One Way to Quell the Quitters

Despite the slowing economy, people are voluntarily leaving their jobs at a near-record pace. Best-selling author Daniel Goleman highlights what leaders can do about it.  

Daniel Goleman is a senior consultant at Goleman Consulting Group, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and host of the podcast First Person Plural: Emotional Intelligence and Beyond. He is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. 

Quiet quitting: This workplace trend has gotten a lot of press over the past couple of months.

But is quiet quitting really new? Or is it just a new name – a rebrand if you will – for employee disengagement?

A new study finds that half of US workers may have been "quiet quitting" for most of the 21st century. Since 2002 at least 50% of the US workforce has been disengaged. During the pandemic, things got worse of course– employee engagement dropped steeply in the second half of 2021 and then again in the second quarter of 2022, prompting millions to leave their jobs as part of the Great Resignation.

While disengagement isn't new, the situation is more dire. The ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees is the lowest it’s been in almost a decade – a data point that’s prompting many organizations to take a more serious look at what is demotivating the workforce.

According to research, “quiet quitting” is largely the result of “poor management” – an insight that is actually fairly old. Since the early 2000s, being unhappy with your manager is the number one reason people leave their jobs, inviting the question: What’s a bad boss anyways?

In practice, “poor management” can cover a wide range of behaviors. On one end of the spectrum is the toxic boss: the abusive and unethical leader whose vision is only realized at the emotional and psychological cost of the team. On the other end is the well-intended leader who lacks direction, clear communication, and decision-making skills– who treats people well but can’t seem to follow through.

Because there is no one definition of “poor management,” it may be more helpful for organizations experiencing quiet quitting to look at how employee engagement is measured in the first place. Engagement is commonly assessed by asking random pools of employees about the workplace elements that contribute to organizational outcomes such as profitability, productivity, customer service, retention, safety and overall well-being. These include things like clear expectations; access to resources; opportunities to develop and excel; recognition; caring relationships with leaders; solicitation of input and opinions; committed team members; camaraderie; and a connection to purpose and meaning.

According to Gallup, workers 35 and younger are currently the most susceptible to disengagement. Since the pandemic began, these younger workers have reported a significant decline in areas such as “feeling cared for” and “being given opportunities to develop.”

To contend with quiet quitting– particularly among the younger generation– leaders will need to be able to have the meaningful conversations their employees are craving. They will need to set aside the time to zero in on what matters to each team member, inquiring about their life, their strengths, their goals, and how they see their work as contributing to the vision and mission of the company.

While quiet quitting might be a relatively new term, when it comes to what employees want, not a ton has necessarily changed. LinkedIn found that 94% of employees say they’d stay at a job longer if given more opportunities to learn. And in a 2019 Korn Ferry survey, nearly two-thirds of respondents said that their personal principal driver at work is the belief that their work has purpose and meaning.

Helping employees realize growth and development– in themselves, their organizations, and in the world around them– remains a hallmark of great leadership. Even before the pandemic, experts like Kevin Cashman, Korn Ferry’s global leader of CEO and enterprise leadership development, warned organizations about what might happen if they didn’t embrace something beyond the day to day work.

“Without embracing the purpose of an organization – the motivating force of why it is so important that we exist – employees will become disenchanted,” Cashman said then.  “Many will leave, or worse yet, stay and not be engaged nor offer discretionary effort for their organization.”

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence.