There are issues about running a firm that we, as business leaders, are often unaware of. Just the other day, I pointed out to yet another principal of a professional firm that their firm’s productivity level is at the bottom 10% of the market. That came as a surprise which triggered all sorts of reflections: from denial, to bargaining, to acceptance; I wasn’t privy to principal’s anger or depression — hopefully there wasn’t any.
There are things we just don’t know we should be thinking about, and quiet quitting, although not unheard of, is one of those issues that can sneak up and wham us on the head at the most unsuitable moment.
One of the reasons of me sharing these thoughts is to help you, folks, with thinking about issues that you might’ve missed or forgotten about, or want a different perspective on. The following story is relatable to every professional service firm (PSF).
This job sucks. Officially.
I used to own and operate several stores in shopping malls and had to manage sales reps. Our stores’ concept was to attract prospects through active selling instead of just waiting for a prospect to approach us. This meant a certain personality type for sales reps — not everyone was naturally good at this.
Sales reps at a retail store, just like professionals at a PSF, are the ones who make money for the firm. Therefore, my ability to hire, manage and retain the right people was a huge part of the financial performance of the business.
Turnover was high by design, but occasionally, when I hit a talent pipeline issue, I had to hire whoever was available on the market, even if that meant hiring someone who wasn’t a great fit for the role. I had never expected much of such a sales rep but couldn’t let the person go either — the store had to remain open daily.
We had a one-page print out of rules plastered on the back side of the cabinet door. Every sales rep knew about it, read it, checked with it daily when necessary and referred new employees to this memo. Once, when we were disassembling the furniture, I removed the memo from the panel of that cabinet and unintentionally flipped it.
If you’re reading this — get out — this job sucks.
There was a hand writing on the back side of the memo which wasn’t supposed to be there. It made me curios, and I read it: “If you are reading this,” the message said, “Get out of this job. This job sucks.” The complaint was dated and signed, too. It was official.
Consequences of quiet quitting
Obviously, I knew exactly who wrote it. I also knew that neither the work nor myself as a manager weren’t awful. I had several employees, of their own volition, telling me I was “the best boss” they’ve ever worked with. The issue was with the work being a bad fit for that sales rep.
If we put ourselves in that person’s shoes, we might imagine what quiet quitting feels like. We must go to work we hate and we feel powerless when we cannot afford to quit it. We might be resentful about this whole situation, too. So what do we do? Do we force ourselves to become enthusiastic and excited about the work? Of course not. Will we trick ourselves into being disciplined and determined to succeed? Pfft, are you insane!?
How many of this sales rep’s colleagues got the TJS (this-job-sucks) virus?Quiet quitting is a disastrous phenomena. Because of it, everyone loses: the firm, the person suffering away, as well as colleagues forced to endure this killjoy. Who knows how many of this sales rep’s colleagues got the TJS (this-job-sucks) virus while working side by side?
At a PSF, professionals rarely work in solitude. It’s only a matter of time before this person’s negative attitude spreads and contaminates the spirit of the firm. And we’d better remember that low morale among professionals has a negative impact on financial performance of the firm.
How to prevent quiet quitting and ameliorate its effects
The very fact that this particular sales rep expressed frustration on a particular piece of paper — intentionally on the back side of the rules that are the guiding principles for everyone working together — tells us about the magnitude of the problem. You don’t do this sort of thing after your first frustration. This dissatisfaction must've been brooding for a while.
The only solution I know works best is to talk things through before they spiral into a bottomless pit of resentment, out of control. As a leader, you have your own problems to contend with, thus you might forget to pay attention to this issue. To keep this under control, you want to create a culture where every single employee can, want and is encouraged to express their concerns voluntarily, candidly and on a regular basis.
Here are some general rules to avoid the quiet quitting problem and its consequences at your firm:
- have regular conversations with employees. A manager overseeing 5-10 subordinates should be able to have bi-weekly conversations on the subject of: “How’s work; what’s on your mind; what’s troubling you lately, etc.”;
- some people (for various reasons) won’t tell you what’s troubling them — introduce an anonymous red flag mechanism;
- always follow-up on concerns making sure the concerned party knows they were heard and actions were taken to help them out; otherwise people will get cynical about this endeavor;
- hire people who are a good fit for the role; not everyone is;
- actively help with outplacement; those who will decide to quit are more likely to avoid quiet quitting knowing you will be helping them find a good job;
- those newly hired (excluding psychopaths) desperately want to blend in with the culture — help them;
- new employees will also appreciate (and value) you helping them figure out the bigger picture of how their role at the firm fits their personal professional ambitions — something a rare firm assists with;
- if your managers aren’t telling you the latest concerns, either your managers are reluctant to let you know or their subordinates are reluctant to tell them — fix this ASAP;
- forget about behavior-changing carrots and sticks — they won’t help;
- you can monitor different KPIs that reflect performance and could hint at an underlying problem, but a regular conversation with an empathetic manager who is on the subordinate’s side beats any KPI;
- start building a culture where this toxic behavior is voluntarily and vehemently rejected at all levels, particularly among peers;
- be prompt with taking action; don’t wait for an annual performance review;
- where possible, attempt to find a better-fit role for the person; it might be the role that’s at the root of the problem;
- exit interviews can be helpful to figure out what’s wrong, too; the quality of the data really depends on the level of frustration and any resentment a person might have towards you or colleagues.
In the realm of professional service firms, the menace of "quiet quitting" lurks, akin to hidden mold behind the drywall, imperceptible yet permeating. This silent erosion of employee commitment and engagement can prove more pernicious than overt departures, spreading toxicity unnoticed.
Indeed, quiet quitting, with its veiled dissent and unresolved grievances, poses a grave threat to organizational vitality. To counter this insidious phenomenon, leaders must foster a culture of openness and trust, where employees feel empowered to voice concerns without fear of repercussion.
Regular dialogues, anonymous feedback mechanisms, and proactive management practices are indispensable tools in safeguarding against quiet quitting, ensuring the longevity and resilience of professional service firms.