Playing To Win

Quiet Quitting & Strategy

The Humanity Imperative

‘Quiet Quitting’ has become the next big thing perhaps because it emerged on TikTok. Because I think it is an important topic for strategy, I decided to dedicate my 46th Year II Playing to Win/Practitioner Insights (PTW/PI) piece to Quiet Quitting & Strategy: The Humanity Imperative. You can find the previous 98 PTW/PI here.

The Phenomenon

Quiet Quitting has come to define the concept of ceasing to commit meaningfully to one’s job and just doing enough to meet the definitions in one’s job description, essentially a form of ‘work to rule.’ The general view is that it has become a more prevalent phenomenon of late — increasing in frequency.

It is interesting to note the alliterative name of this phenomenon. Research shows that alliteration improves processing fluency for our brains, which results in a term featuring alliteration being perceived as truer than one without — see this for a nice overview of the processing fluency field. I believe that Quiet Quitting has become an important concept in the mind of the public because the processing fluency of its awesome new name has resulted in it being perceived as ‘the truth.’

However, the phenomenon isn’t at all new: it has been around for quite some time. Gallup has been measuring employee engagement since 2000. Its survey places workers in one of three categories: engaged, meaning that the workers are “involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace;” non-engaged, workers who put time but not energy or passion into their work; or disengaged, workers are mentally checked out and have little if any concern for the performance of their company, which sounds remarkably like Quiet Quitters.

As of early 2022, only one third (32%) of US employees were in the engaged category, another half (51%) were non-engaged, and the final sixth (17%) are disengaged, Quiet Quitters — tens of millions of them. Of course, these numbers are dreadful — remarkably low engagement — and while the numbers are trending in a slightly negative direction, they have been consistently awful since Gallup started measuring them in 2000.

The other related ‘new phenomenon,’ is what has become known as The Great Resignation (which doesn’t sound as cool as Quiet Quitting does it?). Characterized by the media as a post-COVID phenomenon, a record 48 million American workers resigned from their jobs in 2021. But it really isn’t. For over a decade, the resignation rate has increased at almost exactly the same rate every year.

Net, Quiet Quitting isn’t anything new. But it is part of a debilitating phenomenon for business. How can you run a business with one sixth of your workforce completely disengaged and half of them not engaged? It is too much for the fully engaged third of your workforce to carry the entire burden.

How Did We Get to this Place?

It feels hard to imagine how we got to this dreadful place of overwhelming worker disengagement. A big piece of the problem is that business didn’t pay enough attention Peter Drucker and let the humanity of work decline at a time Drucker argued that it needed to increase.

Drucker sounded the first alarm on this front in 1959 when he coined the term “knowledge work.” He argued that when we ask workers to use the muscle between their ears more so than the muscles in their arms, legs, or back, workers will scrutinize the nature of their jobs more rigorously. They can’t dissociate themselves from the work of their brain to nearly the extent they can with physical work. With physical work, they do the work. With knowledge work, they are the work.

As was so often the case, Drucker was uncanny in his ability to foresee the future and knowledge work grew dramatically in the subsequent decades. He returned to the subject in 1992 when he argued that knowledge workers need to be treated as you would a volunteer. Since volunteers are unpaid, they will only volunteer their time for your cause if they believe in and are motivated by the purpose of the organization. He warned against the assumption that you could attract, maintain, and motivate paid employees by compensating them monetarily to a sufficiently high extent.

Drucker lived to see the huge increase in the knowledge work that he foresaw and in the time since his passing it has become harder and harder to identify jobs that don’t involve substantial knowledge work. Factory workers engage in Lean and Kaizen. Retail workers need to interface substantially with information technology. Wait staff take orders on iPads. Obviously, there is a range of knowledge intensity across the wide spectrum of American jobs, but for most workers of today, they are centrally employing their brain in acquitting their job and therefore companies should expect them to hold their work to a higher standard.

I have always felt that Drucker held a holistic view of the humanity of workers. A worker couldn’t be simplistically viewed as a tool or as a party to a financial contract. To him, they were humans with a range of needs that required holistic understanding and treatment.

And I think that business has largely failed on this front — and has a disengagement crisis to show for it.

On this subject, my mind goes over two decades back to a tour that I was given of a tech giant’s newly renovated workspace. It had completely overhauled a huge old manufacturing facility for use as a software development lab. They were proud of the facility because the architects had designed a classic main street down the center of the facility, with old-fashioned streetlights, a coffee shop, ice cream parlor, hairdresser, bank, newsstand, pharmacy, laundry and more. It was beautiful — right out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

I asked to see the rest of the facility — and it was rows upon rows of cubicles where the engineers would spend their days when not walking the main street. They were really nice cubicles — the newest designs, but they were cubicles, cubicles and more cubicles. All cubicles are descended from Herman Miller’s Action Office II (as with Apple I and II, the first version had minor impact on the world while the second was transformational) launched in 1968. While designer Robert Propst had lofty ideals about how it would elevate the work experience of users, corporate purchasers quickly seized on it as a means to dense-pack employees in the most cost-efficient manner and became the butt of Dilbert cartoons.

