Quiet quitting is a term that’s been floating around for a couple of months now. Yet, it stands for a concept that’s been around for centuries. Someone goes to work, and is less engaged than she used to be for some reason, eventually starting to look for a new job, and some months down the road you find that person leaving the company for greener pastures – maybe to be the worst on a team again and learn something new, maybe because life circumstances changed, maybe for another reason. Let’s explore my thoughts on this.
I recall my last job where I had sniffed some air from the agile world. Basically, my team replaced the whole test automation effort that grew over the course of a year. We worked in two-week cadences, held retrospectives at the end of each two weeks, and discovered the usefulness of pair programming and micro-level tests while integrating with a new test automation framework. One year later, our approach was still usable even though we worked on the third project with this automation framework by now. So, I was convinced by the value agile practices and principles had brought us, and I was eager to spread the word in that larger waterfall organization.
Despite my best arguments, really nothing sticked with the company. I recall consulting Elisabeth Hendrickson on this at some time. In her most honest way, she told me how she never managed to make meaningful changes in an organization by working there as an internal employee. Two months later, I had a job interview with my current employer, Twelve years on, I’m still there.
It did not take Elisabeth’s message back then for me to start looking for more agile employers. Maybe twelve or fifteen months prior to actually changing my job I started looking for other opportunities. Back then, I was thinking back and forth. There were better weeks, and there were worse weeks. Maybe I was slow to make the final move. But you could say that I quit quietly way prior to actually handing in my quitting notice.
What I recall feeling at the time was too little support, especially from others around me in helping spread the message. I had become a testing group leader a few years prior but wasn’t able to make my points stick. From this, there are two points worth exploring: my personal failures to get my points across, and what it meant to me when I handed in my quitting notice.
I recall asking Martin Heider for some coaching at the XP 2010 in Trondheim. That was maybe three months before joining my new job. After explaining my circumstances to him, I was worried that basically the same would happen eventually at another company. Martin asked me just one question that blew my mind at the time: What’s your contribution to the situation?
Of course, back then I already had quit. That single question turned my thoughts back on me and helped me reflect on the situation. It was a basic reframing of the Chinese proverb:
If you point your fingers at another person, watch where the other fingers point to.
My perception is that the circumstances surrounding someone’s decision to quit a company have a cause of demotivation prior to it. Something is demotivating that person. Sometimes that person just stays demotivated for a long time, and despite their best efforts, is unable to get out of that situation.
There is a contribution of that person to the situation. Maybe that person is pushing too hard for a particular change, maybe that person is pushing not hard enough for a particular change. Maybe that person is communicating unskillfully or trying to resolve conflicts in unskillful ways. Or that person discourages others to participate in their idea by being too close-minded. Or that person is too open-minded while the environment around that person would need more guidance before being sold on the idea and able to contribute their thoughts to it. Maybe that person is taking communication too personal or not personal enough.
There is always a degree of our own contributions towards the factors that demotivate us. If we are able to find these sources, there lurks some personal growth for us. Maybe we can find a better way to push just gentle enough for a change to stick. Maybe we can find improvements to our communications, or get selfless with our initial ideas. No matter what, the period of quiet quitting can be helpful here if we reflect and curiously explore ways to improve our own contributions to our demotivation. Sometimes we can pull this off on our own, sometimes it needs help from a personal coach for example. No matter what, we can exploit the phase of quiet quitting to start to work on ourselves, and see whether that is helpful in getting re-engaged, and maybe not quitting at all.
But what if we see ourselves unable to tackle the personal growth potential in our demotivation over a prolonged time?
Stick around long enough in the work field, and once or twice you may run into the phrase: People are not quitting the company, but the manager.
Knowing the responsibility process, this statement sounds like a form of blaming to me. Yet, I recall that I was certainly at such a point at some time before quitting. I recall being afraid to hand my quitting notice to my direct superior. He was a nice guy, and always had some ideas on how to move forward. On a human side, it just felt wrong for me to announce that I was no longer going to play along given the progress we had made on so many things in the past years. Yet, I sensed that I could grow further and faster upon changing jobs. So, to some extent, there was this attribution of the blame on my manager for not providing the environment where I could nurture and flourish.
So, whenever faced with a person quitting quietly, as a manager we should start to wonder what this person feels demotivated about, and maybe help to remove these factors of demotivation to have a chance for the person not leaving at all. Of course, there might be more to it than meets the eye, but the factors managers can influence most directly are the demotivating circumstances. That raises the chances, but it’s not a guarantee.
Over the years, at various companies, I have seen these dynamics repeat and eventually fail to some degree. People not seeing their growth opportunities in the first place, and managers not sensing the first signs of demotivation and having an open discussion about things to change in the organization in the second place. I always grieve a bit when seeing this dynamic play out to the conclusion that someone leaves the company. And I feel sad for the company not taking the growth opportunity to change its course. Quiet quitting is merely the second or third signal in this direction, and I think our workplaces would be better ones if we managed to listen to these signs when we see them occurring.