Jun 27, 2023

Quiet Quitting – What does it have to do with culture?

Prof. Tanvi Mankodi

Did you know that if you put frogs in a vessel full of water and gradually increase the temperature till it reaches its boiling point, the frogs would still not notice and therefore get burnt? But, if you put these frogs in a vessel with boiling water, they would immediately leap out. It is the slow boil that gets them. Harbouring misbehaviour in the organization because it does not create any major harm in the short run is akin to the slow boil of the frogs. You may not that misbehaviour is on the rise till it is too late and you get scalded. In other words, you now have a culture that breeds incivility, bullying, social undermining, and probably toxicity. And it may not always start at the top, but if gone unnoticed by those in positions of influence, it surely is a concern.

Let me elucidate. One of my research participants in a study on workplace respect and dignity let’s call him Ali, narrated the story of his experience at his first job. He was this bright-eyed recent management graduate from one of the premier business schools of the country. He got placed on Day Zero in one of the most coveted organizations in an exciting job role. In the first month of his job, he had multiple ‘bitter conversations’ with his immediate boss. They were not that harsh to be carded as troublesome and most others seemed to have got used to the boss’s way of communication. These were mostly snide remarks about the general level of incompetence around or pointed remarks about personal appearance or jibes at the employees’ lack of priorities because they did not want to work on weekends. There would be frequent outbursts with raised voices and the use of unparliamentary language, especially in departmental meetings. He would leave the meetings in a fit of rage or give a dressing down to everyone and then carry on with business as usual. For the next few days, he would keep bringing out his disappointment with everyone. Ali knew that such behaviour can be expected at times in the workplace. He however felt a sense of dread once in a while, especially when they had a visit from the corporate headquarters or he attended a zonal meeting with other leaders. They always started out with reiterating the core values of the company, one of which was respect and dignity. He had also attended an orientation session as a new hire and a sensitivity workshop by an external consultant on importance of mental wellbeing and work life balance. When they came back from the seminar, the same boss announced to all present, “do not cater to these namby-pamby notions of work life balance, till you get to my position, work is life. Only then can you reach here.”

Another of my respondents told me about her workplace where they had regular workshops on ‘sensitivity training’ and the importance of ‘being human.’ And, yet, she said in one of the meetings, a manager publicly reprimanded his subordinate for dropping the ball on an assignment. The reason this was flagged is that this employee had lost his wife and child in a road accident 12 days back. He had resumed work because his request for a bereavement leave was denied owing to some project deadlines. The boss knew about this, and yet added fuel to the fire by saying, “you are back to work, so that means, you have done your mourning. I expect 100% focus, otherwise you can take a permanent leave. Times are tough, plenty others to take your place. Handle your personal grief on your personal time.”

These are not isolated incidents intended to act as narrative click-baits or even garner sympathy. These behaviours that may even seem innocuous are more of a norm than exception. And why should you as managers and bosses care? The short answer is, ‘quiet quitting.’ Quiet quitting to the uninitiated is when employees do not quit but mentally check out of their work, doing the bare minimum or only what is asked. They no longer try to go beyond the call of duty or consider being attached to the workplace or are optimally productive. Some may accuse them of being borderline unethical, but quiet quitting is a strong symptom of something more problematic. And there is the long answer of why you should care.

If you have observed such behaviour in your team, do not dismiss this as laziness or wrong hiring without examining it first. Look inward, to your own style of managing as well as the organizational culture. Are your people processes working as they should be? Or is there a gap in what employees perceive the HR systems to be v/s how they were designed to be? Are you walking the talk as an organization? The thing is the impact of such behaviours is seen over time, the erosion of culture is on a slow simmer, and there remains very little time to jump out of the boiling water. You are slowly but surely creating a workplace where transactional relationships are maintained over loyalty, competition over collaboration, commitment and attachment are just buzzwords that are not actually encouraged, and your star talent may look for better opportunities while being less productive on the job.

One of the ways to handle this is an internal albeit informal culture audit to understand where you are at, if you practice what you preach. Or are you giving mixed signals to your employees that while diversity, inclusivity, respect, empathy, and teamwork are flaunted in the company report, the fine print says otherwise. A strong bottom line is definitely a desired outcome but not at the cost of erosion of culture. The challenges of the new normal and the uncertainties of Industry 5.0 notwithstanding, values and humane treatment of employees cannot be the sacrifices we make.

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