By Grant H. Brenner and Santor Nishizaki
As the pandemic leaves behind the tenor of crisis, winding down into an endemic phase of vaccine boosters, and attention shifts to new global threats, the workplace—rattled by years of upheaval and economic instability—continues to roil with unpredictability as a young generation of workers seeks out a more comfortable yet elusive reality. Traditional managers, used to expectable norms, are a bit bewildered.
While to an extent it may be old wine in new bottles, updated terminology helps us make sense of changes through a contemporary lens. Each generation seems to need its slang, anyway, in order to stake a claim and feel a sense of ownership. Few people like hearing that we’ve seen this before, and when it comes to the current environment, even if it looks familiar, things are fundamentally different because of rapid cultural changes fueled by social media and the spectre of existential threat omnipresent in the feeds we daily doom scroll. Are we a “nation of wimps” (Marano, 2004), and if so, whose fault is it anyway?
Quiet quitting (disengaged employees) hit this scene with a big splash: “I’ll do my job, but why would I go above and beyond? I have no idea where things will be in five years, and the promise of long-term security has all but gone out the window. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.”
On its heels, quiet firing has been lighting up social media, the war of attrition involving letting employees figure out that it’s time for them to resign, given the mounting disadvantages to firing people outright. We believe that quiet firing is a symptom of “quiet leadership,” also known as “laissez-faire leadership,” when leaders disconnect themselves entirely from their employees and let them do what they want, without any regard for their professional development or career growth.
Quiet leadership may have been acceptable in the past, but as new generations enter the workplace, they require “loud leadership.” What’s that? To engage with their staff frequently, care about their well-being, and develop them for the long term, also known as transformational leadership—leading each person in the way they best want to be led. This alone makes quiet dynamics much more difficult to repeat, though underlying habits make it easy to backslide when we tune out.
Source: Carolina Grabowsky/Pexels
Quiet quitting, quiet firing, and quiet leadership might form a triad, when we lean toward the lens of integration, though the full picture is still to be known. Let’s call these kinds of patterns—where partial awareness leads to covert distortions influencing perception and outcome—“quiet dynamics”. There is more to it than simply how people end relationships with the workplace; it also speaks to how people begin and maintain work, reminding us that there are many influences to be understood here.
When it comes to termination, getting out of a job without annoying intimate conversations resembles skulking away from a relationship that may have started with promise and passion. Ending with brazen and/or guilty passive withdrawal or by precipitating conflict to demonstrate why it can’t work serves the avoidant coping style, as does quiet firing, quiet leadership, and other quiet dynamics. Staying away from the transparent and uncomfortable conversations that often are required to solve problems collaboratively—driven by underlying attachment anxiety, which leads people to both over-worry and withdraw into ghostland—is to be quiet.
Here are contextual factors that inform quiet dynamics:
1. Generational shifts.
While we’re still figuring out what is happening and how to adapt, younger workers want different things from work and value time outside of work more. Identity is up for grabs, the future is uncertain, climate change and global thermonuclear war loom, and world powers vie for dominance—who cares about making sure that I pick up the phone or finish that report on time? Seriously?1
2. Attachment style and relatedness.
Attachment style is a fulcrum for understanding personal relationships, and the workplace is no exception. Though we say it’s “professional”—and no doubt behavioral norms are different in the office—professional settings are deeply personal, intimate in important ways. Researchers have studied workplace attachment as well. They found, as with personal relationship attachment, the workplace variety also comes in secure and insecure flavors—generally, secure leaders and followers are a recipe for success. Avoidant attachment is a driver of negative outcomes, and while preoccupied or anxious attachment can be problematic, there is an upside to a healthy level of stress and concern with what others want and what they think about us, which motivates people to do their best.
3. Human resources/people.
The role of human resources during the pandemic has been seen as the Chief Medical Officer, Chief Therapist, and many others, but giving HR a seat at the table and the resources needed actually to be a “resource for humans” will be incredibly helpful for organizations and their bottom lines. Also, culture and people play an enormous role in the performance of teams.
“Human Resources” itself conjures complex reactions, from support to mistrust, depending on how the people department interfaces with staff, management, and leadership, and what the perceived and actual role played in any given organization is. HR alone does not, however, resolve quiet dynamics, as dealing with it has to be done on virtually every layer of an organization.
4. From paper to pixels.
Early exposure of younger generations to information technology rendering information with stunning visual and auditory dynamics changes how information is processed and what is expected from the environment. Attention is more challenging, boredom a constant threat, and communications must be simple, short, and clear. By comparison, workplace comms may seem clunky and confusing, as easy to misunderstand and generate conflict as emojiless texts. Working from home (WFH) during the pandemic has worsened the problem exponentially, due to the lack of preparation or acceptance of the new world of work.
5. From management to mentoring.
Jumping to the conclusion that workers today have a bad work ethic is unfair, not always accurate, and typically leads to misunderstanding. Like parents and teens who can’t see eye to eye, who devolve to simplistic and often passive-aggressive labeling, there’s no chance that the conflict can be navigated to resolution under such circumstances–adopting a growth mindset with a shared problem-solving orientation is easier said than done.
What GenZers say they want is more mentoring, higher touch with more autonomy at the same time, a recipe that may puzzle traditional management. Quiet leadership is no longer tolerated: Millennials and Gen Zers want leaders who care about their well-being and are invested in their long-term growth, even if they’re not at your workplace for the long term.
The workplace needs to provide opportunities for both personal and professional development. Therapy on the side may be useful, but emotional IQ from leaders is just as critical to creating the psychological safety for new workers to thrive in unfamiliar professional environments for which family and school may have ill-prepared them.
6. Mental health cultural (r)evolution.
We live in a time of heightened insecurity and unsafety. Witness markedly increase rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide in younger demographics. Rates of developmental trauma, complex PTSD (cPTSD), and the general lack of proper attention to such issues during childhood and adolescence leaves adults ill-prepared for the world–for the workplace, for relationships, for family dynamics, for friendships–and in one’s relationship with oneself.
People are becoming both more insecure as well as more sure that they are entitled to the same privileges and rewards as everyone else. While disrupted upbringing can leave people narcissistically vulnerable, with social anxiety, depression, and PTSD, social media has made people more aware of what is out there, what life can become, and has widened awareness of the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
Social justice and the cultural mythos tell us we all have a shot at the American Dream—but it doesn’t come easy, and hard work is, well, hard. Putting in the effort, delaying gratification in an Amazon Prime and Uber world is hardly a given, but rather a lesson often learned later in life in a society where you “get a trophy just for showing up”—rather than in the “good old days” when workers were more naively obedient, aka had good work ethics.
We are used to clicking on a screen and getting 1,000 gold pieces, 100 gems, 60 badges, 92 trophies—smartphone games aren’t exactly the same as excelling at a new job! The anointed “imposter syndrome” is expected when doing something new, and it’s up to leaders and mentors to help assure us we’re on the right path and have the support needed to thrive. With insecurity, people can feel like there is something basically wrong with them, once called by psychoanalyst Michael Balint “the basic fault”2.
For these reasons, and more, louder leadership is required.