Many management gurus say that quiet quitting happens because companies aren’t meeting the expectations of millennial and Gen Z professionals concerning autonomy, influence on their jobs, and self-development. Nicolai Foss and Peter Klein disagree. They write that quiet quitting may also be a protest against overinvolvement, a reaction to jobs that consume too much time because they call for constant initiative, engagement, and development—problems aggravated by a lack of attention and guidance from managers.
“Quiet quitting” is one of the hottest buzzwords of 2022. Managers are told that to stop quiet quitting they need to give their employees a stronger sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging, as well as reduced workloads and more emphasis on employee well-being. Others say to accept younger workers’ demands for autonomy and empowerment, while also providing the attention and encouragement of their supervisors and managers. “Make company values more explicit, invest in developing employees, and engage in job sharing and peer mentoring, as suggested by CEO Ben Reuveni.
We think this advice is misplaced. While autonomy, empowerment, and responsibility sound good in theory, putting them into practice may be difficult. Some jobs require closer supervision and more centralised control. Job rotation and professional development problems are costly, at least in the short run. At a more basic level, this advice makes the wrong assumption about what many workers want. Greater worker autonomy, empowerment, and responsibility as a cure for quiet quitting may be worse than the disease.
The conventional wisdom about quiet quitting has been influenced by a genre of business books promoting the idea that “everyone should be a boss.” For more than a decade we have been told by legions of consultants, professors, and gurus that flattening the hierarchy, getting rid of middle managers (or even all managers!), and empowering workers to make their own decisions or form self-organising teams will unleash creativity and productivity.
If you think this sounds hokey, we agree. But listen to the pundits: “It’s time to start reimagining management,” wrote management guru Tim Kastelle. “Making everyone a chief is a good place to start.” Books like Humanocracy by Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini urge us to replace the traditional managerial hierarchy with leaner, flatter, more organic, and “humanistic” models that place empowered workers, not managers, at the center.
From this perspective, quiet quitting happens because companies aren’t meeting the expectations of millennial and Gen Z professionals concerning autonomy, influence on their jobs, and self-development. But quiet quitting may also be a protest against overinvolvement, a reaction to jobs that consume too much time because they call for constant initiative, engagement, and development—problems aggravated by a lack of attention and guidance from managers.
What do workers want? A recent US poll on employee satisfaction revealed compensation and work-life balance, not empowerment and fulfillment, as the top concerns. Research shows that a boss’s capabilities—particularly her technical competence—is a strong predictor of worker well-being. A large literature on the “psychological contract” between bosses and workers suggests that violations of this contract, as when bosses change the rules and fail to meet obligations, reduces trust and leads to employee turnover. Communicating clear and consistent expectations, and following through, is key to worker satisfaction. Research also finds that empowerment can reduce employee productivity, particularly for workers who carry out routine tasks and when workers don’t trust managers.
A good job provides not only a steady paycheck, but also a secure and reasonably predictable work environment, clear communication, and consistent and reliable leadership. Workers want bosses who are competent and confident and who are effective mentors and role models; they don’t want “less bossing.” Ironically, and at odds with conventional guru wisdom, there’s little evidence that workers want the pressure of constantly demonstrating initiative, engagement, and responsibility. Younger workers, in particular, are more mobile than previous generations and less sentimental about where they work. At the same time, routine tasks are increasingly automated, and jobs are more cognitively demanding, requiring more multitasking and relational work. Cutting back on sound managerial guidance just adds to the burden.
In this sense, the traditional managerial hierarchy plays an important, underappreciated role, in our knowledge-based, networked, high-tech economy. Managers need to exercise authority smartly—not only by setting expectations and evaluating results without micromanaging but also by designing tasks, bundling tasks into jobs, and figuring how tasks and jobs interact. This includes finding the right people for the right job, giving them the discretion they need, and learning how to supervise them without becoming overintrusive—something that flatter structures, ironically, tend to encourage as they eliminate middle managers who serve as an essential buffer between top-level decision-makers and those with day-to-day responsibility.
Management is difficult. Deciding what to do when something out of the routine happens requires insight, experience and the ability to lead. Not everyone can do it. And the need for people to exercise management capability hasn’t diminished—quite the contrary! In the light of the massive disruption the world has suffered over the last few years, management and hierarchy has become more, not less, important. Ideas on flattening hierarchies, bossless companies, and worker empowerment distribute this responsibility across all employees. But not everyone wants it.
Consider Zappos, the online shoe retailer founded by the late Tony Hsieh, the charismatic entrepreneur and champion of “Holacracy,” a system of worker-self management designed to encourage the spontaneous formation of teams and groups operating without central supervision. Holacracy encourages workers to take responsibility, exercise judgment, and design their own work systems and structures Sounds great, doesn’t it?
Zappos introduced Holacracy in 2013 but immediately ran into problems. Many employees got frustrated with the implementation. Hsieh thought that some employees simply didn’t fit with the novel approach and offered cash bonuses for workers to move on. Surprisingly, nearly 20% of employees took the offer, including almost 40% of the tech department. Quietly, Zappos moved back to a more traditional, hierarchical model.
An earlier example that we have studied is the Danish hearing-aid company Oticon, famous for introducing a highly decentralised model known as the “spaghetti organisation,” which was a bottom-up model in which employees could propose, run and implement new projects. Project leaders were tasked with negotiating salaries. The organisation only had two layers, namely projects and a management team. It was supposed to run like a market economy, building on principles of entrepreneurship, ownership, and self-organisation.
However, five years after the introduction of the spaghetti organisation, employees had come to want the good kind of hierarchy back. They wanted stability, predictability, and fair processes, even if these came at the expense of autonomy and spontaneity. So, something more like the traditional layered hierarchy was restored.
All this casts doubt on the talking points of the bossless company narrative and its constant emphasis on empowerment and expectations of worker initiative and engagement beyond the norm. These ideas may work for a few companies such as Gore, Morning Star, Valve, and Haier which have famously flat structures. But they aren’t for everyone. Quiet quitting may be some workers’ way of saying they prefer the safety and comfort of a more “traditional” job within a conventional managerial hierarchy.
Again, hierarchy doesn’t mean command and control. Authority in the twenty-first century is about designing systems and processes, solving disputes, and helping people coordinate and cooperate. Management and its accompanying hierarchy still have an essential role to play. Making every worker a manager is usually the wrong move.
- This blog post is based on Why Managers Matter: The Perils of the Bossless Company, Public Affairs.
- The post represents the views of its author(s), not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
- Featured image by Jessica Da Rosa on Unsplash
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