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The disengagement crisis: Is it quiet quitting or tacit termination?

December 23, 2022, 12:24 PM UTC
Several indicators point to a disengagement crisis in the U.S. workforce.
David Paul Morris—Bloomberg/Getty Images

First, everyone was resigning greatly, and now the ones left are quitting quietly. This trend, in which employees do the minimum and refuse to go above and beyond for their jobs, probably describes over half of the U.S. workforce, according to research from Gallup.

The decline in engagement is related to a marked decline in several areas: clarity of expectations, opportunities to learn, feeling cared about, and having a connection to the organization’s purpose. Gallup has also found that disengagement is especially significant among younger workers and managers. 

It is easy to see quiet quitting as another manifestation of worker discontent in the wake of the pandemic, employment market chaos, and the trend toward remote work and virtualization.

However, framing it this way places responsibility on individual employees rather than the organization. Casting blame on individuals or bemoaning a perceived lack of work ethic in a younger generation does not solve the problem.

Fixing it requires taking a hard look at what organizations are offering their workers and considering whether it is sufficient. In many cases, it is not.

A better way to think about the trend towards disengagement is not that employees have quietly quit, but that they have been “tacitly terminated” by employers who resist change.

The psychological needs of employees are well documented. One of the most prominent theories of workplace motivation holds that competency, autonomy, and relatedness are the main psychological drivers of positive work outcomes. Organizations that satisfy these needs perform better.

Similarly, a recent report from McKinsey described how the most important drivers of job satisfaction are interpersonal relationships and being interested in the job. These factors accounted for around 20% of the variation in job satisfaction, while pay level accounted for only four percent.

Economic chaos has led many companies to lay off workers. At the same time, pandemics often lead to a reassessment of life’s priorities. In the words of historian Frank Snowden (written before the COVID-19 pandemic): “Epidemic diseases reach into the deepest levels of the human psyche. They pose the ultimate questions about death, about mortality: What is life for?”

It is little wonder that so many employees have become disengaged and are seeking alternative ways to provide for their families. Ambitious organizations must seek to recapture the energy and passion of their workforces.

Over one hundred years ago, Henry Ford recognized the importance of these ideas when he communicated his vision of making the world a better place by manufacturing cars anyone could own. His workforce rewarded his vision by innovating the assembly line and earning shorter work weeks and more pay.

The prevailing managerial ethos in organizations often reduces employees to bit players and gig workers without broad involvement in their mission. To get the most out of our human capital, this must change.

We have proof that organizations with a purposeful mission have lower turnover. Providing your human workers with a sense of mission, recognition, solid interpersonal relationships, and support for their well-being can go a very long way toward remedying the quiet quitting crisis.  

Of course, there is also an economic component at play. A recent survey found that over half of employees have not received a raise this year despite record inflation. And almost half say they are burned out and afraid to (loudly) quit their job for fear of not being able to find a new one.  

Instead of tacitly terminating your workforce, actively engage them and reap the benefits. Capture their attention with new incentives, responsibilities, and recognition. Treat them with the importance and respect they deserve, as the most important asset of your business. It is time we flipped the script and recognized that workers as a class are not to blame for the disengagement trend.

Eric Sydell is the EVP of innovation at Modern Hire.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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