Old Wine in a New Bottle: Lessons on Quiet Quitting from Psychological Science

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What is Quiet Quitting?

There is some confusion around this and really the term has a branding problem. What quiet quitting is really trying to get at is inequity in the employee-employer relationship. It means that if employees feel undervalued and overworked, they tend to disengage and reduce their productivity to reach an equilibrium. On one hand it is good that employees are drawing a line in the sand and asserting themselves to avoid burnout and being taken advantage of. On the other hand, the “quiet” part invokes feeling of insubordination and disrespect from leaders and managers. Employers need to recognize the issue within the organizational culture, subcultures, and the employee experience before employees feel this way in their thoughts and feeling leading them to behaviorally check out. 

Times are Changing

Many who perhaps grew up in a time where the psychological contract (the unwritten agreement between employee and employer that they would mutually take care of each other) was still prevalent and strong compared to present day feel a more traditional sense of duty to their organizations and leaders. Conversely, more recent generations, seem to feel more empowered and are staying in their jobs for shorter periods. Often having multiple branches in their careers. This has been exacerbated by the recent pandemic and shifting priorities across the workforce for a more dynamic employee experiences that values balance, wellbeing, flex/virtual/hybrid work, inclusivity, and a sense of purpose, more than it has in the past. 

But Quiet Quitting Isn’t THAT New

But in reality… quiet quitting is nothing new. Psychologically and behaviorally people tend to seek equilibrium in their social relationships. Whether that is a business exchange, with friends, family, or at the workplace. It seems that employees now just have more leverage than at any other time in history. The truth is that social, behavioral, and workplace scientist and organizational psychologists have been studying the theories, antecedents, consequences, behaviors, and outcomes associated with quiet quitting for over 70 years. Just under a different and perhaps more apt name… 

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Quiet Quitting Through the Years 

Social Exchange Theory

Let’s look at Social Exchange Theory as a possible parallel to quiet quitting. Social Exchange Theory asserts that there is an exchange or tradeoff in relationships, whether that is a social, romantic, or even workplace relationships. It is a cost-benefit analysis; if the amount of effort being put in is not being matched by one party, then the other might begin to reduce their input or even withdraw from the relationship altogether. Here is an example… an employee is feeling burnt out because their employer is overloading them with work and they are not getting recognized for their hard work, they may begin to withdraw their effort and attention at work to restore balance. There is the cost-benefit analysis. The inequity in the employee experience manifests in the cost of their mental/physical resources and job satisfaction needs not being met with the benefit of being valued, recognized, appreciated, or compensated appropriately for all the work they are putting in. Essentially, Social Exchange Theory and quiet quitting are describing the same phenomena. 

Quiet Quitting as Equity Theory

Another way to look at quiet quitting is through the Equity Theory. Equity Theory actually stems from Social Exchange Theory so you can see how these three phenomena are similar. Equity Theory focuses on the distribution of resources between relationships. This is determined by the same cost-benefit analysis we discussed with the Social Exchange Theory. If individuals feel that there is a lack of equity in the relationship (under-reward or over-reward) they will experience distress and seek to restore the equity by exerted more or less effort. In other words, relationships should have equitable distribution of resources. 

Quiet Quitting as Organizational Justice

The last step in our timeline is organizational justice. This theory of human behavior at work deals with employee perceptions of the practices and management of an organization. It applies the previous two theory of general human behavior to the workplace and provides some nuanced insight on how the employee perceptions play out. There are sub-components of organizational justice which are distributive justice, procedural justice, and interactional justice. The idea behind organizational justice is that employees make their judgements regarding fairness of organizational practices, if their judgement is negative then this may result in an attitude change, drop in productivity, quiet quitting, or actual turnover.  

Distributive Justice refers to the fairness of decisions and outcomes as well as the distribution of resources. The simplest example of this is pay. If an employee perceives that there is inequity between their level of productivity and how much their peers or other people at their level in the same industry are being paid, they may reduce their output, or quiet quit.  

