While much has been written about the Great Resignation, a new term has emerged to describe an increasingly common alternative to resigning: “quiet quitting.” Driven by many of the same underlying factors as actual resignations, quiet quitting refers to opting out of tasks beyond one’s assigned duties and/or becoming less psychologically invested in work. Quiet quitters continue to fulfill their primary responsibilities, but they’re less willing to engage in activities known as citizenship behaviors: no more staying late, showing up early, or attending non-mandatory meetings.
At first glance, this may not seem problematic. After all, these employees aren’t disengaging from their core tasks — they’re just refusing to go beyond them. But for many companies, a workforce that is willing to go beyond the call of duty is a critical competitive advantage. The reality is that most jobs can’t be fully defined in a formal job description or contract, so organizations rely on employees to step up to meet extra demands as needed. As such, it’s hardly surprising that many leaders have reacted quite negatively to the quiet quitting trend. Indeed, many leaders we’ve spoken with have argued that losing employees who want to leave is difficult, but having them not quit is even worse, as their unwillingness to go the extra mile often increases the burden on their colleagues to take on extra work instead.
Furthermore, while going above and beyond can come at a cost for employees, in a healthy organization, these costs are typically counterbalanced by benefits such as increased social capital, wellbeing, and career success. The quiet quitting trend suggests that employees are increasingly feeling that this exchange has become unbalanced: Employers are demanding additional effort from workers without investing in them enough in return. And critically, as the economic outlook worsens and outright quitting becomes less feasible for many people, this quiet alternative is likely to become increasingly common.
The good news is, there are steps leaders can take to address the root causes of quiet quitting. Through both our own work and a review of the literature, we’ve identified three research-backed strategies for employers:
Redefine Core Job Tasks
Some amount of job creep — that is, the gradual expansion of an employee’s core duties over time — is only natural. But especially after more than two years of pandemic-fueled firefighting, during which more and more activities that might once have been considered “above and beyond” have become expected parts of workers’ jobs, the benefits of citizenship behavior may increasingly feel outweighed by the costs.
Thus, now is likely a good moment for managers to recalibrate employees’ core job responsibilities to more accurately reflect what work is actually necessary, and what should really qualify as extra. Managers can then focus on motivating workers to perform their most essential job tasks at a high level while giving them space to take care of themselves outside of work.
Listen, Then Invest
Next, companies need to listen to and then invest in their workers. Going the extra mile is less likely to lead to citizenship fatigue when employees feel supported by their organizations, and effective support starts with understanding what people actually need. That means leaders should not only make time to connect with employees themselves, but they should also encourage and incentivize managers to stay abreast of how their employees are feeling — and make sure that managers are given the time and resources to do so effectively.
This isn’t just about showing empathy. Real listening requires employers to collect qualitative and quantitative data around what each employee needs to feel engaged at work. HR analytics tools can offer granular visibility into factors driving employee wellbeing and performance, and one-on-one conversations such as proactive “stay interviews” can also provide key insights into the employee experience. In addition, leaders must prioritize creating an environment in which workers feel safe speaking up, in which they believe that the organization cares about them, and in which they can have confidence that leadership will hear and address their concerns.
After all, your workforce is not monolithic: One employee may value career development opportunities, another may care more about having a flexible schedule, while others may simply want higher pay. Only after consulting with employees will leaders be equipped to make targeted investments that will address employees’ unique needs, whether it’s a stretch assignment, a shift in work hours, or a more transparent bonus system.
Less Hustle, More Crafting
Finally, leaders can retain the positive aspects of citizenship behavior without subjecting their teams to an unsustainable “hustle” culture. Instead of promoting an always-on mindset that ends up burning people out, leaders should encourage employees to pursue what we call citizenship crafting.
In an unhealthy workplace culture, employees often feel compelled to go above and beyond in ways that harm their wellbeing, such as by taking on additional projects that cause them to miss out on important family or social events. But if employees can prioritize citizenship behaviors that align with their own motivations and needs, these activities can be energizing rather than burdensome. For example, some employees may be driven by helping others, and so they may be excited to take on extra tasks when there’s a prosocial component. Others may be more motivated by public recognition, and so they may benefit more from focusing on citizenship activities that are highly visible within the organization. It’s managers’ job to listen to their employees, help them determine the specific forms of citizenship that align with their intrinsic motivations, and encourage workers to focus on these tasks if and when they have the bandwidth to go beyond their core job duties.
While its disruption to organizational functioning may be less visible than that of the Great Resignation, quiet quitting can in fact be even more damaging. To address this challenge, leaders must focus on motivating employees to fulfill their core tasks, listen to workers and address their unique needs, and create cultures that invite workers to craft their own approaches to citizenship.
This article first appeared in hrb.org