivation comes from a combination of three factors.

These consist of enabling autonomy (each individual working in the best way for them), mastery (following your passion and learning how to become expert in what matters to you) and purpose (knowing why you are doing something and how it contributes to making a positive difference in the world).

“So it’s about leaders understanding who their people are and what motivates them – and if you do, everything becomes a bit easier,” O’Halloran says.

Investing for the future

A problem for many line managers in tech and elsewhere at the moment though is that while they are increasingly expected to take responsibility for this critical relationship-building activity, and they are often not rewarded for it, with the key focus still being on technical tasks and fire-fighting.

“Middle and frontline managers are feeling especially crunched right now and so quiet quitting is a natural reaction for them too, but it’s particularly dangerous for organisational leaders at that level,” warns Klotz. “Just like regular quitting, it’s contagious, particularly if people see their manager doing it.”

According to Shalfrooshan, studies indicate that middle managers are the most disengaged group of workers worldwide. This is because many are simply in “survival mode”, which means they are more tired and less resilient than they were pre-pandemic.

As a result, he believes it is vital that tech companies invest in their line managers not only to enhance their management and other soft skills, such as communication, but also to teach them “specifically how to deal with change and become more resilient”.

“The whole concept of resilience is accepting the world is full of challenging change, so investing in how people can deal with it is important,” Shalfrooshan says. “We can’t control the world we live in, but we can control how we react and what we do.”

As for Logicalis’ approach to learning and development, it is reworking its definition of leadership to include junior and middle managers rather than just senior executives. It also plans to expand the senior leadership development programmes currently provided by its training academy to incorporate these new groups as of next year. While the training curriculum will cover the same topics at each level, they will be adapted and tailored to suit the experience of each set of participants.

“It’s important to have a robust wellbeing programme, continual listening activity and a strong diversity and inclusion strategy in place,” Kearney says. “But the biggest thing for me is to ensure that leaders and middle managers have the skills required to manage their teams effectively otherwise quiet quitting will grow and voluntary turnover will only increase.”

Despite all the apparent difficulties though, Klotz believes that IT leaders can benefit from viewing phenomena, such as quiet quitting, as a blessing rather than a curse.

“Over the past decade or so, employer and employee relationships have been weakening and becoming more transactional. So for some leaders, this is a wonderful moment as they’re taking the opportunity to make work better and to benefit both employees and the bottom line in the process,” he concludes.

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