Productivity and the risks of ‘quiet quitting’

The latest trend upending the working world involves employees who do just enough to keep their jobs, but not enough to really help their company thrive. That's not good for anyone.

5 disguntled bored unhappy man
Travis Isaacs (CC BY 2.0)

I was just wrapping my head around what’s been happening with the “Great Resignation” when I became aware of a new trend: “quiet quitting.” While the term is new, the concept isn’t; it’s similar to the Blue Flu in law enforcement. Basically, quiet quitting involves a critical number of employees who do just the minimum to keep their jobs. As a result, productivity takes a hit.

A Gallup study earlier this year indicated that 69% of employees born after 1989 have quietly quit, which has to be having a big impact on productivity that has yet to be captured by financial reports, though proclamations by firms like Meta and Google suggest the problem is dire (and they are dealing with this badly). 

Let’s talk about the dangers of quiet quitting, both for companies and for employees’ careers. 

Some companies still don’t understand employees

I’ve spent decades studying how employees are best motivated, organized, and managed, and I’m amazed so many companies still have no real knowledge about how to motivate, organize and manage their people. 

Back when Andy Grove ran Intel (he is still considered one of the best CEOs Intel ever had), he had a similar productivity problem. Intel implemented “Back To Basics,” a program designed to increase productivity that did the exact opposite. Management felt that too many employees were coming in late and leaving early, so the company made every manager sign in for the employees at 8 a.m. and sign them out at 5. P.m. The result? The employees who were slacking off showed up — but underperformed their peers. And employees who had been working 12- to 18-hour days stopped doing so, began working 8-hour days, and cared less about the work they were doing.

Productivity dropped like a rock. 

Understanding how the carrot-and-stick approach works with employees is critical to motivating them. If you use a reward when you should use a punishment (or a punishment when you should use a reward) bad things happen. In Intel’s case, the company should have rewarded and identified the over-achievers and worked to correct or eliminate the under-achievers rather than effectively punishing everyone. This appears to be the same mistake Meta and Google are making; instead of recognizing and protecting their top performers, they’re painting all employees with the same derogatory brush — and are more likely to see productivity decline.  

Employees undermining their own reputations

While this is certainly bad for the employers, this can be equally bad for the employees. First, if a company goes into decline, it reflects on the employees. For instance, when interviewing for a new job, you are likely to be more favorably considered if you come from a successful company than if you come from a failed one. 

In addition, when you quiet quit, your management and co-workers will quickly figure out you are treading water. This means you not only find yourself on short lists for downsizing or termination, but your colleagues, if you cross paths with them later in life, will remember you as an underperformer and likely blacklist your efforts to get a job. (If, instead, you’re known for working longer hours and accomplishing a lot, you’re the kind of employee most companies want and former colleagues are more likely to become solid references.  

In short, practices like the Blue Flu and quiet quitting can badly damage your long-term career prospects. 

This would be problematic enough in the old days when reputations spread by word of mouth. But HR services can now be outsourced, employee records shared digitally, and a reputation for slacking off can follow you for the rest of your career. Work-life balance is important, but avoiding being tagged as a slacker is, too. If you find yourself in such a position, it’s time to look elsewhere to work before you get a bad reputation. 

What’s going on here?

Quiet quitting is the clear result of two things: employers don’t understand how to motivate and retain employees, and workers are only thinking tactically about their own work-life balance. Working at companies that don’t understand how to manage people is always a mistake; so is responding in a way that can undermine your long-term career.

The prevalence of quiet quitting at a company suggests management incompetence and an inability to execute at a corporate level. I expect firms like Meta and Google, who are becoming famous for employee revolts, are going to have increasing problems because of this lack of employee competence. Until they get this sorted, neither company will be on my list of places to work or invest in. 

Put simply, companies known for treating employees well are likely to be better investments, better partners, and better suppliers. They won’t experience the same kind of employee retention and motivation problems as firms where employees are quiet quitting.”  

Finally, if you are so unhappy in your current role that you are contemplating quiet quitting, get your resume out and find some place you want to work, where work/life balance can be achieved.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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