quiet quitting

One of the first big workforce catchphrases to go viral after the onset of the pandemic was “The Great Resignation,” as employees began to reevaluate their careers and leave their jobs in record numbers. This max exodus of talent may be slowing down a bit, but it’s far from over. More than two years later, even with the threat of a recession looming in the background, companies continue to struggle with finding talent to fill open positions. Now a new phrase has entered the mainstream: quiet quitting.

What Is Quiet Quitting?

Despite what the name suggests, quiet quitting is not about slacking off or doing the bare minimum. It’s about being fed up with a lack of feedback, no sense of connection to the organization, and frustration with a lack of development opportunities. These employees aren’t leaving their jobs, but they’re also no longer willing to make work the central focus of their lives. Nor will they put themselves through the wringer and sacrifice their health and well-being (mental and physical) to take up the slack for understaffed and poorly managed organizations.

As one writer put it, “If anything, it seems like quiet quitters are just striving to set healthy boundaries between their jobs and their personal lives.” They’re challenging the assumption that you have to say yes to everything and put in hours and hours of uncompensated labor in the (often faint) hopes of a raise or a promotion down the line.

Whether they’re sending the message via quiet quitting or actually giving two weeks’ notice, more and more employees are making it clear that burnout has taken a toll, they want to find more meaning and purpose in their work, and their companies haven’t done enough to address the problems. No wonder employee engagement in the U.S. declined for the first time in decade between 2020 and 2021 and is continuing to slide this year.

In any job market, companies simply can’t afford the high price of employee disengagement — as Gallup has calculated it, each actively disengaged employee costs companies about a third of the person’s salary in lost productivity. In the case of salespeople, the cost is ultimately much worse. But especially today, when talent shortages persist and employees are expecting more from the companies they contribute their time and talents to, you won’t be able to attract and retain the people you need in order to compete if you’re not focused on improving employee engagement and the overall culture.

Actively disengaged employees, quiet quitting and high turnover levels are all signs that the employee experience — something many companies prioritized in the early days of the pandemic — is no longer getting the attention it needs. Regardless of the buzzwords and phrases of the moment, most of these issues come down to creating an organization where people can find purpose in what they do and where they aren’t left feeling burned out and unappreciated at the end of the day. Like most things that affect your workforce, leadership (and their ability to develop strong, genuine relationships with their teams) plays a crucial role.

The Manager’s Role in Engaging With Employees and Job Satisfaction

You hear it all the time: People don’t leave jobs, they leave managers. In fact, they leave both, because the manager and the job are inextricably linked.

Managers are responsible for creating the jobs. Great managers are able to craft meaningful, motivating workplace employee experiences that almost by definition keep the person engaged. They understand that trust is the number one behavior that helps effective leaders balance results with their concern for team members. How do they do it? By being genuinely curious about the people they support and getting to know their employees. They have regular conversations with them. They ask for (and really want) their input. They really listen and involve them in the process rather than just talking at them and directing them from on high.

As a result, people who work for great bosses will feel energized instead of drained. Their bosses often see more in them than they might even see in themselves — and they’ve got their employees’ backs. That not only makes it more encouraging for employees to push outside their comfort zones, it makes it safe for them to be vulnerable and upfront about what they need.

In other words, great managers are great coaches. Of course, that’s not new information. At least, it shouldn’t be. Leaders consistently tout the critical role of a “culture of coaching” and the need to maintain one. In our study of sales coaching practices, for example, 76% of respondents said coaching is important to sales success.

We couldn’t agree more. There’s just one problem: Companies say they want it, but then it turns out very few are actually doing it.

In that same study we conducted, 76% of respondents also said they believe too little (and sometimes no) coaching is provided. Despite the fact that most leaders recognize the importance of coaching, many of them are still letting it get pushed down the priority list, without any accountability for it happening at the manager level or even (and sometimes, most significantly) by the senior leadership team itself. To get the benefits of coaching, it has to become part of the way of doing business.

Stemming the Tide of Quiet Quitting and Building a Culture of Engagement: What Does It Take?

The culture of an organization is defined by the behaviors we tolerate. If you want a culture of coaching and engagement, it has to be driven (and modeled) from the top down, because culture is about the common language of the organization. It’s what permeates across functions, processes and everyday behaviors and expectations. Too often, companies think they can implement culture change by training a particular group and then expecting they will change the rest of the organization. But without senior leadership’s active involvement and ongoing support, it’s unlikely to take hold. Old patterns will prevail.

