Loud But Not Proud: Quiet Quitting

I received a few responses to last week’s note asking if it was influenced at all by the Quiet Quitting trend circulating social media this past summer. In truth, I wrote most of last week’s piece well over a year ago, but I can see the connection. Quiet Quitting is an idea that some workers have put forth with pride in recent months suggesting that they are taking charge of their work days. It is something that may be enabled by those working from home where one is in a better position to work without direct supervision. The idea is that work is sacrifice and something that isn’t desirable on its own, and as a result workers work only to contribute the bare minimum. They seek a “work-life balance” ensuring that no more work is done than that for which they are paid as the goal. The workers on social media are proudly proffering their Quiet Quitting as a sign of strength. If we lean towards Quiet Quitting we can take comfort that we’re not the only ones doing it. We may come by Quiet Quitting honestly. Quiet Quitting is what other animals are all about. Optimal foraging theory posits that animals dig around seeking sustenance by trying to figure out the balance between maximizing what they can take in while minimizing the effort required to find and uncover food. That is, they are trying to find food to consume while exerting as little as possible.

It seems like an odd thing in which to take pride. It’s like students celebrating getting 51% on a test. Yes, you passed. Yes, you get to move on. However, have you done your best? Did you leave marks on the table? How exactly do you win by trying to learn as little as is required? Why not give the best of yourself? Are proponents of Quiet Quitting putting their mediocre marks front and center on their resumes highlighting their constrained commitment as a feature they’re offering prospective employers? A question to consider is who is deciding what the appropriate level of contribution is? Is it the employee or employer that has determined the minimum accepted standard? Are both in agreement as to what this is? Is this contribution level the same today as it was pre-pandemic? If it’s the worker determining what good enough is, how is their standard determined? Is their justification that they’re performing passably simply that they haven’t yet been fired?

I believe it may have been former leader of the B.C. Liberal party, Andrew Wilkinson, that noted, “Most successful people are just a walking anxiety disorder harnessed for productivity.” As an immigrant from Australia, Wilkinson worked his way through University earning both legal and medical degrees and attending Oxford University in the UK as a Rhodes Scholar. He was wired to work. His quote notes that workaholics may be committed to work as a result of less than healthy motivations. Insecurities and anxieties may drive people to burn the midnight oil at the office night after night. Quiet Quitters may see the cost of conscientiousness and wisely wish to steer clear. So, too, may the consequences of Karoshi be on the minds of Quiet Quitters. Karoshi is a term given to those in Japan who die from working too hard. A sad trend that saw suicides, heart attacks, and strokes spiking in relation to exaggeratedly high rates of overtime work being done is not something reasonable people want to emulate. Maybe our Quiet Quitters are wisely working to avoid these sad outcomes.

Is a separate driver incenting the desire to do just enough a fear of being exploited? Is the fear that the only reward for being better at work is receiving more work? Robert Frost offered, “By working faithfully eight hours a day you may eventually get to be boss and work twelve hours a day.” Is this seen as punishment instead of a positive? Hard work may be who bosses are and what they want? Those at the top likely got that way from being disciplined, dedicated, and conscientious. As a result, it’s likely something they hold in high regard. Yes, hard work worked for them. Because it worked for them and is the heart of who they are, it is what resonates most with them. They likely rose in responsibility as a result of producing results. Are you producing results and contributing to positive outcomes? The more results, the more recognition. It’s what they’re looking for and what they see. Bosses value most what adds value. How much value are you adding when you’re aim is to do as little as possible? As composer Johann Sebastian Bach observed, “I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed … equally well.” That’s the logic of leaders. Even if you aren’t afforded perpetual promotions by working hard, you’ll always have work to do. You’ll at a minimum be building job security. Even if you’re given more work, your reputation will build. You’ll be able to use the additional responsibility and productivity you’re building to showcase to prospective employers that may be more interested in giving you a fulfilling role in their organization. Working hard and being valuable is the surest strategy to putting power in your pocket in order to craft a career that you’ll hold dear.

My assumption is that there may be plenty of bosses that feel that they have no choice but to tolerate the tactic. With fears of The Great Resignation still looming and low unemployment putting pressure on employers to cater to employees, some managers may consider it prudent to offer support for staff. It’s worth noting that tolerating something is not the same as endorsing it. Bosses are not cheering for the concept, they are more sighing than saying that they’ll accept the bare minimum. Sure, they may be happy to have someone in a role doing the basic work required. They are happy to rely on that person to contribute their share. However, they aren’t looking at that person and seeing upward mobility. Nor are they looking to provide more responsibility their way. As our builder from last week’s note realized there’s a cost to cutting corners.

Moreover, there seems to be an economic statistic that suggests that there may be a cost to quiet quitting. In this article, Jeffrey Tucker, President of the Brownstone Institute, discusses the deep drop in the labor productivity rate. This measure which has been in place since 1948 tracks the number of hours of wage and salaried employees across professions that contribute to the total economic output of an economy. The ratio of output to hours contributed can be expressed as the rate of productivity per hour. Unfortunately, since 2020 this value has dropped over 7% falling to its lowest level since recording began. We’re producing less per hour of “effort” than we have over the past 70 years. Being the worst in 70 years doesn’t sound like a quiet accomplishment. Tucker concludes, “Lockdowns acculturated an entire generation to believe that work is fake, productivity is a ruse, money comes for nothing, the boss is an idiot, … Who needs productivity, much less ambition?” As the title of the book which reflects the business philosophy of Andy Grove, founder of Intel, suggests Only the Paranoid Survive. Though not warm and fuzzy, there’s a touch of truth to it. Those that lean to Quiet Quitting may be rudely awakened when the rumblings of recession turn the tides against the Great Resignation and transitions to a tidal wave of firings.

