Quiet Quitting: Are you in resignation mode?

Get (re)connected to our people and foster healthier corporate cultures we want to be part of and participate in

Cygnus Sprint Thought Leadership Article #3 authored By: Louise Mowbray, Executive Principal and Mitchell Halpern, Managing Director, Cygnus Sprints

Quiet Quitting isn’t new and statistically, it isn’t yet a thing, however, it has struck a chord and become the meme of the moment. The term itself was initially coined at a Texas A&M University economics symposium on diminishing ambitions in Venezuela in September 2009 by economist Mark Boldger.

The gist of it is that we do what’s required of us in our roles, in the hours we are employed to work. It helps to think of this as the ultimate push back on the “hustle, grit and grind” culture we found ourselves looping into pre-pandemic, where we were expected to give our all to the companies we work for.

The term popped again in March this year on Twitter and TikTok and has been both lauded and debunked in equal measures. The interesting thing about memes is that they have a life of their own and the debate around Quiet Quitting has clearly gathered momentum, resonating with people around the world.

Our only way of measuring whether this is actually a thing is through engagement surveys, which are showing a very slight dip in 2022. If you’re curious, you might want to dig into Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2022 Report: “Before the pandemic, engagement and wellbeing were rising globally for nearly a decade — but now, they’re stagnant.”

“Living for the weekend,” “watching the clock tick,” “work is just a paycheck.” These are the mantras of most global workers. With only 21% of employees engaged at work and 33% of employees thriving in their overall wellbeing, most would say that they don’t find their work meaningful, don’t think their lives are going well or don’t feel hopeful about their future.”

The most concerning element in Gallup’s report is around stress and the knock-on impact on our mental health and wellbeing with almost half of the worlds workers feeling the acute burden of stress: “The world’s employees are feeling even more stressed than they did in 2020 (the previous all-time high).”

Being in Resignation

In one of the powerful coaching awarenesses I use with my clients, we talk about “being in resignation”. Getting to a point where we give up giving more of ourselves. More of our time, more heart, more commitment, more involvement. We quit being an active part of the fabric of the culture of the company we work for. We do what’s required of us, sometimes harbouring resentment whilst being politely passive-aggressive.

We do our jobs and no more.

Something happened to us during the pandemic. We lost so much. Loved ones, family, friends, friends of friends and colleagues. And many also lost their jobs, homes, or even their health with Long Covid still at play. Our faith in our governments, organisations and the people we trusted to do the right thing became unhinged, untethered.

We extricated ourselves from the ties that bind us to where we live, which led to the “great migration”. And we started appreciating our health, well-being and value in the market, which resulted in the “great resignation”. Our inherent resistance to change and fear of loss of the status quo vs our desire to live more fulfilled lives has tipped in favour of the latter. We are forever changed in one way or another and we’re not going back.

If we begin to connect the dots, the enlightenment we gained during the pandemic also served to highlight the effect that Friedman-Welch economics has had on the discounting of employee value.

Milton Friedman’s and Jack Welch’s focus on shareholder value as opposed to employee and customer value as the sole driver of business success may well have led, consciously or unconsciously, to the treatment of employees as mere cost centres. When layoffs are impractical, simply engineer an environment where staff need to work twice as hard for the same pay.

For many people in menial, low-paid or low-responsibility roles, the simple transaction of time for a wage is where expectations typically begin and end. Resigning is a luxury that most can ill afford.

And while all of the patterns we’ve witnessed around migration and resignation may have emerged from first-world countries, we realise too that in many sectors and regions of the world, Quiet Quitting is the only thing people have ever had at their disposal.

Quiet Firing

We can’t explore Quiet Quitting without opening the Pandora’s box and addressing Quiet Firing. Also not new. However, with organisations changing the location of their HQ’s and closing offices, establishing new rules and remuneration around hybrid work and the prevalence of “productivity monitoring” software tracking our every minute, it has become incredibly easy to quietly get rid of people who won’t or can’t dance with ever-changing contexts and rules.

Some companies have even taken advantage of going back to in-office business models to force virtual staff, too distant to commute, to resign or be laid off.

What truly motivates us?