My reaction to the visit — a disappointment to the host because I didn’t leave with the desired level of enthusiasm — was that the main street made the overall work experience worse by accentuating the contrast between the fabulous attention to humanity on main street side-by-side with complete inattention in the cubicles.

In the decades since, I have seen this inattention to a holistic view of humanity play out again and again. Companies seem to believe that they can place two fundamentally conflicting aspects of the worker’s experience side-by-side, yet workers will think it is just fine. They don’t. Modern workers need to see and feel a consistent humanity in their job. Otherwise, they will disengage. Metaphorically, they can’t have main street and cubicles side-by-side in the construction of their jobs.

I see a consistent set of features of companies that undermine the humanity of worker experience and in doing do cause workers to feel less connected to and more disengaged from their company. For example…

Abstract Purpose

Drucker was correct: workers need to feel motivated and compelled by the purpose of the organization to which they are dedicating their worklife. They aren’t motivated by a highly abstract concept like shareholder value maximization. They don’t spend their working lives happily toiling for nameless, faceless people called shareholders. For most shareholders, the name on the stock register isn’t actually the name of the shareholder but rather of a fiduciary (e.g., Fidelity, Black Rock) acting on behalf of the real and hidden shareholder. Not only that, those nameless, faceless shareholders come and go as they please, selling their shares without giving a rationale or notice.

That is not how genuine human relationships work. They aren’t anonymous and fleeting. Workers may care about each other and customers but if the stated purpose of the company is put shareholders first and foremost, the workers will not feel a consistent sense of humanity. It will feel fractured — part imbued with humanity, part artificial and abstract — a recipe for disengagement.

Simpleminded Motivation

Most companies utilize monetary incentive compensation to motivate employees to do their job. For example, if they meet their budget/target, they receive a 15% bonus. That is not how authentic human relationships work. Your marital partner or best friend doesn’t dole out extra cash for fulfilling your relationship promises. If you fulfill your promises, you will strengthen the relationship going forward and enjoy the attendant benefits. If you don’t, you will weaken it and, in due course, the relationship will end.

If you seek to motivate behavior with monetary incentive compensation, you will be attempting, per Drucker, to appeal to workers’ greed not to their sense of purpose. That won’t feel authentically human to workers.

Unfair Distribution of Benefits

Companies pay different wages for identical work and think those being paid less — especially women and minorities — will ‘understand.’ Centibillionaire owners think it will work out just fine to pay their workers less than a living wage. But the distaste for unfairness runs deep. This is even the case with monkeys as demonstrated in the famous experiment with capuchin monkeys. When one monkey is rewarded with a cucumber slice and the second with a much-preferred grape, the first monkey throws the cucumber slice at the researcher in anger. What was previously a delicious slice of cucumber transforms into a slap in the face.

The purpose may be appealing and the work inherently rewarding, but fundamental unfairness in the distribution of benefits of the work won’t feel human and will be unsustainable. If this was a company with a business model that necessitated the first monkey to performing the task at lower reward, the company would eventually collapse in the face of unfairness.

Practitioner Insights

These are but a few examples of the failure of companies to create an experience that is holistically human for workers. To me, this inattention to humanity is the most important driver of the Gallup disengagement numbers, the Great Resignation, and Quiet Quitting. The implication for your strategy is that it must incorporate and reflect a holistic conception of humanity. The company needs to feel holistically human — not feature dissonance between human and artificial attributes.

It starts with having a strategy, the Winning Aspiration of which is attractive to the workers that you need to fulfill the strategy. Like everything in strategy, it is a choice. Your higher-order aspiration won’t be attractive to all potential workers. But it needs to be an environment in which the right workers for your strategy feel they can authentically embrace.

Then, make sure that shareholder value is not the overarching goal but rather simply an output of achieving the aspiration of your strategy, which is the case for many private, family-owned companies. Don’t rely on monetary incentive compensation for motivation. Pay well and make continued upward progress in the organization the biggest reward for performance excellence. And work extra hard to structure fairly the benefits of the joint application of capital and work. That is hard to accomplish consistently but important to create a work environment that features uniform and unfailing humanity.

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Roger Martin

Professor Roger Martin is a writer, strategy advisor and in 2017 was named the #1 management thinker in world. He is also former Dean of the Rotman School.