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  • Betsy Klein

Loud or Quiet Quitting? Forget the Fad, Focus on the Human

by AFN Member Sarah Deane, Founder of MEvolution

First, we had “quiet quitting,” and now, we have progressed to “loud quitting,” the latest buzzword in employee engagement. Quiet quitting describes employees who are not going above and beyond at work and are only meeting their job description. On the other hand, loud quitting has become the recent term that refers to employees who leave their jobs in very vocal and sometimes even public ways.

Given the decline in employee engagement, the reality is that regardless of the fad term, organizations face a problem that is more complex than these generalizations, and which seems to be getting worse. With these troubling trends a hot topic in many leadership circles, let’s take a look at what may have led to this, the issues of such labels and what leaders can do about these challenges.

How Did We Get Here?

Compounding Disengagement, Stress and Burnout

Gallup found that many quiet quitters fell into their definition of “not engaged” at work. And an increase in actively disengaged employees between 2019 and 2022, from 13% to 18%, could explain why we are seeing more behaviors associated with these terms.

However, employee disengagement is not a new problem. Looking at Gallup’s measurement of US employee engagement from 2000-2022, even with the investment companies are making into engagement initiatives, the percentage of engaged employees has never been above 36%. Though there was a steady incline from 28% (2010) to 36% (2020), it still took a decade. Changing culture and improving engagement requires effort, but given our current state, it’s very likely that the wrong investments have been made. Especially given that year over year, the causes of disengagement (beyond pay) hold similar patterns such as lacking opportunities for growth, lacking wellbeing support, an issue with one's direct manager, little or no connection to purpose and poor communications (transparency, expectations etc.).

The pressure pot of the world has also increased. Matt Sitter, CEO of Advantage Foundry Network (AFN), a global CEO network, believes that macroeconomics, such as inflation, also play a role: “people can see all of their bills growing in ways that we became unaccustomed to in a very low inflation environment. Their resources and dollars don’t stretch as far, and it can very much feel like pay isn’t keeping up (and yet they were working just as hard).” They’re also contending with environmental, societal and political pressures. As people get more and more frustrated, stressed and burnt out, it has a compounding effect, and at some point, the lid comes off the pressure cooker as they simply cannot take any more.

Prevalence of Social Media

Zundra Bryant, a VP within HR at a Fortune 50 Company, comments on the role of social media, stating that “quiet and loud quitting are new labels for old behaviors; workers have always had variations in work productivity and visibility since the beginning of time.” However, she said that in today’s age, “social media has provided a platform for anyone to express their perspectives and have it go viral globally in a matter of minutes,”

Lacking Connection

Sitter also mentions the shift in communication style, partly due to COVID-19 and the increase in remote work. “[Communications] became far more transactional. We only communicated with specific intention – ‘I’m calling because I need something,’” he said. “The unfortunate result of this is a lack of context on our ‘why,’ which can steadily deteriorate a shared sense of purpose with an organization and co-workers.”

The Dangers of the Buzz

While it is ok to have terms to describe behaviors, leaders must proceed with caution. Like most labels and buzzwords, they can be dangerous without context. As Sitter cautioned, “[These] terms can imply that cases are similar, or they have an easy solution,” as well as “that we don’t need to investigate a perceived problem or potential solutions further.”

The reality is that people need to be able to work in the way that is best for them. Yes, they need to meet their objectives and provide value, but they also need to have a consistent mode of operation that doesn’t leave them depleted, burnt out or comes at the cost of their wellbeing. As several employees make this realization, they will need to make shifts in how they work and live their life.

“Labels are landmines for leaders!” warned Bryant. “What if everyone on a basketball team was labeled a guard? Every player would stand under the basketball net bumping into each other with very little success in winning games. Same applies to work teams. When you start labeling people, bias is promoted, leading to unfair treatment, high turnover, low performance and a host of other negative outcomes.” She also notes that, “if quiet quitting means only doing what’s required to get the job done, nothing more nothing less, that’s not quitting,” reminding leaders that, “individuals that only want to do their job and go home are necessary and important team members.”

Labeling employees without context can cause leaders to miss important information and opportunities to course correct, because while we can look broadly at organizational issues, each case may be different.

Focusing on these fad terms can take focus away from what Bryant says is the real problem. “The business and performance management process pre-pandemic aren’t appropriate for today’s workforce,”she said. “Companies are trying to force workers to fit into archaic definitions of success instead of reforming their business practices.” It is clearly time to accept that we cannot go back to what we were before, nor what life was before. We cannot remove the feelings, emotions and experiences we have faced. Employees have changed as humans, and workforces also need to adapt and evolve as needed.

What You Can Do

While employee feedback can be gathered and analyzed and indicators such as burnout and stress can provide signals, by the time these patterns are occurring it may well be too late. However, you can take actions proactively to limit your risk.

Focus on Creating the Right Environment

“Leaders need an understanding of what drives motivation and engagement and consistently focus on those areas,” Sitter said, warning that, “this requires consistent and deliberate effort.”

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