It’s Time to Clarify Work Boundaries and “Quiet Quitting”

The news is full of this idea of “quiet quitting.” That's where people do just what the job requires and not more.

Well, I have a contrarian view: Why do managers think it's okay to ask people to do more? What is it about “more” that managers want?

In Practical Ways to Lead and Serve Others, I explained a myth called “I Need to Know People Are Invested.” That's the myth where everyone leaves at 5 or 6, after they've done a full day's worth of work. The executive is still there and wonders why everyone else has left. (The origin of that chapter is Management Myth 15: I Need People to Work Overtime.)

This myth conflates the idea of time worked with the outcomes people create.

If you think of people as resources, especially if you think they are interchangeable, I can understand why this myth catches you. However, people are resourceful, not resources.

That means people need autonomy, mastery, and purpose to do their jobs. If they work in flow efficiency, their day might look shorter than yours, but they focused with other people for much of the day. These people finished a day's worth of work.

In addition, they have created bounds around their work. They are not quiet quitting.

What about people who work alone? They also created bounds around their work.  Assuming you offered them reasonable work, they put in a full day of work. They are also done.

Let me turn this around. Why are you still at work? What more do you expect?

Define Reasonable Work Expectations and Boundaries

When I work with managers who worry about “slacking off” or “quiet quitting,” I often discover the manager is worried about his or her leadership. To compensate, these managers tend to micromanage and not trust people to do their best jobs.

Worse, too often that micromanagement cascades down from senior management to the various managers and down into the teams.

Instead, what do you consider to be reasonable work expectations and boundaries? These are mine:

  • Start and end work at times that allow maximum overlap with this person's team. That's because effective managers know people work best when they work on one and only one team.
  • Management focuses on a team as the unit doing the work, not individuals. That means the team knows if someone is not doing the work.
  • Each person will let the rest of the team know when the person is unavailable and when that person returns to work.
  • Everyone will take care of themselves personally, so they can give 100% at the job.

(I've left out working agreements because this is about a person, not a team. Let me know what else I missed.)

When people work to their capacity, especially as a team, why do we blame them for stopping work when they're tired?

Do you want tired people creating products or talking with customers? No. Tired people make mistakes.

Creating boundaries around the work so people can work effectively matters much more than actual work time.

What Does “Quiet Quitting” Mean to You?

When someone says “quiet quitting” to me, I think of blaming people for creating boundaries around their work.

Especially now, everyone's context has changed. Some people like me, are still happily working from their home offices, rarely seeing others in person. Some of you are in the office at varying times per week, creating ever-changing satellite teams. (In my experience, satellite teams create the most disruption in an organization. Yet, that's what most managers chose and are trying to enforce.)

If people are “quiet quitting,” they chose to create boundaries for themselves, often as a reaction to management's blaming.

Managers blame when they think just of themselves and what they want people to complete. I've recently discussed the bankrupt management idea of “more with less” with several managers. These managers claim they are doing more—but if you look at their management decision time, they are doing much, much less. Instead, these managers must make the critical decisions about what not to do.

Quiet quitting is often a signal that the organization's WIP (Work in Progress) is way out of control.

It's time to re-evaluate.

What You Can Re-Evaluate

If you are a “quiet quitter,” explain your WIP to your manager. You might like the ideas in Saying No to More Work. (Managers, if you feel overloaded, use the same ideas.)

(And, if you are not creating reasonable boundaries around your work, find another job and leave. Don't take advantage of your current employer. That's not a decision with integrity.)

Managers, consider these ideas:

  • Review the organization's WIP, and cycle time. You might like the Little's Law explanation.
  • If you have too much WIP, manage your project portfolio. Consider the questions for immediate planning in One Quick Way to Start to Manage Your Project Portfolio. Work as a management cohort at your level, to rationalize the work you have and the work you need to complete.
  • Make sure you have regular one-on-ones with everyone you lead and serve. Have conversations about what each person sees and what you see. Be honest about your frustrations and listen to what each person says. You might not see the entire picture.

Before you blame the people you lead and serve for quiet quitting, re-evaluate everything that's going on.

Don't confuse quiet quitting with reasonable boundary setting.

Most people want to do a good job. Create an environment where they can.

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