Checking out the Quietly Quitting phenomenon in relation to Organizational Culture and the Three Levels of Motivation—a perspective by Dr. Robert A. Cooke
It seems that almost every decade or so, we hear a new expression for occupational stress, work alienation, and the serious loss of interest in one’s job. Some of us remember, a few decades ago, friends and colleagues “checking out”—not from the Hotel California per the Eagles’ hit but rather from their jobs and, in some cases, careers. Since then, the revolving door of terms for the partial or total loss of motivation has progressed from “burning out,” “going through the motions,” and “disengaging” to, now, “quietly quitting.”
The Washington Post notes that “quiet quitters aren’t walking away from their jobs. Instead they’re renouncing hustle culture and rejecting the idea of going above and beyond at work,” as proposed by TikTok user zaidleppelin in a July post that helped popularize the most recent buzzword. The Post article views “untangling employees’ identities from their jobs and leaving them with more time and energy to invest elsewhere” as a reason for this trend. Other articles and posts claim that, as we move on from the pandemic, quite a few people are quitting in this manner and redefining what they’re willing to do on the job.
The stream of interpretations of and opinions about quietly quitting has been endless, with new online articles and blogposts appearing almost every day. Nevertheless, we couldn’t resist adding to this torrent given that it seems that the conversation could benefit from a review of (1) some of the original writings on the multiple levels of motivation and performance and (2) the results of recent analyses on the relationship between those levels and organizational culture.
Quietly Quitting and Models of Motivation and Performance
Chances are your organization’s leadership, human resources, and/or organization development teams are talking about and trying to address this latest challenge. If this is the case, one way for them to really understand and interpret quiet quitting is to consider the foundational research on motivation in the fields of organizational behavior and management. The intellectual roots of much of the current work is this arena—including ours—was provided by Daniel Katz and Robert Kahn (of the University of Michigan) via their classic 1996 book The Social Psychology of Organizations.1 In Chapter 12 of their original book and Chapter 13 of the second edition, they delineated three levels of motivation and performance that continue to drive research and human resource strategies in this area. These levels, along with some contemporary examples of each, are shown in the table below.
Katz and Kahn’s three levels of motivation and performance have influenced several important lines of organizational research and consulting, including that on commitment (including Meyer and Allen’s 1991 work on affective, continuance and normative commitment2), organizational citizenship behavior (initiated in 1983 by Dennis Organ and his colleagues3) and, more recently, the concept and measurement of engagement.4 For example, Aon’s (formerly Hewitt’s) basic level of engagement (stay) corresponds to Level 1 of Katz and Kahn’s framework above (intention to stay). Their higher levels (say and strive) correspond to Katz and Kahn’s Level 3 (e.g., recommending the organization and contributing more than what is required).
Employees who quietly quit basically continue to demonstrate motivation and performance at the lower but not the higher levels. This coping strategy is being written about as a new and important employee-level phenomenon—one driven by individual members’ values and needs, situational factors, and felt stress. It has been attributed mainly to things like feelings that one’s extra efforts are not rewarded, an orientation toward “work to live” rather than “live to work,” and what Katz and Kahn referred to as role stress (e.g., conflict between work and family lives, as recently experienced by many workers). Such factors have been cited, sometimes in new and different words, to explain why people are electing to stay with their employers (Level 1) and at least meet basic expectations of their roles (Level 2) but no longer go beyond those expectations (Level 3).
Organizational Culture and Quiet Quitting
Our data suggest that, yes, quietly quitting is an important (though not entirely new) employee-level phenomenon—one triggered by individual members’ states and traits. Additionally, as some articles and blogposts have suggested, factors at the organizational level also explain the propensity to quit in this manner. This is indicated by data we’ve collected over the past three years via the Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®) and Organizational Effectiveness Inventory® (OEI). Analyses confirm that the cultures and climates of many businesses, government agencies, and not-for-profit organizations inadvertently elevate stress and lead employees to limit their contributions. However, our data also indicate that the cultures and climates of other organizations are more positive and, in contrast, effectively minimize stress and reinforce employees’ motivation to perform at all three levels.
This point is illustrated by the profiles below that show OCI and OEI results for some of the most Constructive and some of the least Constructive organizations recently surveyed. The composite culture profile to the left is for the subset of organizations with the most Constructive cultures. It portrays the strong emphasis these organizations place on Achievement (11), Self-Actualizing (12), Affiliative (2), and (especially) Humanistic and Encouraging (1) norms and behaviors. In contrast, the profile to the right depicts the relatively weak norms and expectations for these styles in the least Constructive organizations. The dominant expectations reported by their members instead are for Passive/Defensive behaviors [Approval (3), Conventional (4), Dependent (5), and Avoidance (6)] and Aggressive/Defensive behaviors [Oppositional (7), Power (8), Competitive (9), and Perfectionistic (10)]. (You can read about Human Synergistics’ Circumplex and the cultural styles here.)
