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Why so Quiet? Breaking the Workplace Taboo of Silence

Why so Quiet? Breaking the Workplace Taboo of Silence

Story Highlights

  • Employees who quiet quit feel like they can’t speak up at work
  • People want meaning and fulfillment from their jobs
  • Workplace wellbeing and fairness work against disengagement

Quiet quitting isn’t quitting. It’s multiplying.

If people on your team aren’t quiet quitting, perhaps they are “quiet thriving.” Or “chaotic working.” Or maybe they are engaged in “bare minimum Mondays.”

But it’s not just coming from the employee side. Perhaps you yourself are engaged in “quiet firing.” Or “quiet hiring.”

The irony, of course, is that if there was so much silent behavior going on, we wouldn’t be hearing about it. But that itself is part of the paradox: We feel free to shout from the digital rooftops what we can’t say in a team Slack channel. We smile, nod and agree to everything on a Zoom call, and then “rage apply” to a hundred jobs on LinkedIn, simply to blow off steam.


Gallup data suggest the timing of this media trend isn’t an accident. Employee engagement has noticeably declined following the pandemic, with actively disengaged employees on the rise.

Which all leads to one question: Seriously, what’s happened to us?

Why Can’t We Talk? The Source of the Silence

At the heart of quiet quitting -- and its many spinoffs -- seems to be the feeling that we can’t speak up at work. Either we don’t feel safe enough to speak our minds, or we feel like, even if we did speak up, it wouldn't make any difference.

For example, Gallup finds that most employees don’t talk openly about unethical situations that they’ve personally seen at work. Nine out of 10 employees say they would report unethical behavior at work if they had firsthand knowledge of it, but only four in 10 actually do. A major reason they don’t report it is that they don’t believe their employer would do what is right. When employees are confident their employer would do what is right, they are 24 percentage points more likely to report.

But there may be another dimension as well. The rationale behind ideas like “quiet quitting” or “quiet thriving” or “bare minimum Mondays” is that people are putting their wellbeing first and their job second. Although employers may not like to hear it, employees are actually trying to not burn out at work. And Gallup finds that a top source of burnout at work is being treated unfairly. If burnout at your organization is high, it may not be a productivity issue -- it may be an issue of fairness.

In other words, giving employers the silent treatment may ultimately be a way of communicating that (a) the current work situation feels unfair and unsustainable, while assuming that (b) the employee-employer relationship is realistically unlikely to change.

Hope in the Data

Employers may feel like they put in enormous effort just to get people to show up at work, and employees may feel like they tried their best to invest in their organization at the start of their employment, only to be rejected and disillusioned over time.

At the heart of quiet quitting -- and its many spinoffs -- seems to be the feeling that we can’t speak up at work.

Thus, both sides may feel justified in their cynicism about this whole employee-employer relationship thing. But the Gallup data show a different picture of the workforce than most people realize -- an environment rich with potential.

This all suggests that, while employees are more disengaged with their work than in recent years, they would prefer deeper ties to their employer and their team rather than going “quiet” for the rest of their career.

Breaking the Silence

Although we may be using silence to avoid tough (or seemingly futile) conversations, the truth is that employers and employees want to make things work. Employees want their employers to be responsive to their input, to be fair to them and to allow them to be their authentic selves. And employers want to keep talented people on their team working productively over the long term.

It’s not too late to make a change. Consider the following actions:

  • Start with addressing disrespect and unfairness in your organization. Disrespect at work is absolutely toxic for productivity and performance. An organizationwide survey or census of your organization related to feelings of respect and mistreatment can help you identify those departments or teams where unfairness is feeding into burnout.
  • Give employees a say in how they get their work done. Gallup has found that when teams have a say in how their hybrid work schedule is designed, their engagement soars. Unfortunately, employee input on hybrid work is the exception rather than the rule. But it’s so crucial in giving employees a sense of ownership and reasonable autonomy.
  • Bring wellbeing into the conversation. Most managers aren’t trained in having caring, professional conversations about their team members’ personal lives. And yet managers are often a listening ear for employee issues beyond work. Like it or not, showing you care about your employees’ lives outside work is part of good team leadership. It lets people know that you see them as more than just a number or a cog in a wheel. You see them authentically as human beings.
  • Solicit opinions and make them matter. Employees will only feel comfortable sharing their opinions when they’ve seen a consistent pattern of responsive leadership over the long term. Leaders need to ask for opinions on a large scale (using pulse surveys, for example) and at the individual one-on-one level. And, most importantly, they need to show that those opinions make a difference to the organization.

Employers are the primary influence on the environment that employees inhabit, in person or virtually. That means it’s often up to the employer -- and the manager -- to make the first move to create the kind of workplace where employees feel safe to be themselves. Only then will employees stop the silence.

Make your organization a place where employees thrive.


Ryan Pendell is a Senior Workplace Science Editor at Gallup.

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