Quiet Quitting From a Deming Perspective

By Christina Dragonetti, The Deming Institute

The “quiet quitting” phenomenon is getting a lot of attention right now, but it’s hardly new. Gallup polls over the last 18+ months show a steady decline in employee engagement, finding that “Quiet quitters make up at least 50% of the U.S. workforce…with the proportion of actively disengaged workers increasing to 18%” in the second quarter of 2022. Combined with COVID-19, the Great Resignation, inflation, supply chain problems, and a potential recession coming, company owners and organization leaders are feeling a lot of pressure – but maybe they can cross “quiet quitting” off that list.

First, we need an operational definition of “quiet quitting:” it is an employee’s decision to only do activities on their official job description and stop doing anything that goes beyond the minimum requirement to keep the job. It’s important to note that “quiet quitting” does not mean that the person stops doing their job; they are simply no longer willing to spend “discretionary effort” on the organization. Team collaboration, meeting a client’s new deadline, and finding a new strategy when suppliers don’t come through require extra effort – and many people are walking away from taking on those responsibilities.

Does that mean these employees want to goof off at work? Absolutely not. Most people come into a job wanting to make an impact, take pride in their work, and have a sense of belonging. Organizations and companies have an opportunity and responsibility to leverage that intrinsic motivation.

Gallup highlights the reasons employees give for disengaging from their work. Not coincidentally, they are the same reasons Dr. Deming identified as existential problems for managers and business owners:

  • people feel they are not valued by their managers or the organization’s top leadership,
  • the aim of the organization isn’t clear,
  • they don’t understand how their work fits with the work of others,
  • they’re stuck working in silos,
  • or they feel alone and unsupported.

Dr. Deming had a lot to say about employee engagement, starting with: “Everyone is entitled to joy in work.”

He focused on intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic motivation – also known as “carrots and sticks” traditional management.

“Some extrinsic motivation helps to build self-esteem. But total submission to extrinsic motivation leads to destruction of the individual…Extrinsic motivation in the extreme crushes intrinsic motivation. Anyone that derives meaning from extrinsic sources of motivation brings detrimental effects on his self-esteem.”(1)

As Dr. Deming regularly asked: “by what method?” In The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education, Dr. Deming distilled his theories and teachings into the System of Profound Knowledge (SoPK). SoPK provides a highly integrated framework of thought and action for any leader wishing to transform an organization into a thriving, systemically focused place to work. Briefly, SoPK can be applied to employee engagement as follows:

System of Profound Knowledge lensAppreciation for a System: managers and leaders must see the organization as a whole system rather than a sum of parts. Perhaps most importantly, leaders must clearly articulate the system’s aim. Dr. Deming’s “View of an Organization as a System” diagram helps put all aspects of the organization into an easily understood visual.

Drawing a system or flow diagram for your organization allows everyone to see where their work fits, who their internal and external customers are, and how their contributions impact the organization. A system diagram breaks down silos by illustrating the interdependence of components (people, departments, or divisions) which leads to cooperation and collaboration. It focuses efforts on improving the organization and fosters an environment in which employees can experience joy in their work.

Knowledge of Variation: usually, this refers to variation in a process or in the data collected from a process. But Dr. Deming also pointed to variation in people: leaders need to understand and appreciate the variation in their workforce, treat individuals with respect, and learn how best to support each person and team.

Theory of Knowledge: what do we “know” that isn’t actually so? How do we avoid mistakes based on what we think we know? Employees are usually excited to learn and grow when they know their new knowledge will contribute to the organization’s learning and success. Engaging everyone on a team to make all of the team’s processes visible and then work together on process improvements with the aim of the system in mind is a great way to avoid confirmation bias, foster inclusion, and discover opportunities for action.

Psychology: leaders and managers don’t need to become armchair Freudians, but they need to appreciate that people are not cogs in a wheel or cost centers to be minimized. The core of Dr. Deming’s philosophy is respect for people: “everyone is entitled to joy in work.” Managers can help people fulfill their potential by focusing on their individual skills and aspirations, thereby bringing out the best in each person to fulfill the aim of the organization. They can also stop doing things that impact joy in work.

Leaders are responsible for creating and sustaining healthy work environments where people enjoy their jobs, respect their colleagues, and feel a sense of purpose, tapping into intrinsic motivation and stronger loyalty.

For organizations actively using Deming’s SoPK lens, “quiet quitting” is unlikely to be a problem.

Managers and leaders can easily see if an employee isn’t performing as usual, investigate the systemic barriers they are encountering, or thoughtfully ask about factors outside of work. Sometimes a person needs a more flexible schedule for a month or a week off to sort out a personal issue. Driving out fear and fostering an environment of trust and collaboration allows everyone to tap into their intrinsic motivation and work toward the organization’s ultimate AIM.

Want to learn more?

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  1. Deming, W. Edwards. The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education (The MIT Press) (p. 74-75). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

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