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Tools for Louder Leaders to Repair the Quiet Workplace

It is necessary to address the concerns that underlie quiet quitting.

By Grant H. Brenner and Santor Nishizaki

Louder and louder voices are informing us of the importance of paying attention to quiet quitting and quiet firing. From a relationship point of view, silence in the workplace strongly suggests communication isn't taking place, trust is broken, needs are unvoiced and unmet, and the way we think about work-life balance is shifting in ways we did not anticipate. All this has been further fueled by the changes in workplace and meaning of life precipitated by the collective, and often individual, trauma and ongoing grief from the COVID-19 pandemic.

On top of the soul-searching many have been doing, not to mention other stressors from world events and threats from war and climate change, and a competitive job market, we also saw that there were many advantages to working from home. Taken together, employees are more likely to place their own needs first but aren't necessarily prone to bringing it up with managers and leaders unless they are asked. And even when it does come up, the conversation isn't always constructive. We're often left wondering whether people in the workplace are engaged to begin with and, if not, what to do with that disengagement.

Asking the Right Questions

How can leaders and employees think usefully about quiet dynamics? What is the low-hanging fruit here? Do leaders and managers need training to learn to re-parent workers?

With these questions in mind, here are some tips, tools, and perspectives to inform the emerging workplace environment.

1. Be self-aware and work on your social EQ. Self-reflect and self-regulate so you can listen, understand, and have mental space to think through complexity and multiple options with the new workforce; use those skills to keep track of what's going on in your mind and, to an extent, in others'. Take a cue from research on giftedness to cultivate openness to new experiences, a personality trait associated with mental flexibility, which makes avoidance less onerous.

2. Educate yourself about the new workforce. Even though we all have unique talents as human beings, each generation grows up with different values or lenses that shape their worldview (as with GenZ), which translates into different workplace behavior and expectations.

3. Coach more and manage less. Although pointing out people's mistakes is faster and more convenient, asking questions is a great way to help younger (and any) workers come to a conclusion themselves. If they are interested in learning how to receive more valuable feedback—which may be hard to hear even when phrased tactfully—that helps leaders avoid being quiet when they don't know quite what to say.

4. Substitute recognition for judgment. Rather than saying “those Millennials or Gen Zers don’t want to work or come into the office,” try to recognize why and find a solution that works for both employee and company. When we master mentalization–effective self-reflection in action–it helps support good executive function, knowing what’s happening, holding back and taking action properly, long-term planning, having good relationship and communications in place, and related basic skills.

5. Stay firm but fair. While obviously managers and leaders aren't parents, as mentors aren't therapists, research on parenting is informative. Of four identified parenting styles, only Authoritative parenting is associated with the best outcomes, including reduced risk for future emotionally abusive relationships. Permissive Indulgent and Permissive Neglectful, along with Authoritarian, parenting do not work out as well. What are the key factors in Authoritative parenting? Warmth and support, psychological safety and good boundaries, and clear behavioral guidelines.

6. Use the 4 C's: curiosity, compassion, communication, community/collaboration. OK, maybe five—but you get the idea. Make sure that you have ways to remind yourself of the key levers in your personal quest for progress over perfection, and continue to self-assess as you try things out. And being louder doesn't mean using up all the oxygen in the room—louder leaders listen longer. Conscientious experimentation is a pretty good strategy, even when it's spontaneous. Does that make six?

7. Keep it simple, friend. The complex nature of the discussion notwithstanding, once you’ve thought through the alternatives, develop a plan, execute, refine, and repeat, test, modify, and keep your eye on the horizon as well closer territory. Remain flexible and plan to pivot if you need appropriately timed check-ins with stakeholders to balance the top-down implementation.

Asking for feedback is not the same as getting someone's permission—the dependency in a company is mutual all the way around, and not everyone has the same responsibility or set of decisions to make. Interdependence is a cornerstone of great teamwork, which wins the day.

Future Directions

We're still getting the lay of the land, watching closely as the pandemic winds down and other priorities surface. There appears to be no question that the future of work is in flux. To some extent, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Work is work, and performance is expected. On the other hand, the environment has changed, employees expect different things from the workplace, and are entering the workplace from a different place than historically.

Research again offers a useful tip. Leader curiosity helps people around them feel safe, which in turn has been shown to empower followers having a voice—. loud enough to be sure you are heard, in a way which makes people want really to listen.


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