The Helm
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The Helm

Why “Quiet Quitting” Is Important For a Healthy Organisation

Photo by Tangerine Newt on Unsplash

Fevers are awful. I don’t know anyone who enjoys shivers and sweats simultaneously, but it is part of the process to kill a virus. Similarly, I don’t know many people who are fond of the “bust” part of economic boom-bust cycles, even though it does tend to reset prices to more realistic levels (if only for a while).

Whether a multiplying virus or perpetuating irresponsible lending, growth will inevitably be opposed by a balancing loop that will try to bring the system back into a state of equilibrium. This is a normal (and necessary) occurrence particularly in systems that experience an unsustainable trajectory. By definition, balancing loops are a source of friction and are understandably not always a pleasant experience.

Enter Quiet Quitting. This trend also gets a bad rap despite it being a reaction to expectations and productivity levels that have surpassed employees’ ability to sustain. Quiet Quitting, like fevers and economic busts is a balancing feedback loop that warns us something is wrong and tries to bring us back to a position of stability.

The only thing that remains is for us to listen to that feedback.

What goes up, must come down.

Quiet Quitting, while not a new concept, seems to have been confused (depending on who you talk with) with doing less than required, when the original idea is just about doing no more than is required.

However, it’s easy to see where this misalignment is coming from if you look at how the vast majority of contemporary organisations work. Broadly speaking, for-profit companies are products of capitalism and thus are geared around maximising… profits. Frequently this means getting the most out of employees to increase production whilst saving costs. However, often times companies don’t even need to explicitly set higher expectations because of an already present belief system.

Western society as a whole has viewed the “hustle” and “can-do” attitude as admirable and respectful character traits for decades if not well over a century by now. Such behaviours are frequently associated with the success of an individual. So what all this really means is that for those who have this mental model, when it comes to Quiet Quitting, “more than required” is what is required.

Such attitudes are baked into company cultures, and permeates itself through performance reviews and expectations and fosters a workplace where the PIE theory of success rules the roost. The result is a reinforcing loop. We tend to reward people who “go the extra mile”, who are seemingly everywhere at once, who show dedication by working at times when we know they really shouldn’t be, who never say no, and whose image is therefore more likeable. It is these people who become the next generation of managers and leaders and then who set the same expectations. Adding to this, in organisations where employee performance is compared, the bar tends to move higher and higher as we try to outperform one another.

This behaviour ultimately inflates productivity and sets an artificial pace. A pace that, while alluring, cannot be kept indefinitely. As a result, cracks do periodically show in this underlying “above and beyond” mental model. However, because people are incredibly resilient, can tolerate prolonged stress and will frequently “put up or shut up”, organisations can effectively run on fumes for some time as balancing feedback is delayed. When the chickens do come home to roost, the damage might already be done, and Quiet Quitting could turn into real quitting. However, systems with large delays often oscillate around some ideal state of stability. Think of the economic boom-bust cycle aforementioned. Such is the case with Quiet Quitting and why this is not a novel trend, but nor the last time it appears.

Quiet quitting can be an opportunity to break a vicious circle.

Knowing this, what if we saw Quiet Quitting not as an inconvenience but instead as a tool that reveals the organisation’s true state of equilibrium? If you want to know your money’s real worth, you have to account for inflation, so why would this be any different if you’d like to know what your organisations real level of productivity is? For any system to grow sustainably it must recognise its limits, and change its behaviours.

What if we promoted and recognised people who are collaborative and approachable but who also respectfully set boundaries? Who are open minded and constructive, but also not afraid to be critical and not give in to pressure? What if we spent as much time analysing why someone is over-achieving as we do when someone is under-achieving?

My feeling on this is that we’d probably end up with people who are more effective with their time and respectful of others, we’d end up with less politics and less turnover. We’d end up with people who go the extra mile only because they truly want to help, not because they think it’s the only way to get a raise. We’d end up with healthier people. Maybe, just maybe, we’d also end up with a healthier organisation.

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Austin Mackesy-Buckley

Austin Mackesy-Buckley

An Agile Coach and dad who writes from time to time about his thoughts and experiences of work and life.