Q&A: How Changing the Connotation of ‘Quiet Quitting’ Can Benefit the Workplace

January 30, 2023 By Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu

Jim Detert just wants to set the record straight.

The University of Virginia professor, who holds a joint appointment in the Darden School of Business and the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, has spent the last few years reading about a couple of trendy terms in the business world that are, really, just describing long-standing realities.

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“We have suddenly started to use new buzzwords for phenomena that had actually been around for decades,” Detert said. “There was the ‘Great Resignation’ and now ‘quiet quitting.’”

The Great Resignation, dubbed this way to reflect the reckoning in the American workforce caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, is connected, Detert said, to quiet quitting, a term to characterize disengaged workers who tackle only the minimum requirements to complete their jobs.

“Quiet quitting” was named the phrase of the year in 2022 by The Morning Brew, a daily newsletter designed for young business professionals. But, Detert said, “We’ve had terrible employee engagement in this country for a long time, well before Gallup started its annual reporting in 2000. For more than 50 years, organizational scholars have been documenting why employees are disengaged, why employees have low job satisfaction, why they ‘quit on the job,’ and why they actually do quit.”

Gallup’s most recent survey sampled roughly 67,000 people and found that only 32% of employees reported feeling engaged with their work in 2022, down from 36% in 2020.

Detert says one way to improve the trend is to call “quiet quitting” what it often is – “calibrated contributing.”

UVA Today caught up with Detert, an expert in leadership and organizational behavior and the author of “Choosing Courage: The Everyday Guide to Being Brave at Work,” to learn more about his view.

Q. What led you to come up with “calibrated contributing” as a replacement for “quiet quitting”?

A. It’s generally not a compliment to be called a quitter. It’s not neutral. So when we use the term “quiet quitting, we’re essentially putting the blame on employees. We’re saying they’re lazy, not committed or behaving selfishly or irrationally.

In many instances, though, employees choosing to fulfill their job description, but no more, are behaving quite rationally. They’re rejecting endless “job creep” where they do more and more but don’t see an equivalent increase in their pay, status, fulfilling work or basic respect. They’re simply trying to restore a sense of equity at work – a sense that what they put in matches what they get out.

Language is a form of power. I wanted to describe what was happening in a more accurate way that also has less of a derogatory connotation than “quitting” does. Calibrated contributing starts from the premise that what we’re seeing might be a very rational response to one’s work situation.

Q. How can changing the term from “quiet quitting” to “calibrated contributing” lead to improvements in the workplace?

A. If managers can acknowledge that calibrated contributing is, in many cases, rational behavior in response to the terms of employment they’re offering, then they can start to own the responsibility to do something productive about it. That might involve improving factors like pay levels and benefits. Or changing some core job characteristics like granting more autonomy in regard to when and where people work, or making people’s work more interesting by expanding its variety or scope of responsibility. Or getting serious about measuring and holding people accountable – including managers and others with high status – for how they treat each other interpersonally. We have hundreds and hundreds of studies that show that how your boss treats you and how your co-workers treat each other are massive influences on job satisfaction and quitting.

Headshot portrait image of Jim Detert

Jim Detert’s research focuses on workplace courage, improvement-oriented voice (why people speak up or stay silent at work), ethical decision-making and behavior, and other leadership-related topics. (Darden School of Business photo)

If we stopped laying the blame at the foot of the worker by saying “They’re lazy” or “People today have different values,” we could start focusing on, “What are we doing that’s causing this?” And, then, “How do we get serious about fixing this?’”

Q. If the quiet quitting concept has been around for a long time, what’s caused it to be more pronounced recently?

A. There’s always a general tension between owners (and the managers who work for them) and labor (non-management employees of all types) in terms of who has control over the conditions of work and who gets more or less of the profits that are produced. We know that, starting in the 1970s and ’80s, in this country, we have moved toward a much greater share of the spoils going to those at the very top. There are many reasons for this – attitudinal shifts among those in power, globalization, declining union rates. We now have one of the most unequal income distributions, and one of the lowest federal minimum wages, of any economically advanced economy.

We have also decreased, rather than increased, the “social safety net” in this country compared to comparable economies. We’re now nowhere close to the front on basic provisions for people, whether it’s affordable health care, retirement benefits, or other things that make people feel secure and good about what they’re getting for all of their hard work.

So, it’s not surprising that, at some point, there was a snapback effect. What I think happened was the pandemic essentially became the straw that has triggered this breaking point. We’re seeing both increased unionization activity and more support for unions among the general public than there has been for the last 60 or 70 years.

So, I think the pandemic, coupled with decades of things going in the wrong direction for the average employee, led to this recalibration.

Q. What tips do you have for any employees who might feel they’re on the edge of  calibrated contributing?

A. Really be clear in your mind about the features of your job that don’t work for you before you determine you’re going to reduce your effort or quit. At least consider an honest conversation with your boss about what factors they could change that would address core problems, whether those are things like pay, benefits, or your work schedule, or aspects that affect whether you’re really engaged with your work or feel like you’re a respected part of a high-functioning team.

There’s a difference between throwing your hands up and saying, “They don’t care; they’ll never fix this so I’m done,” and saying, “I made a legitimate effort to express my sources of dissatisfaction and I asked that those got addressed and then, when they weren’t, I sort of gave up on my job.”

I think the latter’s defensible, while the former denies others the chance to improve. To give less without asking the other side to give more, that’s on the person who doesn’t even ask.

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Q. What tips do you have for people in management who might sense calibrated contributing among their employees? 

A. From an evolutionary perspective, humans don’t actually change that much in one or two generations. The basic needs of people –for belongingness, to have autonomy and a sense of control, basic safety and self-respect, a desire to contribute to something bigger than themselves – these things are pretty stable.

So, if you, as a manager, are finding yourself saying, “Oh, these people today,” what you really probably should be doing is saying, “Humans are humans. What’s wrong with the type of work we’re offering, the type of working environment we’re offering? What do we need to do to improve?”

My advice to management is to take a long, hard look at the underlining causes of dissatisfaction among their people, and then do something meaningful about them. There’s plenty known about what can be done once the will is there. Using terms like “calibrated contributing” rather than “quiet quitting” is a good start because it acknowledges the legitimate concerns and responses of employees and the need for productive managerial responses.

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Andrew Ramspacher

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