Procedural Justice refers to the fairness of a process that led to certain organizational outcomes. This might be things such as promotions, hiring decisions, merit increases, or implementing a new training system for a certain job family. These are all examples of organizational decisions and within those decisions employees will evaluate the fairness of how they were implemented, the outcomes that followed, and how that compares to their own experience. The most clear example of this might be nepotism in hiring and promotion practices. Where employees that should have been hired or promorted based on performance or merit are passed in favor of employees with good relationships with leadership. Procedural justice is more about the process and transparent communication regarding a decision that was made, whereas distributive justice is more about the outcome. 

Interactional Justice refers to the interpersonal treatment that an individual receives as decisions are made and after. In other words, are employees who are being affected by a decision that was made treated with respect regarding these decisions. For example, employees may feel injustice if a supervisor decides to promote an employee and gives no rationale or feedback to any of the employees considered for the role. Treating the other candidate with respect and being transparent about the decision can build respect rather than sowing dissent. 

Informational Justice refers to the process of providing fair, accurate, timely information to all regarding decisions that are made and procedures that are in place. Informational justice is specifically about transparency. All of these justice perspectives are a way to look at quiet quitting. It involves an employee’s perception about processes within the organization, they evaluate it as either favorable or unfavorable and they act according to that evaluation. 

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What Leads to Quiet Quitting? 

So, we have discussed all of the terms and theories that quiet quitting has been studied under in the past. What we are trying to convey here, is that quiet quitting is not new. So, since we now know that we have been studying this concept for years, what do we know about it? What leads to quiet quitting? Quiet quitting is basically just doing your job and not letting your job take over your life. It is almost like a rebellion against “hustle” culture. Some have regarded quiet quitting as doing the bare minimum, but this isn’t necessarily accurate. It is more accurate to say that has engaged in quiet quitting has just decided to not go above and beyond at work, especially when they are not seeing an equitable exchange for that additional work. If an employee is feeling burnt out or taken advantage of at work, they may decide to withdrawal resources or decrease the amount of effort they put in at work. It is the act of the employee drawing a hypothetical line in the sand to balance their inputs and outputs. At the ned of the day it is deficits in the employee overall employee experiences that lead to disengagement and quiet quitting. 

Why do employees engage in quiet quitting?

 We have already alluded to this a little bit, but it really comes down to the cost-benefit exchange. Employees bring valuable resources and information to organizations, think of these resources as “inputs” (i.e., what the employee brings to the table). In turn for these resources employees receive things in return, such as compensation, benefits, etc., think of these as “outputs” or what the organization gives the employee in exchange for their inputs. When there is a discrepancy between these inputs and outputs this would be the time employees might engage in quiet quitting. For example, let’s say a manager is deciding between two employees for a promotion. Employees 1 and 2 have similar education, they have both been with the company for the same amount of time and have about the same skill set. But employee 1 consistently goes above and beyond to train/mentor other employees even though that is not a part of their job description. Employee 1 is contributing to more input than employee 2, but employee 2 was still given the promotion. This decision might lead employee 1 to decrease the time and effort they put into training and mentoring because they were not rewarded for that extra effort. 

How to Help the Quiet Quitters

One of the main benefits we hope organizations will see by addressing issues related to quiet quitting is simply a more positive employee experience. The first important things to note is that top management has to take action to decrease and prevent the trend of quiet quitting. If the root cause of quiet quitting is cost-benefit imbalance, there is not a lot on the employee side that can be done other than to withdrawal resources – in comes leadership. If you don’t want your employees to retract valuable resources, then make sure that they are rewarded equitably for their work. It is more than just rewarding or compensating employees for their work, it is about supporting them in that work as well; what does this mean? Show your employees you care! Show them that you see their hard work, you appreciate their hard work, and you want to offer them support where you can. This might look like encouraging your employees to set work-life boundaries or giving more realistic and manageable workloads. It seems like we are offering very basic advice for a very complex problem and maybe it isn’t enough, but it is a start. One of the best ways is to begin with measuring employee experience and engagement to better understand how their employees feel about the work culture, the work load, leadership, etc. Hearing feedback from your employees about the state of your organization is the best way to diagnose the root cause of organizational issues, once you know the causes then you can move forward on finding the right way to address them. One of the main benefits we hope organizations will see by addressing issues related to quiet quitting is simply a more positive employee experience and we think it is a worthy and attainable goal to work towards. 

Authors: Brandon Jordan & Cassidy Jordan

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