The Take: The Psychology of Quiet Quitting Can Help Create a Better Employee Experience


What’s News

Employers are trying to make sense of “quiet quitting,” the latest flashpoint to shake up the workplace. Employees who adopt quiet quitting say they are forsaking the “hustle culture” mentality to redefine their commitment to paid work so that it aligns to their work-life balance and sense of fulfillment.

SAP’s Take

The fevered pace with which “quiet quitting” ignited a global conversation about employee withdrawal from the workplace may raise alarms for human resource (HR) leaders who already are facing pressures from the “great resignation,” hybrid workplace demands and the skills-gap crisis.

The term gained attention after it recently appeared in a post by TikTok user Zaiad Khan, who explained that quiet quitting means not outright quitting a job but quitting the idea of going above and beyond at work.

Setting Boundaries on Discretionary Effort

Dr. Caitlynn Sendra, an experience product scientist at SAP SuccessFactors, wants to dispel the myths around quiet quitting so that employers have a better understanding of their workforce. In her opinion, the term needs to be reframed. Many behaviors attributed to quiet quitting, like turning off a laptop at five o’clock sharp or not answering emails on the weekend, can resemble healthy boundary setting.

“Quiet quitting is nothing new,” Sendra says. “People are not quitting their jobs. They’re still doing what is written in their job description. They’re just not willing to sacrifice their own well-being to go above and beyond.”

Long enshrined in the unspoken codes of the workplace, “going above and beyond” is part of a set of behaviors psychologists call organizational citizenship behaviors (OCBs). These acts of discretionary effort are positive behaviors that an employee does voluntarily to support the organization. People who are highly engaged at work are more likely to put in discretionary effort. OCBs are considered good indicators of overall organizational effectiveness.

“Obviously, we love it when people choose to engage in OCBs,” Sendra said, noting that it is possible to be highly engaged at work and still maintain firm boundaries. “However, they should not come at the cost of work-life balance. People are saying, ‘My life is just as valuable as my work, and so I’m not going to stay until 8:00 p.m. every night.’ That’s setting healthy boundaries.”

Realigning Effort to Output for Post-Pandemic Reality

Why are people talking about quiet quitting now? Post-pandemic realities are causing people to reevaluate how they allocate their time and energy, Sendra said. One way to understand this is through equity theory, the highly personal calculation that each person applies, whether consciously or subconsciously, in deciding what they will or will not expend effort on based on what they expect to get in return.

“What is probably happening is the input/output ratio that people are perceiving is leading them to say, ‘I’m not really getting the output that I want for that extra effort, so I’m going to pull back my effort to where my ratio is more aligned. I’m putting in less effort to match the output that I get,’” she said. “That can be for a number of reasons, not all of which are in the employer’s control.”

Possible reasons include post-pandemic stress, inflation and the increasing cost of living, economic uncertainty of recession, high educational tuition costs not reflected in starting salaries and the declining ability to buy a home or build a family.

Creating a Better Employee Experience

Employers who want to build a sustainable, healthy and engaged workforce can take action by creating a better employee experience that is based on transparency. Recognition and rewards tied to an employee’s performance will send the message that their extra effort does not go unnoticed.

Intrinsic factors also contribute to an employee’s experience.

“People are a lot more intrinsically motivated to do work they find personally fulfilling,” Sendra said. “If we can match people to the work that they find personally fulfilling, then there’s going to be a lot more incentive to put in discretionary effort because people will care about the work they’re doing.”

Ilaina Jonas, Senior Director of Global Public Relations, SAP
+1 (646) 923-2834, ilaina.jonas@sap.com