By now, you likely have heard the term quiet quitting. Since the idea went viral on TikTok, quiet quitting has been debated, clarified, celebrated, and reviled. It seems to evoke strong, emotional reactions from individual contributors to corporate leaders and everyone in between.
Because the original TikTok video about quiet quitting was posted by a Gen Zer, some have suggested that it is a new and generationally specific phenomenon, serving as a point of validation for a scientifically unsupported belief that Gen Zers are slackers at heart. Although quiet quitting is a new term, it isn’t a new phenomenon. It is another manifestation of the cultural shift happening in the world of work since the beginning of the pandemic. As many employees are reconsidering their purpose in work and in life, some are quiet quitting as a result of that reexamination.
Nonetheless, some people always have shown limited engagement at work. That isn’t a generational phenomenon either. Depending on the underlying reason for quiet quitting, it may be beneficial or detrimental to a person’s performance.
Let’s look at each claim in turn.
Is Quiet Quitting New?
In 1906, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto observed a phenomenon in wealth distribution that would later become adapted to management and coined the Pareto principle by Joseph Juran in the 1950s. Simply put, the Pareto principle states that 80% of the outcomes will result from 20% of the causes. In workplace terms, 80% of work productivity will be created by 20% of the employees. At least since the Industrial Revolution, some workers have exerted a lot of effort, some have exerted a moderate amount, and many have exerted minimal or little effort. In other words, it seems likely that quiet quitting has been around for a while.
Similarly, in our study of personality, individual differences determine the degree to which people appear confident, competitive, challenge seeking, leader-like, and focused on achieving results—the opposite of quiet quitting. This is what we measure on the Hogan Personality Inventory’s Ambition scale. High scorers on Ambition are like the 20%; they drive most of the results in an organization. When we plot individual differences on the Ambition scale for thousands of people, the result is close to a bell curve. People who score in the high range are unlikely to be quiet quitters. This pattern of individual differences is not new and seems to be universal.
Is Quiet Quitting Mostly Limited to Gen Z?
Conducted across several countries with hundreds of thousands of working adults, Hogan’s research shows that there are some small differences among some personality characteristics and values by generation. Although those differences are statistically significant, they have little practical significance. That means it does not appear that one generation or another can, on average, be described as more or less Ambitious, hardworking, or prone to quiet quitting. Whether a person is a quiet quitter or routinely goes above and beyond expectations at work appears unrelated to their generational cohort.
Is Quiet Quitting Helpful or Harmful to the Quiet Quitter?
It depends. For example, the Hogan Development Survey (HDS) measures a characteristic we call Diligent. High scorers on Diligent are described as detail oriented, hardworking, and having high standards. But they may also try to make everything a high priority, seem perfectionistic, and find it difficult to delegate. As a result, they might be more prone to overworking and burnout than low scorers. A high Diligent scorer who decides to focus on meeting expectations, rather than always aiming for perfection, may benefit in improved mental and physical wellbeing. For this person, a decision to work less (or in a more focused way) may reflect strong self-awareness and lead to greater overall efficacy.
However, in some circumstances, quiet quitting also can be a form of passive aggression—particularly if an individual takes no action to correct a poor work situation other than to quietly work less, putting in minimal effort with the objective of remaining employed. For example, the HDS measures another characteristic we call Leisurely. A key descriptor of high scorers on the Leisurely scale is that they avoid overt conflict while quietly or passively ignoring commitments or agreements. Because of this, high Leisurely scorers may be more prone to quiet quitting.
This type of quiet quitting can be self-defeating in a couple of ways. First, if the individual fails to meet the organization’s expectations for the role, the strategy of working less but staying employed may backfire. At best, it would be difficult for a person to sustain a “just right” amount of work for very long, especially during an economic downturn in which performance is scrutinized closely.
Second, the person’s indirect approach to solving feelings about their work may be perceived as avoiding difficult conversations, playing the victim, or even as untrustworthy or unethical. Such perceptions can permanently damage relationships and lead to a reputation that is difficult to change.
What Is the Alternative to Quiet Quitting?
People have fundamental needs for connection with others, for status among peers, and to make sense out of the world or to find meaning. For talent management professionals and leaders, it can be productive to ask why people in your organization may be feeling unfulfilled or undervalued by your organization. By exploring the underlying reasons for those feelings you’ll likely find they are related to one or more of those three fundamental needs.
After you’ve identified the underlying need that isn’t being met, the critical question is why. Organizational reasons, individual reasons, or both may be at the root. For example, 65% of U.S. workers indicate they would rather fire their boss than receive a pay raise.1 Bad bosses destroy engagement and create toxic relationships, and low engagement is related to quiet quitting.
It also could be that the individual is in a role that doesn’t fit their needs or skills, and the organization could help find a better role inside the organization. Fostering an open discussion about the role may be a good start.
In some cases, however, the individual simply may have made a self-defeating choice. In these cases, development activities or coaching may help raise self-awareness that could lead to a more productive choice for the individual and organization.
This blog post was authored by Scott Gregory, PhD, a world-renowned IO psychologist.
- Anderson, A. R. (2014, October 28). How A Bad Boss Can Make You Sick. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/amyanderson/2014/10/28/a-bad-boss-can-make-you-sick-literally/?sh=6b60c4d68187