There may be something to be said that any reluctance to embrace the idea of quiet quitting may reveal more about the person questioning the concept. Recent surveys suggest that how we come down on the question of what kind of contribution we should be seeking to make with our work efforts is related to our age. Older folk are much more inclined to agree or strongly agree with the idea that we should be doing our best at work all the time as opposed to just trying to get by. This survey found over 80% of people 65 or older agreed with the idea that we should be working to go the extra mile at work all the time. Tucker is in his late 50s which would put his negative assessment of Quiet Quitting in line with most of his age cohort. Whereas, younger respondents are more likely to favor the message at the core of quiet quitting. It is not just ok, but honorable, to do as little as possible. Quiet quitters aren’t just content with, they’re aspiring to be the guy that’s, doing just enough to get by. Maybe it makes sense that younger people are supportive of the concept as it reflects a level of immaturity. Progress is rarely the result of doing less. It takes time to understand that the world owes us nothing and that our place in it is dependent on our contributions. Real life, time, and the school of hard knocks helps even the reluctant learners amongst us realize that sacrifice is the precursor to earning all that’s nice.

Consider the roles those that are practicing Quiet Quitting have, they are typically white collar workers sitting in the comforts of home surrounded by technology doing their jobs. They are those that have the luxury to read online articles about Quiet Quitting that validate their approach to their own work days. Contrast these with someone like a logger, for example. A logger may be handling a 50 to 75 pound saw with a three foot blade covered with thousands of sharp teeth around its perimeter. Our logger spends his days carrying his tool and wielding it in order to cut down trees that themselves weigh 10,000 or more pounds. As our logger cuts, he’s not thinking about doing the job any less than 100% correctly. Our logger doesn’t have the luxury of good enough. All of the mental and physical faculties must be fully engaged if for no other purpose than self-preservation.

Similarly, adventure athletes play in consequential environments. Those that kayak wild rapids, rock-climbers, free-divers, wing-suit flyers, are thrill seekers whom all share the reality that their chosen activity comes with absorbing real physical risks. Many of those drawn to what seem to “normal” people as wildly dangerous are done so not because they have a death wish. In fact, it’s the opposite. The meaning and fulfillment they derive by devoting their full efforts and energies is the magnet that pulls. As many adventurers have noted, the closer to death they come the more alive they feel. The adrenaline rush lifts them to the highest level of living they are capable of experiencing. It is this absolute engagement they are chasing. They want to put themselves in challenging contexts which forces them to be fully switched on. They aren’t trying to do less, they want to give absolutely everything they have.

A safe bet is that the battle cry of those that try is not ALAP but AMRAP. The fitness freaks forged in the crucible of CrossFit like Rich Fronning, Matt Fraser, and Tia Toomey didn’t get there by doing As Little As Possible (ALAP). The acronym of effort embraced in CrossFit workouts is AMRAP or As Many Reps As Possible. From putting out maximum effort comes growth.

It is this level of absolute engagement that is at the heart of happy people. Engaging, meaningful work that allows one to be autonomous, to learn and develop themselves, and pursue purpose with people they care about is very appealing. It’s what makes a fulfilling career. The workplace isn’t something to resent and try to run away from but somewhere where much of life’s satisfaction may be derived. Contribution is compelling. If you see work as drudgery, you’re more likely to drag your feet and grudgingly grind your way through your days. There’s little that’s fun about this. The answer isn’t in reinforcing this cycle by retreating further. It’s the opposite. Lean in and seek meaning. Work doesn’t have to be a bore that you see as a chore. It can just as easily become something you adore.

It’s also worth noting that conscientiousness as one of the big five personality traits is strongly linked to success. Yes, those that work hard go further. Better yet, as psychologists Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin write in The Longevity Project, “Conscientiousness, which was the best predictor of longevity when measured in childhood, also turned out to be the best personality predictor of long life when measured in adulthood. The young adults who were thrifty, persistent, detail oriented, and responsible lived the longest.” Not only is hard work a predictor of success in the workplace, it’s also a predictor of a long and healthy life. Conscientiousness isn’t a curse, it’s the cure. We shouldn’t deride those that have personal pride. Whether or not you confess, when you look to do less you’re speaking volumes to yourself. There’s nothing quiet about quitting on yourself.

Finally, consider the life story of Frances Hesselbein. Hesselbein is a highly respected leader and prolific producer. She led the Girl Scouts as CEO for many decades. She’s contributed to over 25 books and remains active in corporate circles at the age of 106. Hesselbein embraced Gilbran’s idea that, “Work is love made visible.” Work isn’t the enemy. It’s our way of communicating that we care. It’s our way of reflecting who we are. It’s our way of contributing to the world and making a difference. It’s not something to fight against but something to embrace. Hesselbein has lived a long, productive, and fulfilling life by doing anything but quitting quietly. As Dan Pontefract asks in his book, The Purpose Effect, “What does your definition of work say about you?” Is it a burden or a blessing? A get to or a have to? Is it a game? Is it war or battle? Is it a way to define your identity? Is it to earn, compete, or contribute? Is it love made visible? Finally, in the words of the late legendary baseball player, Lou Gehrig, “There’s no excuse for a player not hustling. I believe every player owes it to himself, his club, and to the public to hustle every minute he is on the ball field.”