This is something Samsonite, for example, recognized when they were setting out to build a coaching culture as a way to improve engagement and ownership throughout organization. By equipping their leaders to coach and holding them accountable for it, they’ve created a culture that has a shared purpose to carry out their mission and empowers a more collaborative workforce. They’ve bucked the trend of companies that are mostly talk and very little action, and what a difference it has made: Their management scores improved from worst to first on their employee engagement surveys.

That’s in stark contrast to what many employee engagement surveys reveal: that managers say they’re coaching, while employees say they’re not. There are typically several reasons for that big gap. Our research shows that too many managers aren’t prepared to coach, don’t have a clear definition of it (and therefore mistakenly interpret managerial activities for coaching) and have never learned how to do it effectively.

How to Improve Employee Engagement: An Action Plan

There’s no shortage of data out there about what employees want today. Between the “Great Resignation” and “quiet quitting” headlines lies a plethora of studies, surveys and social media chatter about what workers care about. The same themes come up again and again: recognition for their work, transparency, opportunities to grow, regular communication, reasonable work-life balance, a great boss.

As noted above, though, knowing it isn’t enough. You have to do something about it. Here are some key areas to focus on to help improve employee engagement and retention as well as create the kind of workplace that attracts great talent.

Prioritize Coaching — and Actually Equip People to Do The Work

Research shows that more than 60% of employees who report to managers who are not good coaches think about quitting, vs. 22% who report to managers who employees report are good coaches. But most managers don’t come to the job knowing how to coach or even what the agreed-upon definition of coaching is. What’s more, many myths persist that can get in the way of a consistent, effective coaching practice — for example, that it’s for low performers only or that it’s confrontational. Managers may also erroneously assume that someone has reached their full potential and decide there’s no point coaching them.

Managers not only need to know what they should do to be a better coach, they also need to develop specific behaviors and a mindset for coaching so they can have an impact and increase engagement scores. How much growth potential do your managers really see in their employees? To the degree that managers sincerely believe and communicate that their people can achieve higher performance, people of all performance levels will develop faster and increase their productivity. Consistently up-skill your managers to coach their employees through their strengths. It is particularly important to reinforce that managers focus on clear expectations, resources to do the work and giving employees an opportunity to do what they do best within their current work arrangement. If you make sure your people’s compasses are pointed in the right direction and know their ‘why’, they’ll figure out the ‘how.’

Lead the Kind of Company Culture You Want to Create

To do this, you have to first build more self-awareness and understand your own leadership style. Then you can help connect people more to the mission so they can find more meaning in their work and opportunities for growth.

This isn’t just a nice-to-have, by the way; it’s business-defining. People buy from companies they like, and those tend to be the companies that place an importance on mission and purpose. Scottland Jacobson of Russell Investments summarizes it well, “The foundation of any solid company culture is feedback.” Part of the reason is that when employees have a positive view of their role and understand how their values align with and contribute to the broader mission — and they have the skills to do the job well — they become more engaged. They recognize the impact they can make for their customers and the organization, and that motivates them to create even more value for them.

Just as important is creating a culture of trust. Some of the ways you do that are by being clear and transparent, regularly communicating expectations, following through on commitments (your own and your employees’), and being truthful and authentic. Model the trust and integrity behaviors you expect in others.

Be Deliberate About Creating Connections

Employee engagement increases when people feel a connection not only to the brand but to each other. As hybrid and remote work has taken over, there are often fewer opportunities for people to engage with each other in person, but that doesn’t mean a company necessarily needs to demand everyone come back into the office full time. In fact, that could backfire: A recent study found that when people have the chance to work flexibly, 87% of them take it, and a flexible working arrangement is a top three motivator for finding a new job.

One of the ways you can help people connect and collaborate more effectively as a team, regardless of where they are, is to help them understand their own and each other’s Behavior Styles. This is a terrific foundation for helping people to know their colleagues better, build rapport and communicate more effectively.

Employee Engagement and Quiet Quitting: Beyond the Buzzwords

Compared to L&D and HR leaders, line-of-business leaders (especially sales leaders) might be less overtly concerned about employee engagement or “quiet quitting” as major issues. Yet dig a bit deeper and they absolutely are concerned about things like low productivity, high turnover/low retention, the customer experience and low sales quota attainment rates.

Here’s the reality: Employee engagement directly impacts all of those things. It’s the leading indicator. It may not be the hot new catchphrase, but if you engage your leaders in addressing the engagement issue, they’ll have a lot fewer “quiet quitters” and other problems to deal with down the road.   

About the Author
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Will Milano

Vice President of Marketing

Will has driven brand and content marketing strategies for leading professional services companies for two decades including almost 15 years’...
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