Dear Crucial Skills,
I’ve heard a lot of people accuse teachers of “quiet quitting.” Teachers typically put in many hours and their own dollars to give students the best possible education. But recently, due to low pay, many have said they will limit their work to the classroom only. How can you hold teachers accountable for quietly quitting when, really, the norm has been to work unpaid hours? I suspect this is happening in other industries too.
Quiet quitting is a popular phrase used not only in education, but also throughout the business world. It refers to the practice of mentally checking out and only doing the minimum requirements of one’s job. “Quiet quitters” aren’t leaving their jobs (though they may be inclined to) but are staying and putting in the minimum time, effort, or enthusiasm required.
This phenomenon has also been called “work-to-rule,” which essentially means the same thing: employees do no more than the minimum required by the rules of their contract. The effects of quiet quitting are likely magnified in education where employees traditionally operate under the “rules of work,” which means to go above and beyond expectations.
As a former educator, I remember it was standard to arrive early, stay late, help students, pay for supplies, grade work, and prepare lessons—all beyond the hours of a standard workday. Historically, education runs on a lot of unpaid teacher labor.
So how do you help? How do you manage a workforce of teachers who are still performing their job and may have no intention of leaving, but are no longer going above and beyond? Here are two suggestions to get you started.
Change the Narrative
In Crucial Conversations we call this skill Master My Stories. A common narrative about quiet quitting suggests that teachers, like so many others in the business world, are “sticking it” to their employers for increased pay, better working conditions, or a more balanced work schedule. This narrative depicts educators as villains. This villain story assumes the worst possible motives and ignores any possible good motives or reasons they may have.
The stories we tell ourselves often leave out relevant information to confirm our biases, judgments, and conclusions. This hampers dialogue and resolution. The first step is to tell the rest of the story.
Begin by asking yourself, “Why would a decent, reasonable, rational person do this?”
My guess is that as you sincerely explore this question, you’ll see that your teachers are highly invested, caring professionals who feel overwhelmed, stuck, worn out, and need balance to maintain not only their love for their work, but also their physical and mental health. While they may not be giving the accustomed above-and-beyond effort, there are probably few teachers out there doing the “bare minimum.”
Changing the narrative allows you to see your teachers through a different lens. Not only does it change the view, but it will also minimize the emotions that make it difficult to have a meaningful conversation about how to improve the situation.
Diagnose the Problem
One of the most common mistakes we make as leaders is not taking time to diagnose why people do what they do. We fall into what is called The Fundamental Attribution Error. This refers to our tendency to attribute another’s actions to their character or personality, while under-emphasizing situational or environmental influences on their behavior.
Because of the stories we tell ourselves, it’s easy to attribute the behaviors of quiet quitting to a teacher’s personal motivation. “They don’t care anymore.” “They’ve lost their passion for their work.” Attributing poor behavior to selfish motives makes us ineffective at discussing and influencing behavior.
People do things for two reasons: because the can (ability) and because they have reason to (motivation). But ability and motivation are not just personal, they are also affected by social and structural factors. We call these various factors The Six Sources of Influence.
Considering the various sources that can influence behavior should help you come up with several possible answers to the question above: “Why would a decent, reasonable, rational person do this?”
If you need to discuss what looks like quiet quitting with a teacher, check your story before you share what you are observing with the teacher. Then ask them to share their perspective. Listen and see if you can identify the various sources of influence affecting their behavior.
Changing the narrative and taking time to diagnose sources of influence are the first steps to having a meaningful conversation about troubling behavior. Doing this will increase your influence and give your teachers power to improve.
Edit January 20, 2023: The title of this article was changed from “Quiet Quitting and Accountability” to its current title to more accurately reflect the author’s message and prevent misunderstanding.