The Conscientious Quitter

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison explains what the hype over “quiet quitting” really is about. 

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of The Five Graces of Life and Leadership.

During my college years, I worked at a Sears store—from stockroom to cash register, housewares to clothing to appliances.

Wearing my work shirt with Sears embroidered over the pocket, I was glad to have the job. But, in my 20-year-old’s mindset, if I was being honest, it was simply a means to an end—paying my next tuition bill.

So, if I could sneak in some studying on a break, or if maybe I ushered a customer or two to the door at closing time so I could punch out at the stroke of 9 p.m., well then…. The fact was my true purpose and passion—my overarching why at that time—was getting my degree.

Now tell me—is that different from what we’re seeing now as everybody seems to be talking about quiet quitting, as some employees dial back on how much time and energy they devote to work? And, after all, is it really quitting? Perhaps people are just being conscientious about prioritizing and recalibrating their purpose—finally able to pause and take a breath after the tumultuous last three years.

This recalls a parable I heard years ago about a tourist—an investment banker on vacation—who met a fisherman at a pier in a small coastal village. Noticing the large fish in the fisherman’s small boat, the tourist asked how long it took to catch them.

“Just a few hours,” the fisherman said.

“Why don’t you work longer and catch more?”

The fisherman shrugged. “This is enough for my family’s needs.”

“What do you do for the rest of the day?” the tourist asked.

“Spend time with my wife and family, play guitar, watch the sunset. It’s a good life.”

The tourist shook his head. “You should spend more time fishing, then you could buy a bigger boat or even a fleet. Start a processing plant. Move to a big city. Maybe even an IPO.”

“Then what?” the fisherman asked.

“In 15 or 20 years you could retire,” the tourist replied. “Move to a small coastal village, fish a little, spend time with your family, play guitar, watch the sunset—you know, have a good life!”

These days, everyone seems to be asking the deeper questions. So maybe it’s not giving up but rather giving thought.

And it makes total sense. First, we’ve all been through a monumental event. Second, it triggered a huge reset in the office, out of the office. We still don’t know what this will look like or how this will shake out.

Reflecting back to the start of the pandemic, when everyone hoped for a quick end, my gut was telling me it would last at least 18 to 24 months—followed by a few years of transition. And so here we are….

That’s why I reached out to a few leaders of various organizations this week to get a pulse—on quiet quitting, work/life balance, and more. Their array of answers reflect the perfect storm that we’re in:

“Employees quit for a reason—it’s up to leaders to create a sense of purpose.”

 “Performance still matters.”

 “Wait till things change—this is not going to last.”

“Too much has changed—this is here to stay. And we need to embrace it.”

Paradoxical, perhaps. Contradictory, maybe.

Korn Ferry has data from 86 million assessments of professionals, analyzing their experiences, traits, competencies, and drivers. When looking specifically at what motivates people, one small but interesting component is how professionals value work/life balance. Here’s what we know to be true: it hasn’t changed over the past three decades—it didn’t even blip over the last three years. I know—it’s probably not what everyone would expect.

Taking a deeper dive into that same data also reveals a perhaps inconvenient truth: work/life balance has a negative correlation to advancement, especially the higher up you go. So, no surprise that the senior-most executives of organizations are almost always lower on the work/life balance scale because they derive most of their meaning from their work and careers. And this can change over time and interests, from stages of life to phases of our careers.

Perhaps the late Kobe Bryant captured this dichotomy best when he said, “If you really want to be great at something, you have to truly care about it. If you want to be great in a particular area, you have to obsess over it.”

But we also know that great leaders are high in self-awareness, learning, empathy, humility, and openness to differences—knowing that what motivates one doesn’t necessarily speak to another. To find our purpose, we ask ourselves, “How does our what connect with our why?”

Which brings us back to the world we’re in. Purpose precedes the first step of every journey—whether someone is charging ahead or stepping back to reflect.

So, this isn’t about quitting. Rather, it’s all about people conscientiously finding the purpose that defines their lives—in their moment.