There is a term trending right now that provoked one of the best conversations I’ve had about the pandemic, the future of work, and wellbeing: quiet quitting. As defined, it’s when workers decide to reject “hustle culture”. It means doing just what’s expected and not going above and beyond. It means closing your laptop at 5 p.m. Spending more time with family. The stories are from teachers who won’t grade papers after hours. Programmers who stopped picking up extra tickets. For some it’s just letting go the guilt associated with putting other things before work.
That’s quitting? The VP of Inclusion and Engagement I was speaking with, Khalil Smith, is an incredible expert on people, culture and motivation. Before joining Akamai, he spent years at Apple in training and development and then went to the Neuro Leadership Institute, an HR consulting firm focused on driving high performance using brain science. We both agreed that the term is the most asinine labeling for the behaviors described.
Simply delivering what is expected, no more and no less, is not quitting. I don’t even think it deserves to be considered “disengagement,” which some HR experts have labeled it. A comedian joked that it’s not a new concept, it just used to be called “mailing it in”. But I don’t think “mailing it in” was ever equated with “meeting expectations.”
If everyone is meeting expectations or better at a company? Wow! That would actually be amazing in most workforces. We don’t need everyone to be gunning for that promotion. We shouldn’t structure things to rely on everyone going above and beyond. As one of the commenters on my LinkedIn post on this topic said, “the business world needs steady eddies”.
On the other hand, I know my career benefited tremendously by being someone who went above and beyond. Startups rely on a workforce more willing to go above and beyond more often, perhaps due to a strong sense of ownership through equity grants and perhaps because inventing new things is really exciting.
I also know some of my greatest professional moments of camaraderie, a sense of accomplishment, and yes, celebration came after a team hustled our tails off to achieve something we thought was impossible. I once pulled an all-nighter, while on a family vacation to Disney World no less, to ensure that we delivered our mobile app on time for a large new customer. My job that night was QA and it’s when I earned the nickname from our engineering team as “the bug whisperer” for my uncanny ability to break the software.
Should we have planned better to avoid this ridiculousness? Absolutely. But our customer was planning a huge launch for months. Mobile was required to reach most of their workers. We were behind and so we all stayed up late for several days to hit the deadline. We found the situation stressful AND yet strangely rewarding and dare I say it, fun and funny at a few points. That customer is still a customer eight years later. Would they be if we had emailed and said, “sorry, we are behind so you can’t launch on time”? The lesson I learned is that as leaders, we need to work really hard to keep those situations as the exception, not the rule.
Many are calling this post-pandemic period the great rethink. People are asking themselves hard questions about the relationship they have with work. These decisions, and conversations about these decisions, may prove challenging to a number of companies or even entire industries who have relied, for years, on people being willing to sacrifice their health and welfare, family time, and personal interests based on how their job is structured, week in and week out, like law firms, consulting firms, investment banks, medicine, education and yes, start ups. I do think a wave of boundary setting has ensued that will have a profound impact on what and how leaders need to organize work. As Khalil said, quiet quitting may end up being more about lazy leadership.
I also believe it’s truly OK to love your job and to want to go above and beyond. The key is that it's a personal choice - not required, expected or structurally impossible to avoid. I’ve recently started watching Emily in Paris. Emily explains to her French colleagues that she loves to work and adores what she does. My daughter laughed out loud and said, “Mom, that’s so you”. But her colleagues' response essentially critiques that mindset. “You live to work. We work to live.” Note that France has recently banned sending after hours emails so he’s not kidding. Americans don’t even take the vacation they are allocated and we rank 7th globally for average hours per year. Yet there are diminishing returns and the research is clear. Long hours are bad for people and for companies.
While quiet quitting is an incredibly bad choice of words for the behaviors described, the phenomenon is real and important. I hope it prompts reflective conversations about how work is structured in your life and at your company. Most of all, I hope you know that doing what’s expected is anything but quitting.
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