This has been a banner week for people getting mad about Quiet Quitting, a subject that I have spoken to at least 15 people about at this point. It is one of the worst workplace mantra debates I’ve seen because it naturally antagonizes the internal narrative of people’s lives. Anyone that has achieved any level of success wants to believe they did so based on noble terms and tells their story in a way that makes them seem both like a moral paragon and someone that’s “earned” their place.
As a result, Quiet Quitting naturally pokes the brain of anybody that’s self-conscious about their work history. As I’ve written before, much of what makes somebody successful isn’t hard work but the ability to work hard at the point when it matters. Those who work “hard” are often not rewarded because “hard” work isn’t conceptually based on outputs or real labor, but the experience of someone working hard - their attendance in meetings, the consternation on their face, their passion for the work, and so forth.
Let’s cut the shit: the real reason this entire conversation is happening is that companies are not loyal to their workers. If workers become upset with their working conditions, the most common refrain from those in power is to ask why they aren’t more grateful for what they’ve got. There isn’t a great deal of data about how often people are promoted from within, but there is plenty of data that shows that external hires are generally paid more despite performing worse than those promoted from within. Companies barely train or mentor people anymore, and yet executives are now crowing about the idea that workers aren’t “going above and beyond” for companies that provide, in many cases, very little beyond a paycheck.
So much of this debate can be simmered down to “we do not want to do more for the worker beyond paying them,” and “we want them to do more work than we’ve agreed to because it’s cool to get something for free.” Those claiming that Quiet Quitters are “just coasting by” or “doing the bare minimum” want to believe that they earned their position - whatever position that may be - entirely through hard graft and that the extra hours they put in are the reason they are “successful” today.
I also believe that (like many issues I’ve discussed), the Quiet Quitting discourse also challenges the world that people wish existed. It’s much more palatable to believe that successful people have reached their position based on some internal grit and steady continuum of effort. Considering the alternative - that many people become successful through little moments of luck that change everything - is far more depressing because there is absolutely nothing to aspire for. If the working world does not equitably reward hard work, how exactly do you motivate someone to work hard?
This is the heart of the matter for the executive sect. For years - far longer than I’ve been in the workforce - the mantra has always been that good behavior gets rewarded, and hard workers are given more money and respect. If the workforce continues to believe this, corporations can continue to abuse and stretch workers with the slippery concept of promotions and rewards based on them reaching non-existent goals.
The Quiet Quitting panic is an existential reaction to the concept of career progression. On the worker side, some have realized that outside of clear-set career progression or more compensation, hard work or taking on extra responsibilities only rewards you with more work. Organizations have destroyed the concept of apprenticeships and mentorships, creating little incentive for workers to work harder or those above them to see to their growth. And those in power are so disconnected from the work product that they don’t have any perspective on what “good” looks like, thus promotions are based on popularity contests, some vague level of output, and, of course, whether or not you are white, because biased systems reward biased people (from Ryerson University professor Margaret Yap):
…Yap applied a variety of statistical tests to her findings, and the results held: White men were the most likely to receive promotions, even when other workers appeared equally or even more qualified. This led her to conclude that “systemic barriers must have existed in the company’s policies, programs and practices.”
To cut to the chase, if you are wondering why people aren’t working particularly hard in your organization, it may be because they have no reason to.
Simple Solutions To Simple Problems
The self-mythologizing of the workforce has kept workers under control for quite some time. The 2008 financial crisis scared every working person into believing they should be grateful for their work, and the crooked capitalists running companies loved it. However, despite years of saying that workers should “adapt to hard times,” executives and organizations failed to adapt to them, focusing on profits over, well…profits:
The direct correlation between employee happiness and profitability is demonstrated time and time again across the research. In Harvard Psychologist Daniel Goleman’s book Primal Leadership, one study shows that for every 2% increase in how happy employees are revenue grew by 1%.
Similarly, in a three year Wills Tower Watson study of 41 global companies, it was found that operating margins improved nearly 4% on average in organisations with high employee engagement levels and declined about 2% in those with low engagement levels. They concluded that there is a “clear relationship between high levels of employee engagement and improved financial and operational results.”
The problem is that making workers happy requires careful consideration of what makes them happy, what they do for a living, who manages them, and their work process. It’s so much easier for a company to ignore all of these things and squeeze as much as possible out of workers, creating no consistent policies across the organization, rejecting unions, and keeping managers on staff that don’t seem capable of doing the job of the people they’re managing.
