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“Quiet quitting”. The phrase has a nice ring to it.
It sounds clever, with a cool alliteration that would raise any Scrabble aficionado’s excitement level.
It implies clever too, like an employee getting away with something that they aren’t supposed to get away with.
It’s a thumbing of the nose at the powers that be. Hate the system? Don’t complain, just be a quiet quitter. Unreasonable boss? Don’t fight, quiet quit lah.
Another clever person cleverly identified quiet quitting as a new term to an old coping mechanism – it’s just slacking off at the job, he said, a little smugly.
But here’s my problem with it. It’s not.
Quiet quitting paints employees as lazy entitled workers who switch off at the first sign of trouble. It encourages older employers’ (“okay boomer”) outdated stereotypical assumptions of younger Gen Z employees’ ideas of what work is (“hey, if I don’t get my triple shot caramel fancy frozen caffeinated beverage before work, I’m not getting out of bed, okay?”).
It demeans both employer and employee.
Reducing the issue to a snarky soundbite allows those in authority to ignore or belittle it without addressing the systemic inequalities that created it in the first place.
A trend by any other name…
Before we continue, what exactly is quiet quitting?
It isn’t slacking, because slacking implies that the employee in question is being lazy because they are lazy.
Quiet quitting is a response to a job environment where employees are being expected to work harder and harder, no questions asked, in an economic climate where the cost of living is accelerating faster than the rise in wages.
Basically, it’s anti-hustle culture.
Why work so hard, let our jobs consume our lives and risk burnout when at the end of the day, the organisation we work for doesn’t seem to care about us?
So the response is: Do the bare minimum, reject working longer hours or taking on any responsibilities beyond the job scope – anything to avoid getting taken advantage of by the boss.
Quiet quitting seemed to have burst on the scene suddenly, but it hasn’t, really.
It is the natural by-product of the Great Resignation – if you can’t leave your job because of (adulting) reasons, then “quietly quit”, and laugh behind your hand as you collect your paycheck.
In Asia, China especially, this is reflected in the tang ping (躺平, or lie flat) movement, where workers reject the 9/9/6 hustle culture because the rising cost of living – education, housing, healthcare – makes it next to impossible to keep up simply by working hard.
Tang ping now has a spiritual successor – the bai lan (摆烂, or literally, let it rot) movement.
This trend is universal. For example, in Jan 2020, the sub-Reddit r/antiwork had 81,000 subscribers who post memes of terrible work conditions or share horrendous boss stories. Today, it has 2.2m subscribers posting upwards of 30,000 comments a day at its peak.
People point to millennials or Gen Z workers as the prime instigators of this trend. But it’s not.
A recent survey showed that more employees in Singapore are dissatisfied with their job, and more suffer poor mental health, than their peers in Indonesia and the Philippines.
Now there are even reactions to the trend, like “quiet firing”, otherwise previously known as hitting a glass ceiling. I’ve even seen someone joke about “loudly working”, sending work updates on office groupchats in the wee hours or over the weekend, just to announce to all and sundry how hard they are working.
But to get bogged down in all these definitions is to miss the forest for the trees.
The real issue at stake is job engagement, job empowerment and job satisfaction.
What drives an employee to go above and beyond at work?
One rule to rule them all
I often tell the people I work with that I have only one cardinal rule: I won’t force you to do something if you don’t want to do it.
Now this is honestly a risk, because there’s nothing to stop said colleague from saying “okay, in that case, I’m going to take a three-hour lunch now.”
(Frankly, if it comes to that, there probably are bigger issues at stake– something a hard approach might not solve anyway.)
My rule, however, has a critical addendum, which is: If you do want to work together, that let’s do it properly and knock this project, this speech, this presentation, this proposal… out of the park.
In other words: Want to do? Do properly.
What this approach does is it builds trust. More importantly, it treats co-workers as empowered, engaged contributing members of an organisation. And this is crucial for small companies, especially in the non-profit sector, because every headcount matters.
Key discussion points
So how do we avoid getting in a situation where we become unengaged in the first place?
First, know your environment. Is your work environment unfeasible to your current life situation? Are you being treated unfairly as compared to your colleagues? Is your mental health suffering as a result of your job? Can it be rectified?
Second, know your boss. Do they care for your personal development? Are they exploiting you? Can you count on them if the going gets tough? Do they have unreasonable expectations of you with regards to your commitment to your job?
Third, know yourself. Do you want to progress in your chosen industry? If so, then you should go above and beyond the bare minimum. It not only makes you stand out from the rest of your colleagues, but it also develops your own personal skills. When you are invested, you’re not just working for a wage, you’re working to improve yourself.
We tend to think of ourselves as monoliths in an ever-changing world. But that’s not the case at all. We grow and change in response to challenges we face. Healthy adversity can be channelled for personal development. The trick is recognising toxic stressors that do nothing but wear you down.
Advice for employers
Employers, consider empowering your workers in small decisions that lead to more independent actions. Learn what drives them: It’s not always about money. It could be about flexible work hours, or working from home for young families, or a person with aged parents. It could be about job progression, or learning new skills.
The fastest thing that would make an employee – any worker, in fact – start phoning in their work, is to be reminded that they are just a cog in a machine: Easily replaceable and quickly forgotten.
My boss often says that none of us, including himself, is indispensable. Yet at the same time, he says, all of us are irreplaceable.
Knowing that we are not indispensable keeps us humble, an important trait in any line of work.
Yet we are also irreplaceable because we all have our own skillsets, hopes and dreams that we bring to the team. If we leave, we take those unique personality and character traits with us – it is a loss, no matter who replaces us.
It seems almost silly to have to say this, but when we treat people as people, and not just a means to an end, we often get a lot more work done with much less drama. And it keeps employees happy.
Advice for employees
Employees, remember that your boss may not know what you’re going through. They may have other issues to deal with, or other problems to solve. If you don’t sound off on what is making you unhappy, you shouldn’t depend on your boss to notice it either.
Of course, a great boss might, but you owe it to yourself not to wait for that to happen.
Instead of taking the passive-aggressive approach and doing the bare minimum, approach your supervisor – tactfully and at the right time, of course – to discuss things that you are unhappy with.
If, and only if, that fails, then consider quitting. No, not “quiet quitting”, proper quitting. Find a way out and leave for another company that values you more, or where you can grow as an individual.
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Quiet quitting may make you feel clever for a while, pulling a fast one over the uncaring employer, laughing at the powers that be as you collect your paycheck.
But in the long run, it is not worth ending up bitter, bored and inventing trite phrases to justify why you’re wasting 40 hours a week on a job you care nothing about.