“Quiet Quitting”​ is a Leadership Problem

“Employees join companies but leave managers.” – Brigette Hyacinth

Although I don’t spend much time on TikTok, Instagram, or Twitter, it’s been impossible to avoid one of social media’s more recent trends: “quiet quitting.”

Employees who “quiet quit,” frustrated with a growing plate of responsibilities and demands, perform the bare minimum in their jobs. The concept was popularized by a 24-year-old engineer from New York City named Zaid Khan, who explained in a short video that subscribing to the “hustle-culture mentality” isn’t worth the payoff. His video has netted more than 490,000 likes.

But as the LA Times recently pointed out, social and popular media trends like “quiet quitting” can be dangerous because they imply a situation is more novel or widespread than it really is. This was exactly the case last year, for example, when “the great resignation” swept the globe. Yes, it’s true that quit rates hit an all-time high in 2021, but they’ve come down significantly since then. Experts say this type of volatility is to be expected after ANY major event—like a pandemic. “Historical data on the quits rate [demonstrates] this is not an anomaly, but instead fits the pattern of many past rapid recoveries,” writes economist Bart Hobijn.

Social media, pop culture, and macro-trends aside, there’s absolutely nothing new here.

“Quiet quitting” is caused by the same disengaging factors that induce people to call out of work when they’re not really sick, which has probably been occurring since the beginning of employment as we know it.  Further,  as Gallup studies have reported for years, only around 35 percent of US managers are engaged in theirjobs.

What’s most disturbing about this for me is that trendy labels like “quiet quitting” and “the great resignation” give leaders license to blame external factors while ignoring the real, underlying problem: their own leadership.

Here’s reality: people don’t quit their companies or their jobs. Aside from pure, no-brainer financial plays, people quit their bosses, people quit unhealthy cultures their bosses create and tolerate, and people quit being overworked and underappreciated. 

Let’s get to the root of the problem, review the three research-based keys to improving employee engagement (all of which leaders can control), and then reinforce why it’s critical to lead by example.

Denial and Blind Spots

I have a client in a very competitive industry in a very competitive geography whose staff turnover numbers are spectacular (i.e. very low). They’ve had no problems with either “quiet quitting” or “the great resignation” over the past year.

With all the buzz around these “trends,” how do you explain that?

People want to work at this particular firm because the leaders have created an environment where people feel valued and appreciated. Meanwhile, I see leaders in other firms hemorrhaging employees, shrugging their shoulders in denial, saying “It’s the environment. There’s nothing we can do.”

We use logic to justify our decisions, but our logic is often flawed—and it betrays us. One tendency all humans exhibit is confirmation bias: the unconscious inclination to seek, interpret, and remember information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs. Confirmation bias influences the way you interpret the world around you. If you see a LinkedIn post about “quiet quitting,” for example, it helps you justify why your employees are leaving and, at the same time, let yourself off the hook as a leader. 

You seek confirming evidence both consciously and unconsciously because it’s psychologically difficult for us to admit we’re wrong. Further, we tend to selectively pay attention to information that confirms what we already believe. “Most of what happens in the brain is not evident to the brain itself, and thus people are better at playing these sorts of tricks on themselves than at catching themselves in the act,” writes Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert in The New York Times. Confirmation bias is a massive blind spot.

If you see a LinkedIn post about “quiet quitting,” for example, it helps you justify why your employees are leaving and, at the same time, let yourself off the hook as a leader.

This explains how trending social media topics become mainstream beliefs, without regard to the reality or veracity of the claim.

How do you overcome confirmation bias? Start by acknowledging you are flawed and strive to approach situations with a conscious and deliberate openness to explore possibilities. It pays to lean into challenges like this: A study by Carol Dweck found a group of students who actively sought difficult problems as learning opportunities, despite making more errors due to the challenge, consistently outperformed other students who avoided difficult problems.

In addition, here are a few questions to ask yourself to keep your confirmation bias in check:

  • What are the facts here?
  • What are my assumptions about this?
  • If I hired an unbiased consultant to make this decision for me, how would they be looking at the problem?

For even more rigor as you strive to keep your biases in check, use a trusted colleague, mentor, or coach to give you honest feedback about your leadership. Author, social scientist, and self-awareness expert Tasha Eurich aptly calls these people “loving critics;” they care about you deeply but are able to tell you the brutal truths you need to hear. External perspectives like these are invaluable to help you become more self-aware, to identify things you’d never otherwise realize about yourself, and to make better choices as a leader.

