How Marx Helps Us Understand Quiet Quitting, Quiet Firing, and Loud Retaining
(a near-transcript of episode 16 of The Uplift podcast.)
Today’s topic has been on the calendar since the middle of August. And even before last week I’d outlined the episode and knew I wanted to talk about the conversation and issues swirling around the terms “quiet quitting,” “quiet firing,” and “loud retaining.”
But honestly, I was feeling pretty “meh” about the episode. And then this last week I was given a few gifts, and as a result the episode is waaaaaay better.
Each gift was a glimpse into someone else’s mind.
First, I found two new podcasts I absolutely adore. One is called Phronesis, and it’s the official podcast of the International Leadership Association. The episode that hooked me was an interview with Jill Arensdorf, as she talked about how she transitioned from teaching leadership and chairing a department of Leadership Studies into being a provost charged with living out the theories and practices she’d been teaching. She is smart and funny and humble and I highly recommend the episode especially for women who advance in leadership roles within a single institution.
The second is called the agile academic. Hosted by Rebecca Pope-Ruark, it’s a podcast about faculty vitality. I binged half a dozen episodes in one day – listening nearly nonstop while I was driving, washing the dishes, walking the dogs – and OMG, I’m in LOVE with her work. At the height of her productivity as a faculty member Rebecca was diagnosed with burnout, and she documents how she came to terms with the diagnosis and what she did about it in her new book, Unraveling Faculty Burnout, coming to bookshelves near you on September 20.
In an episode from 2021, Rebecca talks with Michelle Dionne Thompson. Michelle gave me the title for today’s episode: humanity vs. the economy. Since they were talking in 2021 the conversation was steeped in the crises we were all facing living and sustaining others through the pandemic, but that phrase – humanity vs. the economy – is, I realized, at the heart of our current conversations about both burnout and about quiet quitting.
I also got the gift of talking to a live person. Over coffee with a philosopher friend, we shared stories about memorable cups of coffee we’ve had. I told him the story of the best cappuccino I ever had, which was at a small hole-in-wall cafe somewhere in Manhattan – I don’t remember where and I’m so sad that I’ll never find it again – but the cafe was full of regulars and the vibe was just right and the coffee was hand-crafted and … just wow. And *that* turned into a conversation about how when business owners stay close to their business – the product or service, the employees, and the customers – there is purpose and connection, all of which starts to get lost as the owner or CEO builds in layers of distance.
I had all of this swirling in my head as I was working out to an 80s playlist featuring Janet Jackson and Madonna and I think it was something about the girlboss pop vibe that opened a little window in my brain: all these conversations – quiet quitting, quiet firing, burnout, purpose, vitality, small businesses, all of it – are about the despair of alienation. I don’t know why I had to sweat and get my heart rate up to remember my Marx, but there it is: It is 2022 and many of us are deeply alienated from our labor.
The solution? Connection.
So here’s today’s somewhat rambly and still unpolished thesis statement:
Quiet quitting and burnout, two ways employees are responding to the contemporary workplace, are both one outcome (among many) of people feeling alienated from the labor. In higher ed the employee model has long been the committed faculty member, typically male, who labors in his vocation and devotes his entire life and whole being to his vocation (while his domestic needs are tended to by women at home). Over time, women and folks of traditionally-and-currently-excluded groups entered the professoriate, which meant more professors-as-laborers had additional external responsibilities raising children, caring for aging parents, tending to extended family needs, and maintaining the home. It is perhaps not coincidental that requirements for service have also been increasing as the professoriate has shifted, so that now being a professor requires work that might be adjacent to your vocation – attending meetings, serving on committees, volunteering at weekend events, supporting admissions, and participating in fundraising. All of this work is important and needs to be done. But if it is systemically added to people’s workloads AND it isn’t connected to people’s purpose, then it’s easy to see how alienation and disengagement could become a widespread problem.
On top of all this, we know that some folks on campus, even those who feel called by the vocation of teaching and contributing to their disciplines, have the additional genuine labor of managing. Some managers oversee processes, while some oversee people. For those of us who manage people, we bear responsibility for the systemic accretion of purpose-less work, if for no other reason than we probably uphold the system out of habit. Right? We do all the work because that’s what we’ve always done.
So: if you want to support your people, you have to break the habits that uphold systemic accretion. Those folks on your team who are establishing boundaries are already breaking this habit simply by saying “no.”
If you value your people – their wellbeing, their ability to stay in this job and thrive, to teach and mentor and guide students who will eventually become alums and the greatest champions of your institution – you have to support their efforts to break this habit. To do this you have to prioritize, privilege, even hold sacred the work that is someone’s purpose. Help them reconnect their purpose and their labor.