The bar charts below the culture profiles indicate, first and foremost, that most members of these organizations are not quietly quitting. Overall, in organizations with strong Constructive cultures and even in those with weak Constructive cultures, people report a fair amount of Level 3 motivation and citizenship behavior. However, there are significant differences between these two sets of organizations with respect to the average scores for motivation and performance. While we did not directly measure quiet quitting, the surrogate OEI measures we used strongly suggest that it is more pervasive in organizations with weak Constructive and strong Defensive cultures. The data confirm that, in contrast, members of organizations with strong Constructive cultures are highly engaged and more motivated to: go above and beyond basic role requirements in carrying out their jobs; cooperate and coordinate activities with their teams; and help their organizations adapt to new opportunities and challenges.
Various behavioral norms explain the stronger Level 3 motivation in organizations with predominately Constructive cultures. For example, their employees report relatively strong expectations to:
- set goals and plan how to attain them (Achievement norms),
- personally grow and develop while taking on interesting projects (Self-Actualizing norms),
- coach one another and provide feedback on their efforts and performance (Humanistic-Encouraging norms), and
- interact in supportive ways that facilitate teamwork and collaboration (Affiliative norms).
Numerous studies show these norms promote involvement, participation, ownership, and intrinsic motivation which, in turn, precipitate citizenship behaviors and going the extra mile. Thus, organizations with strong Constructive cultures provide people with little reason to quietly quit or curtail their contributions.
In contrast, norms within Defensive organizations simply do not promote these states or behaviors—nor do they lead members to believe that their contributions will make a difference or translate into valued outcomes such as recognition. In fact, the failure of leaders to recognize extra effort and citizenship behavior has been cited by various writers as the main reason for quiet quitting. Per the OCI, the Competitive and Perfectionistic norms associated with Aggressive/Defensive (“hustle”) cultures implicitly require “working long, hard hours,” “outperforming others,” and “viewing work as more important than everything else.” These cultural norms, in turn, are associated with high levels of burnout, psychophysiological and physiological symptoms of strain, and employee turnover (indicative of low Level 1 motivation). While some members of Aggressive/Defensive organizations may go the extra mile, the pressures for doing so are external, potentially exploitive, and ultimately resisted.
“the failure of leaders to recognize extra effort and citizenship behavior has been cited by various writers as the main reason for quiet quitting.”
In organizations with Passive/Defensive cultures, norms such as Conventional and Avoidance lead employees to try to protect their personal security—e.g., “avoid being blamed for problems,” “lay low,” and “not get involved.” They are likely to report low Level 1 motivation (intending to leave rather than stay), minimal Level 2 motivation (trying to merely meet rather than exceed performance standards), and marginal Level 3 motivation (citizenship behaviors). Whether Aggressive or Passive, Defensive cultures provide many reasons for quitting—quietly or otherwise.
Stress, Satisfaction, and Motivation
The bar charts also show that the people working in the organizations with strong Constructive cultures experience lower stress and higher satisfaction than those working in the Defensive organizations. While we’ve seen such results hundreds of times, they are particularly noteworthy in the present context. That is, people who work for organizations with Constructive cultures report these positive outcomes even though they are expending extra time and energy going above and beyond the requirements of their roles (for example, helping the organization to adapt). This seems to contradict the writings on quiet quitting that frame it as a response to stress, strain, and burnout caused by expending extra time and energy on citizenship activities.
Thus, the higher levels of stress reported by people in the Defensive organizations may paradoxically be due to quiet quitting and retreating from citizenship activities. A recent fact checked post on HealthLine by Victoria Stokes notes that quiet quitting may have benefits in terms of setting boundaries between work versus nonwork activities and helping people step away from unrealistically high and toxic productivity. However, it can also:
- interfere with feelings of self-fulfillment, purpose, meaningfulness, and satisfaction,
- lead to feelings of guilt and depression, and
- upset relationships with peers and superiors.
Per Stokes’ article, psychotherapist Tania Taylor advises that these negative outcomes can be averted or reduced by taking a positive approach to dealing with work overload challenges such as communicating effectively with superiors about work schedules and re-crafting one’s job to better fit priorities. Such approaches are far more feasible and productive in the context of a Constructive rather than a Defensive organizational culture.
