4 strategies to transform quiet quitters into passionate performers

Trust, hope, sense of worth and competence are the fundamentals to engage and retain top talent.

Inspired by a Tik-Tok post that went viral in April 2021, the concept of “quiet quitting” has become commonplace in the corporate world. You’re probably familiar with this phrase that refers to people discreetly scaling back their efforts at work to simply meet expectations. They don’t do less than required, nor do they go above and beyond. They clock in, do their work, and clock out. Any discretionary energy is reserved for life outside of work.

The COVID-19 pandemic provided a fertile breeding ground for people to reevaluate their relationship with work. Many people weren’t satisfied with just quietly quitting, so they decided the time was right to ditch their jobs for new opportunities, hence “The Great Resignation” has captured its share of the limelight the last couple of years. Between these two phenomena, employers have been behind the 8-ball in their efforts to recruit, develop and retain top talent.

Despite all the press it has been getting lately, quiet quitting is not a new problem. It’s just a new name for an old problem: disengagement.

Gallup, one of the leading organizations in the field of engagement, describes engaged employees as being involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace. Conversely, they describe actively disengaged employees as being disgruntled and disloyal, a result of not having their workplace needs met. Their data shows that employee engagement dropped to 32 percent in 2022, just two years after reaching a 20-year high of 36 percent in 2020 (not coincidentally, when many people shifted to remote work at the height of the pandemic). The percentage of actively disengaged employees rose to 18, up four points from 2020.

In response to this troubling trend, I’m reminded of a phrase from the well-known movie, Apollo 13: “Houston, we have a problem.”

People are quietly quitting because they perceive the ROI of work isn’t worth it. People are more than willing to give their full effort at work if they perceive they are getting value in return. And that value is not just related to money. Surveys consistently show that people rank things such as career growth, autonomy, appreciation and recognition higher than compensation in what they value most about work.

Analysis of exit interviews of employees who voluntarily left their jobs has revealed trends in the needs that weren’t being met that started people on the path to disengagement and ultimately quitting a job. Implementing strategies to meet those needs is where leaders need to start if they want to transform quiet quitters into passionate performers.

Build trust — The No. 1 priority for any leader is to build trust with his/her team members. Trust is the foundation of any successful relationship. Employees won’t give you their best if they don’t believe you have their best interests in mind, and they will shy away from taking risks or make themselves vulnerable if they don’t feel safe and trusted. They expect company leadership to deliver on their promises, to be honest and open in communication, to invest in them and to treat them fairly.

Our research show a direct correlation between high levels of employee trust in their leaders and those employees having positive intentions to be highly engaged at work. Our study showed that leader trustworthiness is highly correlated to the five key intentions that drive employee work passion: discretionary effort, intent to perform, intent to endorse, intent to remain and organizational citizenship.

Inspire hope — I’ve had the privilege of meeting football legend Rosey Grier, a member of the “Fearsome Foursome” when he played with the Los Angeles Rams, and now a Christian minister and inspirational speaker. He said something I’ve never forgotten. When speaking about his work with inner city youth in Los Angeles, Rosey said “Leaders aren’t dealers of dope, they are dealers of hope!”

Many people have lost hope that they can grow, develop and get new opportunities at work. This unmet need is one of the key drivers of quiet quitting. Addressing this challenge with team members in an open, honest and caring fashion is a primary way to inspire hope. Career growth is no longer about gaining the next title or promotion, and in fact, many Millennials and Gen Z workers are looking for skill and experience development instead. This career discovery process starts with conversations between you and your people. I’ve found most team members know you can’t magically give out promotions or new positions, but they are willing to be patient if you are committed to partnering with them in their self-development.

Instill worth — “People who produce good results feel good about themselves.” That’s simple truth #24 from my recent book with Ken Blanchard, Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust. A fundamental part of our nature as human beings is that we are creators and we derive a tremendous amount of satisfaction and self-worth from our contributions to the world. In the workplace, leaders can instill self-worth in others by recognizing and rewarding their team members for the good work they accomplish.

I will often make this request when speaking to groups: “Raise your hand if you’re sick and tired of all the praise you receive at work.” No one ever raises their hand. The reality is that most people are starving for a little bit of recognition for their contributions. Praise and recognition is fuel for the soul, and it’s preventative medicine to ward away the quiet quitting blues.

Develop competence — The science behind human motivation has shown that competence is one of our core psychological needs. We have an innate need for developing and demonstrating our skills and the sense of growth and flourishing it provides.

Employees need to be matched in jobs where their talents align with the challenges of the work. If the work is too simple, then it’s easy for people to lose interest and become disengaged. If the employee is in over their head and the work is too challenging, it can lead to discouragement and frustration. Leaders need to partner with their team members to regularly evaluate and help them grow their competence and commitment on their goals and tasks.

These four needs — trust, hope, sense of worth and competence — are fundamental for turning quiet quitters into passionate performers. Unfortunately, too many people show up to work each day and check their expectation for these needs at the door. Sadly, they don’t think of work as a place where they should experience fulfillment. If there is one good thing to come out of this global pandemic, I hope it’s the renewed focus that leaders have on the value of their people. Most business leaders spout the cliche that “people are our most valuable asset.” Well, now is the time to pony up and make that a reality.