Building Engagement

Once you’ve taken a hard look in the mirror and made adjustments to your mindset and biases, it’s time to employ proven tactics that will engage (and therefore retain) your team.

Decades of research have consistently identified three factors that correlate to employee engagement. They are:

  • Autonomy: Self-directedness and latitude regarding how to get work done.
  • Mastery: Ability to learn and gain expertise.
  • Purpose: Feeling a part of something larger than oneself.

Think about each element and how you can improve it within your team, group, division, or firm. For example, I’ve found the simple act of asking someone for their recommendation before telling them what to do drives both autonomy and purpose!

The technique of coaching for growth improves feelings of both autonomy and mastery. But most leaders coach for results instead and, with good intentions, they give employees answers about how to overcome the problems they face. A classic example is the sales manager telling a salesperson, step by step, how to close the deal they’re working. Leaders typically feel great about coaching for results because it generally works! When someone does what you suggest and it works, it reinforces telling them what to do. Plus, coaching for results is easy and comfortable for leaders, as they generally know what to do and there’s nothing particularly challenging about giving someone instructions.

Here’s the huge problem with coaching for results: it builds each employee’s dependence on YOU to think for them and solve their problems. While this might be acceptable or even a plus in the mind of your more marginal performers, top performers see this as highly disengaging.  Further, you’re not growing your team’s capacity to be more independent and accomplish things on their own. Coaching for results is neither scalable nor engaging and actually diminishes both autonomy and mastery.

Coaching for growth, on the other hand, shifts the focus to behavioral patterns that stand in the way of each employee’s growth and development. For example, here are several patterns I’ve observed to be common in the workplace: consistently disorganized, unreliable, late to meetings, prone to argue non-essential points, slow to ask for help, too soft in negotiations, and being more problem than solution focused.

Instead of telling your employee what to do, question a pattern you’ve observed in their behavior that’s preventing them from being more effective in their role. Give them specific examples of the behavior(s) that establish the pattern and why it’s in their interest to change them. It may feel uncomfortable to speak so candidly to your staff at first, but it will result in growth, independence, and more engagement over time.

As an added bonus, A-players LOVE being coached for growth, B-players tolerate it, and C-players HATE it!

At first, it will take more time and energy to empower your employees than it does to tell them what to do. Resist the urge to give instructions. Your investments now will be repaid handsomely over time because you’ve built a more capable, engaged, and scalable team.

Walk Your Own Talk

If you’ve ever worked for a leader who embodied the phrase “do as I say, not as I do,” you are painfully aware of how disengaging it is for staff. This is why it’s critical for you to lead by example with your own behavior: you must walk your own talk.

Your entire team constantly looks to you for cues about how to behave—what you do, say, and tolerate, as well as how you make decisions and what you prioritize. Everyone watches everything you say and do!

But before you check off the “walk my own talk box,” consider that this is often quite challenging in practice. For example, if you insist that meetings start on time but occasionally show up 3-5 minutes late, regardless of the reason, your team is likely to discount what you say and emulate what you do.

Consider for a moment how effectively you’re walking your own talk. Are you:

  • Living your own values?
  • Honoring your own priorities?
  • Accountable for your own decisions and outcomes?
  • Holding yourself to the same standards and expectations you hold for others?

Before answering these, I challenge you to solicit outside opinions from the “loving critics” we identified earlier. Ask them for their honest feedback, some of which might surprise you. Listen, learn, and improve.


“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader” 

– John Quincy Adams

Whether it’s about “quiet quitting” or “the great resignation” or some other popular media buzz-phrase du jour, there will always be some external force to blame for the difficulties you face as a leader. This is made even more challenging by your unconscious cognitive biases, particularly your confirmation bias. But if you choose to focus on what you can control, including the three levers of engagement–autonomy, mastery, and purpose–you have the opportunity to create the right standards and culture to attract, engage, grow, and retain high-performers.

Acknowledge your blind spots. Reflect on your own performance, engage a handful of “loving critics,” learn how to coach for growth, and lead by example. All of those elements begin with you.

Never forget: people don’t quit companies or jobs. They quit the unhealthy cultures their bosses create and tolerate, they quit being overworked, and they quit being underappreciated (which includes a lack of opportunity to learn and grow). 

The success of every team, group, division, or company starts at the top. When you circumvent your insecurities and biases and focus on the fundamentals of engagement, you’ll build an organization that will withstand far more than next quarter’s social media trend.


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