Tackling the Problem via Culture Change
A recent post on Bloomberg.com, started off with the title “’They’re in a State of Fear’: CEOs are Worried About Quiet Quitting.” About two weeks later, a very different article appeared on Yahoo noting that U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh says quiet quitting is “not a big topic of discussion in his chats with business leaders” and “I haven’t really heard about it from companies.” While it is unclear which headline more properly states the perspective of executives on quiet quitting, recent guidance from Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s office (in a research-based report) emphasizes the need for organizations to focus on workplace conditions and culture in relation to employees’ work-life balance, stress, well-being and, ultimately, productivity. Thus, it seems appropriate to briefly suggest an approach, one with an emphasis on culture, for addressing the current challenges leaders may be facing either with respect to quiet quitting or, more generally, the impact of work environments on employee motivation, health, and performance.
“recent guidance from Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s office emphasizes the need for organizations to focus on workplace conditions and culture in relation to employees’ work-life balance, stress, well-being and, ultimately, productivity.”
Summarizing the discussion above, organizational culture is relevant to such outcomes in two important ways:
- First, the nature of an organization’s culture determines the pervasiveness and severity with which motivational problems such as quietly quitting arise. As illustrated by the recent data from organizations with weak Constructive cultures, quietly quitting (and low Level 3 motivation) tends to be associated with more fundamental problems (low motivation at Levels 1 and 2 as well).
- Second, the organization’s culture also influences the extent to which such problems are effectively dealt with and resolved.
While we can’t disentangle these two forces, the culture profiles and bar charts confirm that, over the past three years, quiet quitting (in terms of members declining to go above and beyond basic role requirements) has been much higher in organizations with Defensive versus Constructive cultures. Furthermore, moving forward, the likely rate of quitting (in the traditional sense) is also likely to be much higher in the Defensive organizations. This is based on the current members’ responses to the “intention to stay” (Level 1) survey items as well as previous research on Constructive versus Defensive cultures and data on employee turnover.
“While we can’t disentangle these two forces, the culture profiles and bar charts confirm that, over the past three years, quiet quitting has been much higher in organizations with Defensive versus Constructive cultures.”
Many of the organizations that successfully initiated culture change programs over the past few years did so with a focus on employee satisfaction, well-being, and retention. They began by using the OEI and OCI to measure the climate of their organizations (including the above and other outcomes), assessing their current cultural norms, and describing their ideal in terms of the behaviors that should be expected to maximize motivation and performance. This enabled leaders, members, and their consultants to compare their current culture to the ideal, identify culture gaps, and select the cultural norms on which to focus their organizational change efforts.
They then used the survey data along with qualitative approaches (e.g., focus groups) to develop practical strategies for strengthening norms and expectations for the desired Constructive styles and reduce those for the Defensive styles. With the collaboration of members at all levels, leaders then implemented changes and improvements in relevant systems and structures such as downward communication, employee involvement, and goal setting. Not coincidently, these initiatives run directly counter to quietly quitting and, in contrast, are designed to enrich jobs and increase their motivational potential.
Finally, change programs typically included coaching and development for leaders and teams to help them practice Constructive styles at the individual and group levels. These various development activities and changes in systems and structures were specifically designed to communicate, model, and reinforce the desired behavioral norms. They were also intended to support and enable members to contribute more effectively while coping with the work and nonwork challenges during and following the pandemic. The organizations that were most successful in changing their cultures were those that emphasized using and practicing Constructive styles when discussing, proposing, and implementing solutions to problems created by the pandemic and its aftermath.
Invitation to a Culture Conversation
If you would like to see how the Organizational Culture Inventory can assist your leadership team in addressing quiet quitting or other not-so-quiet quitting concerns, contact us here to get started.
More about the process used by organizations to change culture and, in the process, minimize and address motivation challenges, can be found here.
Webinars featuring leaders from Delicato Family Wines, ERDMAN, and other organizations effecting culture change during the pandemic can be found here.
1 Katz, Daniel and Kahn, Robert L. (1966). The social psychology of organizations. New York: Wiley.
2 Meyer, John P. and Allen, Natalie J. (1991). A three-component conceptualization of organizational commitment. Human Resource Management Review. Vol. 1. Issue 1, 61-89.
3 Smith C. and Organ, D.W. and Near, J.P. (1983). Organizational citizenship behavior: Its nature and antecedents. Journal of Applied Psychology. Vol 68, No 4, 653-663.
4 Oehler. K. and Adair, C. (2015). Say, Stay, or Strive? Unleash the Engagement Outcome You Need. Lincolnshire IL: Aon Hewitt.