Quiet quitting: Companies need to learn lessons from it, not dismiss it as a Gen Z trend

People working in an office
Business leaders can only stop quiet quitting by learning to see things from the point of view of their staff.
Image: Unsplash/Alex Kotliarskyi
  • Trends like quiet quitting and the Great Resignation pit employees against employers, and business leaders can only resolve these issues by learning to see things from the point of view of their staff.
  • Empowering workers with more responsibility for ensuring companies offer good products and services can help.
  • Taking shared problems at work and bringing together diverse groups to solve them can also benefit employees and the employer.
  • These approaches could also help quiet quitters improve their well-being and professional opportunities.

Quiet quitting is the latest indicator that the workers’ revolution isn’t reducing anytime soon. I support anything that gives employees agency and makes work more meaningful and equitable. But in an age where polarization is growing at every turn, I worry that the messaging surrounding phenomena like quiet quitting, the Great Resignation, unionization, and even the desperately needed DEI revolution is in part built upon pitting employees against employers.

By nature, I’m inclined to side with the underdog. I am quick to advocate for those who lack power and authority, and I celebrate employees deciding that responding to a weekend email isn’t worth it. Yet, at the same time, I know what it’s like to care about your employees while also feeling the pressure of leading an organization.

I recently stepped away from eleven years of building and growing a business. I spent many sleepless nights thinking about how to care for our team while ensuring we delivered for our clients. Shortly after the pandemic started, I remember hearing Adam Grant, an academic colleague I enormously respect, emphatically tell employers that now is the time to increase employee wages and move toward a four-day work week. I remember thinking, I’d love to. But when sales just dropped by more than 50 percent, where exactly does that money come from?

I’ve spent the last 25 years researching and writing about cultural intelligence—the capability to relate and work effectively with people from diverse backgrounds. The same skills that improve how we work with people from different cultures can help us navigate the workers’ revolution. Here are two behaviors companies can use to leverage the quiet quitting movement.

Broaden your perspective

I often say, “Any behavior makes sense if you understand the perspective behind it.” I may disagree with your opinion of Donald Trump, your chronic procrastination, or your interpretation of our remote work policy. However, if I genuinely understand where you are coming from, there is hope we can work together effectively.

Social psychologist Adam Galinsky led a study on perspective-taking where students were shown a photo of an elderly man sitting on a chair next to a newspaper stand. The students were asked to write a short essay about a typical day for the man in the photo. Galinsky divided the students into three groups, telling the first group to simply look at the picture and describe the man’s day. The second group was told to write a description without using any stereotypes about elderly men. The third group was instructed to write the essay in the first person as if they were the man in the picture.

The students in the first group used negative stereotypes to describe the man (lonely, declining physically, forgetful). The students told to avoid stereotypes wrote more neutral descriptions, making up scenarios about how the man might spend his time and what he thinks about. The students who were asked to write the essay in the first person wrote the most positive descriptions of the man’s life, referring to his sage wisdom, his wide range of friendships, and the joy he finds in the simple things of life. Perspective-taking increases the likelihood that individuals will not only be less discriminatory in their thoughts and behaviors but will develop more positive viewpoints.

Instead of executives dismissing quiet quitting as more nonsense from entitled Gen Zers, they would benefit by taking 15-minutes to try perspective-taking as an employee.

If I’m paid $50,000 a year, what keeps me engaged and interested in staying here and doing my best? What kinds of things stress me out? What brings me joy?

Instead of employees ranting at happy hour about how clueless the senior management is, they would be better served by imagining that the weight of the company rests on their shoulders.

If I’m responsible for ensuring we offer valuable products and services to our customers, what keeps me up at night? What do I need from my employees? What motivates me to change a policy?

A more accurate understanding of what the other side thinks is proven to have benefits for everyone.

Gather around shared problems

Another critical way to apply cultural intelligence to the quiet quitting phenomenon is to leverage the power of shared problems to unite diverse groups. Our research repeatedly finds that diverse teams are far more likely to improve their collaboration and engagement when working together to solve a problem they all care about.

The polarizing rhetoric about employers versus employees primes our brains to create us versus them groups. When we’re bombarded with messages about bosses exploiting workers or how workers are whining about hard work, both sides begin to view each other as the enemy. The good news is that the brain is not a hardwired machine. It is a malleable organ, and when we reframe the situation to focus on working with our polar opposite to solve a common problem, it can change the brain’s neural wiring.

To apply the power of shared problems, executives, middle managers, and individual contributors need to zoom out wide enough to get to a problem everyone is motivated to address. But unfortunately, most employees are not overly motivated by the company’s profitability. Even with bonus opportunities or stock options, most employees view those as rewards over which they have little control.

On the other hand, most executives aren’t staying awake at night trying to figure out how to give their employees more space to enjoy their lives. Maybe they should, but the realities of inflation, supply-chain issues, or mitigating a potential lawsuit tend to be primary in their minds. But employees and executives both care about gaining value personally and collectively from their work.

That shared value is where problem solving can begin. What stands in the way of increasing the value of this work for you? And how can we address this? A shared focus on how to address the problem rather than what the problem is will help the group more from “us to them” to “we.”

No employee will ever care about the business as much as the people who founded it and highly paid executives with lots of equity. They shouldn’t be expected to. Executives need to own that.

Quiet quitters will improve their well-being and professional opportunities if they resist the urge to villainize anyone in leadership and instead look for ways to ensure equity and meaning while supporting business objectives. If an employee is being mistreated and exploited, I’ll be the first one to support them loudly leaving. We can reduce further polarizing in the workforce by toning back divisive rhetoric and helping executives and employees learn how to meaningfully go about their jobs and lives with mutual understanding, respect, and cultural intelligence.

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