When we begin to unpack Quiet Quitting or “being in resignation”, we also need to fully appreciate that being motivated to give more of ourselves only happens when the conditions are right. Daniel Pink’s research, which underpinned his book “Drive”, discounts money as the primary motivator (assuming we pay people fairly) and points us to three things; autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Autonomy is all about having a level of self-direction — the ability to explore new ideas and ways forward. Mastery is about learning and getting better at doing what you do, and Purpose is all about feeling connected to something that lines up with your own values and what you value in life. And therein lies the rub.

When we understand what gets us out of bed in the morning and motivated to give more of ourselves, it’s easy to appreciate why current conditions may well have sparked a shift.

The truth is, we love doing something that doesn’t feel like work. Something that motivates us to be more, do more, contribute more. So why kick back, quit emotionally and resign ourselves to doing the bare minimum? More importantly, what can organisations do to get people re-connected and bring them back into the fold?

Are we watching wisdom leave?

This brings us full circle to our company cultures, economic and geopolitical conditions and the potential threat of a deep recession. When we think about company culture, the lifeblood of psychological safety, trust and a sense of belonging, we need to start with the thinking at the top.

To give credit where it’s due, there is a palpable shift at C-Suite level with one of the top three current concerns executives cite being “talent retention”. As a colleague recently pointed out, “watching wisdom leave” is causing great concern and a drive to discover potential solutions. Our organisations weren’t designed for today’s world of work and it seems many have been caught on the back foot and not yet embraced new ways forward.

Let us not forget the sentiments of young people who have been the drivers behind the Quiet Quitting meme. People who have inherited the woes of climate change and who have grown up in an increasingly polarised, unanchored societal landscape. We have locked them out of the top end of the market and asked them to give their time, energy, passions, hopes and dreams to organisations that are focused on treating them as productive parts of an industrial age model.

There is a glaring need for change and yet, most of the change we’re witnessing is built on the foundations of what used to work. Today we’re beginning to realise, sometimes at great cost, that we need systemic, not topical change.

Quiet Quitting is one of the many insidious challenges facing us today, which may well have escaped our attention in previous years. We know our business, economic and societal environments have changed considerably, however, very few organisations are fully cognisant of the impact this is having on people and how they are reacting and responding.

The Step Back — Cygnus Points The Direction

One way we do this at Cygnus Sprints is to take a step back before going forward. We believe in making sense of the challenges we face in context — in this case, fully appreciating the prevailing drivers of Quiet Quitting and tapping into the signals of change. If we understand where we are, how we got here and what’s needed to get where we want to be, we can address the challenge without the constraints of our current flailing systems.

Perhaps this is why Quieting Quitting is the meme it has become: we didn’t see it coming because it’s neither new nor easily measurable and yes, the jury is still out as to whether it will continue to gather momentum.

What we do know is that Quiet Quitting, along with the alarming rise in reported stress and decline in overall mental health are the symptoms of our current context, not the cause. It’s clearly time for us to get (re)connected to our people and foster healthier corporate cultures that we want to participate in and remain a part of.

This article is part of an ongoing thought leadership series developed by Cygnus Sprints — On-Demand Solutions for a Complex, Sped Up World and powered by the Grey Swan Guild.

Louise Mowbray is an Executive Principal for Cygnus Sprints. Louise Mowbray is the Managing Director of Mowbray by Design, the Creative Conscious Leadership Consultancy. She specialises in working with purpose-driven leaders, to develop themselves and their organisations. She creates unique opportunities out of change and transformation, approaches the future through a broader systems lens and builds experimental cultures of innovation and great places to work.

Mitch Halpern is Managing Director of Cygnus Sprints, a Senior Innovation and Strategic Business Development Executive who creates multi-million-dollar new income streams from emerging and mature technologies in a broad range of industries, builds and mentors cross-functional teams that reduce time-to-market by an average of 35%, and advises companies around the world on combining design thinking, scenario planning, IP landscape analysis, and consumer trend analysis rapidly to evaluate white-space opportunities and develop platforms that reduce R&D costs by 25–50% while increasing the success rate for new products and services.

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