‘Quiet quitting’ is the new workplace epidemic

Quietly getting on with the job. Stock image

Gina London

Quiet quitting is a new term for a not-so-new trend.

When TikTok videos launched this term earlier this month, the mainstream media covered the viral buzzword like a flaming hot new fashion trend, while your beloved columnist, dear readers, saw it for what it really was: another name for an age-old chronic workplace problem. Bummed out employees doing just the bare minimum.

But, being someone who fancies herself on-trend and unable to walk away from most stylish and buzzy things, and, being the intrepid (former) reporter that I am, I decided to turn to renowned business thought leader Michael Bungay Steiner for a deeper dive into the matter.

First off, you need to know about Michael. Or “MBS” as he refers to himself adding pointedly: “No, not the Saudi MBS. I’m not running the Middle East as my side hustle.”

Instead, Michael is the founder of Box of Crayons, a Toronto-based company that “helps organisations transform from advice-driven to curiosity-led”. Don’t you love that tagline? I do.

It’s one of the many reasons I was eager to interview Michael (I chose to call him Michael instead of the three initial moniker). In addition to training hundreds of thousands of business professionals, Michael has also written several books, including the over a million-copies best seller, The Coaching Habit.

A colleague referred this book to me and I took it along on my recent summer holiday. It’s a fast-paced page-turner. Better than any steamy romance novel or murder mystery or whatever you take to the beach or pool on your hols. I read it cover to cover in one-sitting. Enthralled. What’s so great about it, you may ask. In under 200 pages, Michael shares seven simple, but not necessarily easy to consistently apply, questions that will help anyone: “Say less, ask more and change the way you lead forever.”

“What can we do to address this?” I ask Michael.

“The challenge with work in general is it can be a source of great unlocking of potential, growth and meaning and it can also be a dehumanising experience where you are a small cog in a machine. On balance, it trends toward the latter,” Michael begins.

“Corporations are soulless things. They have obligations to make money. You’re trying to go, ‘How do we make this machine work?’ I see tension in a lot of organisations. On one hand, we’re trying to make money, on the other hand, there’s opportunities for you to be the change you’re looking for.

“I hope there’s an increasing desire and understanding to build an organisation where you do work that matters and you unlock the greatness of the people in that organisation.

“If you’re running a company or you’re a manager or a leader, part of what you’re asking yourself is, ‘What does it take for me to increase the odds that the people with whom I’m working or leading are up for it rather than quietly quitting?’”

Michael breaks it down into three seemingly simple, but again, not easy to consistently apply, key questions to tackle. They are:

Are we doing work that matters?

“Or is this a bullsh*t job doing bullsh*t tasks?” Michael muses amusingly but there is a very serious point here.

Even in the most outwardly menial of jobs, management can help employees see that there is a value to what is being done, people being served or the world, in some way, being bettered, then the tasks can take on a greater importance or meaning and raise engagement.

As Michael says, “There’s always some of that (bullsh*t) in your working life. But, ask yourself, ‘how do I tip things so that people are working on stuff that matters?’”

How are we building a relationship with the person we work with?

While the first key question may help you overcome a lack of enthusiasm that may lead to the dreaded ‘quietly quitting,’ this second question should help you avoid taking an employee for granted.

Don’t presume they’re happy to work extra hours or read emails on vacation or whatever you’re unwittingly asking of them. As Michael encourages here, “Use adult-to-adult conversation as much as possible”.

How do we use coaching to keep both the work and the relationship growing, moving, thriving, repairable?

Number three is obviously a direct quote from Michael. He layers the synonyms to help us better understand the layers required to consider when nurturing a real, lasting relationship. Don’t use a one-and-done sort of approach.

“But,” as Michael cautions, “It’s not only the manager’s job to make this happen. Both sides have to commit to show up.”

This is the hardest thing. Cultivating curiosity, care and compassion must start at the beginning. During the interview process. The onboarding. Weekly (daily?) check-ins.

By the time someone has opted out and is quietly quitting, it may be too late to revive their interest in their job and your company.

Which brings me to Michael’s latest book. It came out earlier this year. It’s titled, How to Begin.