The ideal workplace is one where every member of the organization - up to the executive level - is contributing to the company. This contribution doesn’t always have to be revenue-generating, but it has to be quantifiable. There has to be an absolute minimum of “strategic” personnel - managers that only manage, Vice Presidents that only go to meetings, and so on - because these people are organizationally useless, and it’s demoralizing for workers to know they exist.
We must bring back the concepts of “tracks” and apprenticeships within organizations. If any organization is scared of “Quiet Quitting,” they should start thinking about how they can make a real-life version of the Janitor To Boardroom myth and make it clear that if you work hard in this specific way, yes, you will be able to reach the executive level. This includes an extremely deliberate corporate structure with measured inputs and outputs, ways to say “this person contributed in a meaningful way,” and the things that said person could learn or do if they want to, to progress to the next level in the organization. Senior personnel should be both compensated and required to have an apprentice (if the organization size makes sense) - someone responsible for the future of and rewarded for its success.
This is so hard to do because executives are allergic to the kind of oversight that those below them face. Washington Post CEO Fred Ryan complained this week about “low productivity” and “fewer meetings on Fridays,” yet I doubt anyone really knows what he does for a living, let alone on a day-to-day basis. More often than not those making the calls in organizations exist in a productivity vortex, existing in a paradox where they’re directly responsible for the overall health of an organization without being held to any kind of direct responsibility. Yet they’re the ones who receive the outsized rewards for the labor of others, escaping invasive productivity measurements because they’re somehow above reproach.
Again, I ask, why would someone go above and beyond? In the last twenty years of capitalism, how can managers or executives ask with a straight face that someone does more, when it’s become so obvious that “more” does not equal more pay, or better opportunities?
The answers are very simple. Every journalist who failed to write about Quiet Quitting appropriately did so because they didn’t ask workers what they would like to see to make them work harder. These articles, like so many before them, are intentionally created by the business media to empower managers and bosses to threaten their workers - to scare them into believing that they’re not doing enough, all while using propaganda to give bosses and managers more excuses to do less.
The solution here is to pay people more, to give them a career path, and to give them great working conditions. Their work should be rewarding in the sense that they are rewarded for doing the work well in the form of monetary compensation and career progression. If they are managed by someone, that person should both manage them and be doing the same job, and they should also be measured on their performance. They should work less than 40 hours a week if their work can be handled in that time, and if they work over that amount, you should be compensating them for doing so.
To conclude, let me answer some of the expected pushback on these questions:
- “It’s too expensive to do that!” No it’s not. If you truly can’t afford it, that’s one thing, but I bet you can.
- “It’s going to eat into profits!” Maybe you’re just bad at running a business. If paying people a little extra when they work more or directly compensating people in a replicable way is so hard, perhaps you shouldn’t be compensated either.
- “Managers have a hard job, they can’t be expected to also do the job of the people they’re managing!” First of all - no they don’t. I cannot name a single manager who only managed who didn’t have plenty of spare time. Second of all, if you have a manager who just manages people, they’re useless. Get Google Calendar. I don’t care.
- “It’s unreasonable to expect executives to be held to oversight - they’ve earned that position!” Oh, I’m sorry, is being the Chief Executive hard? Do you need me to burp you? Are you a big baby wearing a big diaper? Because that’s how you sound. They can have less oversight when they make their workers’ lives better. Get over it.
- “If I start applying policies like this, I’ll have to fire a bunch of managers!” Sounds awesome! Sorry, I know it sucks to say this, but if you are not instituting a fair policy to evaluate contributions to the organization because doing so means you would have to cut out a bunch of middle managers, then I also recommend firing yourself on the way out. You suck at this!
- “You’re just being mean! There are plenty of good managers!” Kiss my ass! I have thousands of people who read this newsletter tell me about their terrible managers every god damn day. For once in your worthless lives, be willing to receive some form of criticism without immediately defending yourself. Quit whining. If you’re not the problem, then great, this isn’t about you, but if you’re responding to this, it’s 100% about you.
- “One time I heard about a guy who was Quiet Quitting and the like, he was like, “uh I hate the boss I don’t do anything,” so how about that?” Congratulations, you got me, there was one time something happened. I once knew a manager who told me that she threw people under the bus deliberately, and was “the one driving the bus.” She genuinely ruined months of people’s lives. That’s so much worse than someone who “wasn’t working hard.”
Let me conclude with this: if you are writing something or discussing a theory that begins at a place where you’re trying to make me feel sympathetic for a boss or a manager, you are a fool. Any theory that is about workers “not doing enough” is corrupt to begin with, and begs the question of who is worried about it and on what grounds. Every single one of these panics is drummed up by managers who want ways to feel superior to the people below them, or cretins that have created their own mythologies where they’ve never been lazy a day in their lives.