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.
11 thoughts on “Perspective on “Quiet Quitting””
How about better pay and working conditions? One gets tired of forced overtime with no sense of eventual reward. Instead of blaming the teachers, maybe it is high time to examined their true working conditions, and perhaps hold management to account? How about THAT narrative?
Jeff N makes a great point. In any organization there are people who only do the minimum. Another way to think about the education question is “Would you work 40 hours a week and only being a part time employee and get paid for only 20 hours?” There has to be a balance on both sides. Realistic working conditions and employee enthusiasm. Not an easy balance for any organization, especially high performing organizations.
As I’ve read about “quiet quitting” and in the case the question brings up, I don’t see it in the same category as “lazy” or “sticking it” to anyone. It appears to me as setting boundaries without the conversation about boundaries. If only there was a way to teach people to have those tough sort of conversations! 😉
In a lot of areas teachers have always had low pay. So the question is more about what is different now? My wife is a 25 year veteran teacher who is struggling with the constant barrage of challenges others are making to the whole system. Society currently has many people who question the values, ethics and activities of teachers. It’s hard to put in extra effort when students are hearing from their parents and talk shows that school is about indoctrination and that teachers are those who failed to make it in the real world. Combine that with politicians who make unreasonable demands and you have both the Social and Structural areas of influence working against the educators.
I believe that accepting and using the terminology of “Quiet Quitting and Accountability” in the title of this article, as has been done here, is accepting the “framing” of the situation as presented by one side, to the detriment of the other side. I believe this to be is an extremely biased framing.
Same for what appears to be a “False Dichotomy” between “Work-to-Rule” and “Rules of Work”, presented in the article. Traditional union “Work-to-Rule” events include insisting on time-consuming time-wasting rule conformance that is not normally done under normal working conditions. That is not at all comparable to failing to voluntarily work a heavy load of unpaid overtime work.
Let’s assume that the work agreement is to show up for some given hours of work and perform a reasonably effective professional job of the work. Then an expectation that employees must perform far above and beyond that, to be considered “reasonable performance” is an entirely unreasonable expectation.
“Setting Boundaries” for “Reasonable Work-Life Balance” *within* the framework of the actual work agreement seems often to be labeled as “Quite Quitting” by some.
First we need a reasonable and largely unbiased “framing” of the situation before we can really consider who’s expectations and performance are reasonable, and within the bounds of the work agreement, or not.
This is a systemic and structural problem across many industries. As long as there are not enough resources supplied to deal with the work load, greater demand is placed on the resources. The ‘cost focus’ is primary and the “service delivery’ is secondary at best. Arbitrary budget limitations drive much of this behavior.
I have never liked that terminology. They aren’t quitting or being the bad guys. They are finally standing up for themselves. Life is too short to spend all of your time doing extras for your job that you are not paid for. If it’s something that needs to be done, then they should be paid for their time.
Normally I quite enjoy this blog, so I was shocked by this response. The narrative being normalized here is that teachers should be going above and beyond, and that if they don’t they are not being responsible, and it is the leader’s responsibility to hold these teachers accountable. Hold them accountable for what, exactly? For a system and a society that demeans and devalues them? For structures that ask them to do more than they logistically have time for? I have worked both in and out of education. In no other industry have I been asked to continue my work on my own time in order to be considered a responsible employee. In no other industry have I been held accountable to 23 different indicators as well as to normed scores on standardized tests taken by others (i.e. students). I feel disappointed by the tone of this article that seems more intent on validating the author’s own biases about educators than on critically and authentically addressing the systemic issue of expecting teachers to work unpaid hours brought up by “quietly wondering.”
I’m in agreement mostly with the responses here. It should not be expected of anyone in the work force to perform work during unpaid hours. I see this a lot in the government arena where employees of a certain professional level are expected by superiors to produce regardless of the time put in, not claim overtime or comp time, and “be a team player”. This goes for managers and non-managers alike.
As a manager I will not expect anyone on the team to participate in this false “do whatever it takes to get the job done” attitude and have made it clear to my superiors. My first response is and will continue to be “What tasks are you OK with NOT being completed?”
Don’t commit to the work if you lack the resources to get it done under normal circumstances. When exceptions arise try to pull the team together to work out a solution on company time.
People “act their wage”. If they work for an organization that truly values them then they will be paid appropriately. If they work for an organization that does not pay a living wage, ie: teachers, then they are motivated to work comparable to their given wage. If I take a job where I’m not getting paid a living wage I will do the bare minimum. If I’m paid a living wage and treated well I will go above and beyond. In short you get what you pay for.
Thank you all so much for your feedback. I appreciate the candid call out and can see where you are coming from. It was never my intention to say or even suggest that anyone should use Crucial Conversation skills to manipulate teachers into doing more for nothing.
I can see from where I say, “So how do you help?” and reference teachers no longer going above and beyond that I have unintentionally led people astray. It appears that I am supporting the premise of “How do we get teachers to return to doing uncompensated work.” That is most definitely not my point.
My intended point was to answer the question, “What do you do when you suspect a teacher is quietly quitting?” As a former educator I empathize with a teacher’s feelings of being stuck so they quit: sometimes all at once and sometimes little by little. As they disengage, then you as leader feel stuck. That’s when it is important to become curious and check your narrative. Be open to other’s perspectives and genuinely explore contributing factors. The Six-Source model is a framework to explore all possible causes – including those you as a leader may be doing, the stresses the role and the system place on teachers, as well as incentives or lack thereof.
As leaders it is our responsibility to support the people we lead. The best way to do that is to make the undiscussables discussable and addressable. All of this with the intent to help teachers find meaning and purpose in a field with lots of meaning and purpose.
Because of your willingness to share, I can use your feedback to improve and be better next time. Thanks again for being partners in this process as we all strive to improve.