Gilles de Muynck
Quiet Quitting: An Enduring fad waiting for a solution
Quiet Quitting can be contagious so how can teams restore commitment and unlock creativity, asks the head of behavioural research and insight at Total Media's Behave
05 October 2022
Despite the move to flexible working, the workplace continues to be a microcosm for lexical innovation. So it’s ironic that the latest lexical innovation to emerge is the phenomenon of Quiet Quitting. It’s the new Great Resignation, though it’s a little more insidious. Quiet Quitting is a loss of affective commitment – a loss of employees’ positive emotional attachment and identification with their workplace. And it manifests itself in employees fulfilling their primary responsibilities but opting out of tasks beyond these. So employees who are Quietly Quitting no longer show up early, stay late, attend non-compulsory meetings, or voice their ideas and concerns. And if you think this is just another made-up fad, think again: a global study conducted by Gallup estimated the scale of quiet quitting, concluding that 17.5% of employees are actively disengaged and only 15% are engaged (Gallup, 2022).
Quiet Quitting is not a new phenomenon. But casting it as an enduring fad risks seeing companies continue to accept its increasing cost on the bottom line. More importantly, casting it as an enduring fad risks seeing companies become less able to respond to the complex economic, environmental, and societal problems they face. To understand why that is and how to respond to it, the emotional angle of Quiet Quitting must be considered.
The emotional angle involves three steps. First, non-quiet quitters’ affective commitment is at risk of declining, as Quiet Quitting can be emotionally contagious. Second, creativity is at risk of declining, as affective commitment is closely linked to creativity – and creativity, characterised by the generation of new ideas or solutions, is critical for solving complex problems. Third, responding to Quiet Quitting implies restoring affective commitment and unlocking creativity.
Understanding why that is – Declining affective commitment
Over time, due to emotional contagion – a phenomenon through which an individual’s emotions and behaviour are reflexively reproduced by another individual within a group – it is likely that Quiet Quitting will dent non-Quiet Quitters’ affective commitment. Emotional contagion can be triggered by observing other individuals' behaviour in direct and indirect interactions.
Applied to Quiet Quitting, it means that the emotions and behaviour of a Quiet Quitter can lead to similar emotions and behaviours in non-Quiet Quitters. This emotional contagion is all the more likely to occur as non-Quiet Quitters’ affective commitment becomes eroded due to the negative emotions generated by being obliged to take on the additional workload generated by Quiet Quitters.
Understanding why that is – Declining creativity
Once non-quitters’ affective commitment is dented, their ability to be creative is restrained. Several empirical studies and meta-analyses, carried out in a variety of corporate settings, have identified a strong link between affective commitment and creativity (see Organ and Ryan, 1995; Semedo et al., 2016; Binnewies et al., 2008).
If employees experience positive emotions in the workplace, they develop affective commitment to their workplace and, in turn, they become more creative (see Isen et al., 1987). That is because positive emotions broaden the scope of employees’ attention and cognition, enabling creative thinking.
Understanding how to respond to it – Restoring affective commitment and unlocking creativity
Enter psychological safety! A concept first formulated by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, it is characterised by “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up. This confidence stems from mutual respect and trust among team members” (Edmondson, 1999). That is, psychological safety enables the workplace to be an environment where employees have interpersonal trust and mutual respect.
Psychological safety can restore employees’ affective commitment as they are encouraged to speak up (not least because they have the reassurance that they will be listened to). And psychological safety can unlock employees’ creativity. Creativity implies a high level of challenges, uncertainties, and risks, because new ideas or solutions are not guaranteed to deliver the desired outcome. Psychological safety, by making it safe for employees to take risks and express new ideas, encourages employees to overcome their anxiety and fear of failure.
The link between psychological safety and affective commitment and creativity is complex, as there are other factors that enable or hinder the positive influence of psychological safety on these. But it needs to start with leadership modelling and rewarding behaviour that helps foster psychological safety.
• Binnewies C., Ohly, S., Niessen, C. (2008). Age and creativity at work: The interplay between job resources, age and idea creativity. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 23.
• Isen M., Daubman A., Nowicki P. (1987). Positive affect facilitates creative problem solving. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52.
• Gallup (2022). State of the Global Workplace: 2022 Report.
• Organ D. W. and Ryan, K. (1995). A meta-analytic review of attitudinal and dispositional predictors of organizational citizenship behavior. Personnel Psychology, 48.
• Semedo A. S., Coelho A., Ribeiro N. (2016). Effects of authentic leadership, affective commitment and job resourcefulness on employees’ creativity and individual performance. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 37.
Dr Alexandra Dobra-Kiel is Head of Behavioural Research and Insight at Total Media's Behave division