Michelle Lyng is the CEO of the nationally acclaimed Novitas Communicationspecialized in corporate, issue and crisis communication.
Despite what you read on LinkedIn, most employees want to do a great job and most employers want to motivate, nurture and lead great teams. What may have changed since the pandemic is that we are rusty about creating and nurturing the relationships necessary for a thriving office.
Whether quietly quitting or quietly firing, employees and employers are doing themselves a disservice by not setting boundaries, managing expectations, or having difficult but necessary conversations that lead to rewarding working relationships.
The post-pandemic period exposed the major pandemic-induced disruption to the US labor market. In 2021 more than 47 million workers stop working in search of more flexibility, better compensation or greener pastures. The Great Resignation caused internal chaos in many companies; workers won the upper hand and worker advocates celebrated, calling it long overdue.
Of course, some workers took advantage of the labor shortage, which led to the emergence of quiet quitting. Quitting quietly is mentally disconnecting from work in a way that affects productivity and morale. This was and is not a new concept.
The difference this time was that the tight labor market made it harder to replace workers who clearly didn’t want to be there. Managers necessarily became more tolerant of those who did not contribute to the company’s results and culture. Thus a trend was born. Per Gallup, as much as 50% of the US workforce participated in quiet retirement in mid-2022, with a large percentage under the age of 35.
At that time, the economy was booming and it seemed that nothing would slow it down. Then inflation skyrocketed. To counter historically high inflation, the Federal Reserve raised interest rates six times in the second half of 2022. The rate hikes have made borrowing and investment costs more expensive and slowed growth. The speed with which the economy turned around caused severe whiplash among many employers.
Suddenly, after the aggressive rate hikes, workers who once felt they had the upper hand were faced with layoffs and terminations. And a new expression emerged: silent fire.
Silence is when a manager gradually takes back responsibility once it has been handed over to an employee. They are managers who operationally detach themselves from an employee in ways that affect their ability to perform. Think Milton Waddams from the 1999 classic Office spacewhose workspace transitions until he is banished to an “office” in a basement storage room, but on a psychological level.
Stopping quietly and firing silently are both unproductive behaviors. An employee-employer relationship is just that: a relationship. Relationships require care and nurturing, setting boundaries, and communication about expectations. According to a Harvard study on adult development lasting more than 80 years, the most important factor for long-term health and happiness is positive relationships; the same goes for the office.
I understand. We’re all exhausted from the pandemic — from the disease itself (we’re in round three at my house) to having to work around things like homeschooling our kids — not to mention a societal shift in general. But it’s still important to maintain working relationships.
Quitting quietly has been a media darling for the past year, but quitting quietly is ultimately bad for your career. And it’s even worse when you’re at the beginning of your career. Employees who think their managers don’t notice are only fooling themselves. As a business leader, I can tell you that managers see it and will remember it. Those who are ready to be part of the team are more likely to progress faster and instill trust and goodwill in their bosses and co-workers.
If you are not happy in your role, I recommend that you talk to your supervisor. Ask for more flexibility or ask for a shift in your role, but decide what you need from the relationship and ask for it. Have that difficult conversation.
As a leader in my company, I’d rather have the conversation and try to work with employees to make their lives more fulfilling than losing an employee I like, appreciate and value.
If you’re having a conversation with your leadership and don’t feel like this is a salvageable relationship, just stop. As the head of my organization, I’d rather not bang my head against the wall trying to hire someone who’s permanently checked out but won’t just call. If this isn’t the job for you, own it and find a better fit.
Then on to steady firing. Managers, we can do better. Set clear expectations for your employees. It’s been hard these last 12 months, I understand that. You may have feared that setting higher –– or different –– expectations would cause employees to quit or, worse, cause chaos within your organization. But you cannot align your leadership with the lowest common denominator. The employees worth keeping want you to set expectations because they want to meet or exceed them. If you didn’t raise expectations, do it today.
When employees are not meeting your expectations, it’s a manager’s job to tell them and work with them to improve. Believe it or not, not every employee is self-aware. They may have no idea they’re falling short, even if it’s painfully obvious to everyone else. If possible, give them a path to success. If that’s not possible, help them find a better fit. It’s not nice to keep someone floundering in a role for which they’re ill-prepared or mismatched.
Have that difficult conversation. In many ways, we may have forgotten how to relate to each other during the pandemic, and things may be slow in terms of restoring our previous skills for forming and maintaining relationships.
Ignore the online attempts to pit employees against employers and employers against employees. Start seeing your co-workers as people with whom you should create, nurture and maintain positive relationships. Not only will you find greater happiness in your job, but you may also forge lifelong friends, sponsors, and mentors.
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