Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman of leadership development consultancy Zenger/Folkman explain why "quiet quitting" is typically "less about an employee's willingness to work harder and more creatively, and more about a manager's ability to build a relationship with their employees."
Infographic: Don't fall for these myths of staff engagement
Zenger and Folkman's researchers have been conducting 360-degree leadership assessments for decades. In these assessments, they often ask respondents to rate whether their "work environment is a place where people want to go the extra mile."
To better understand the "quiet quitting" trend and how it was presenting in the U.S. workforce, they analyzed their data to answer the question: "What makes the difference for those who view work as a day prison and others who feel that it gives them meaning and purpose?"
They analyzed data gathered through 2020 on 2,801 managers, rated by 13,048 direct reports. On average, five direct reports rated each manager. In their analysis, Zenger and Folkman compared two data points:
They referred to additional effort from employees who were willing to go above and beyond as "discretionary effort." According to the authors, the effect "discretionary effort" can have on an organization can be profound. For instance, "[i]f you have 10 direct reports and they each give 10% additional effort, the net results of that additional effort are increased productivity," they note.
Compared with the most effective leaders, Zenger and Folkman found that the least effective managers have three to four times the number of employees who fall in the "quiet quitting" category. Managers in the first to ninth percentile had 14% of their direct reports quietly quitting, and only 20% of them were willing to give additional effort.
However, managers who received the highest ratings for balancing results with relationships had 62% of their direct reports willing to give additional effort, with just 3% quietly quitting.
"Our data indicates that quiet quitting is usually less about an employee's willingness to work harder and more creatively, and more about a manager's ability to build a relationship with their employees where they are not counting the minutes until quitting time," Zenger and Folkman write.
If a manager suspects that an employee is "quiet quitting," Zenger and Folkman suggest that leaders first ask whether the behavior stems from the employee or their own choices and behaviors as a manager.
"If you're confident in your leadership abilities and only one of your direct reports is unmotivated, that may not be your fault," they note.
Still, managers should evaluate their approach toward driving results with team members. "When asking your direct reports for increased productivity, do you go out of your way to make sure that team members feel valued?" Zenger and Folkman prompt. "Open and honest dialogue with colleagues about the expectations each party has of the other goes a long way," they add.
Ultimately, their research suggests that the most important factor is trust. In an analysis of more than 113,000 leaders, they determined that the top behavior that helps effective leaders balance results with their concern for team members was trust. "When direct reports trusted their leader, they also assumed that the manager cared about them and was concerned about their wellbeing," Zenger and Folkman write.
Notably, their research suggested that trust can be linked to three behaviors. First, maintaining positive relationships with direct reports. Second, ensuring that leadership consistently follows through on their commitments. Finally, their research suggested that leaders can build trust by demonstrating their expertise.
"By building a trusting relationship with all of your direct reports, the possibility of them quietly quitting dissipates significantly," Zenger and Folkman write.
"It's easy to place the blame for quiet quitting on lazy or unmotivated workers, but instead, this research is telling us to look within and recognize that individuals want to give their energy, creativity, time, and enthusiasm to the organizations and leaders that deserve it," they add. (Zenger/Folkman, Harvard Business Review, 8/31)
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