If you’re a leader, and you’re worried about quiet quitting and burnout on your campus, your primary focus should be reconnecting people’s purpose to their work. So if you’re out of time, that’s today’s idea in a nutshell.
But hey, if you have a bit more time, stick around and I’ll unpack this a bit.
Let me start with the basics and get our terms clear, in general. And then I’ll explore how those terms show up in higher ed as an industry. And finally, I’ll suggest two things you can do, in your leadership practice, to help folks move from alienation to connection.
Let’s start with quiet quitting. It’s a new term, but it has a history and gets used to refer to very different things. One thing I learned in my reading is that the term itself didn’t even really register on our collective consciousness, at least as measured by Google searches, until August of 2022. And then the searches spiked high and hard.
But what IS quiet quitting?
Sometimes it’s defined as employees “calling it in” – doing the bare minimum to get by and still collect a paycheck.
Other times it’s defined as employees setting healthy working boundaries – giving their all while they’re at work, and then ending their work day by…stopping working.
I don’t like the first definition – “calling it in” is already a useful phrase with a particular meaning. When I look around, I don’t see a sudden onslaught of folks calling it in. I think, in general, folks in higher ed come to work and do the work.
On the other hand, I *really* like the second definition – where people set healthy boundaries and live their lives outside of work as private citizens, not as employees. I especially like it because I do see this all around me as a new phenomenon. AND I think a lot of employers are kind of freaking out about it, which is an indication of how systemic it is, and how much employers are relying on free labor to keep their businesses moving.
Consider this, from Elizabeth Anderson’s book Private Government: “In many workplaces, employers minutely regulate workers’ speech, clothing, and manners, leaving them with little privacy and few other rights. And employers often extend their authority to workers’ off-duty lives. Workers can be fired for their political speech, recreational activities, diet, and almost anything else employers care to govern.” In this context, quiet quitting looks less like rebellion and more like survival.
I’m going to set aside the second part of that statement – the issue of what we can be fired for – especially since those of us working in at-will states can be fired for literally no reason at all. But the first part of the statement is interesting because even though our clothing, speech, and manners might be governed at work, there is one work-related right we’ve been fighting for, pretty successfully, since the industrial revolution: the right to limit the number of hours we work.
There’s a long history of people fighting for the rights to their time and humanity as employees. It’s why we have a law about the 40-hour work week…but even that’s a relatively new law, only passed in 1940.
In the US, labor unions have long fought to protect employees from exploitation, including inhumane expectations for long working hours. In Europe and I think especially in the UK, workers have protested excessive work requirements through a concept called “work to rule,” where employees follow official working rules and hours exactly, which tends to lead to reduced output and efficiency.
What I love about the work-to-rule concept is that it shines a spotlight on systems that aren’t working: if we follow the rules and policies and work within our expected time frame, efficiency and productivity are often reduced. What does that tell us about how our work lives are designed?
Anyway – all this reminds us, as does Marx – that workers and their bosses live out these tensions between whose time has what value, how much an employer can demand from an employee, and what kind of power a worker can exercise in the workplace.
These tensions sometimes surface in a part of this conversation about “quiet quitting” – when the focus shifts from the employee’s “quiet quitting” to the employer’s “quiet firing.”
According to Bonnie Dilber, “Quiet firing is when an employer does the bare minimum to keep their employees: no support, no development, no growth, no rewards.[…] Women, and especially women of color, are particularly susceptible to quiet firing.” So quiet firing is when your boss nudges you out the door by decisions and actions that are designed to leave you unengaged and unmotivated.
This conversation surrounds us these days – it’s in industry reports, the popular press, news headlines, and even higher ed periodicals. The problems of quiet quitting, burnout, and quiet firing are pervasive. And the stories are narratives in search of a villain – either employees are lazy malingerers not being committed to their workplaces, or employers are heartless bastards who don’t care about folks at work. (Yes, I just swore, and also that was a shout out – check out The Heartless Bastards! Just for kicks.)
I think the context for this conversation in higher ed, though, should, rightfully, be a little bit different, though. As with so much nonprofit work, most of us chose to work in higher ed for its mission and purpose, and, especially for faculty, our labor is inextricably bound up with our identity. When we feel alienated from our labor in higher ed it can be experienced as a deep, gut-wrenching loss. (To hear more about this, please listen to Rebecca Pope-Ruark’s podcast. I cannot WAIT for her book!)
There’s some history behind this, right? It used to be that becoming a professor was kind of like becoming a pastor or a doctor: it was your life, your calling, and you devoted all your waking hours to your vocation. And you could, because someone – usually a woman – was tending to your domestic needs at home while you were devoting yourself to your work.
It was a way of life. And I’m betting that many of us old-fashioned types fell in love with the idea of being a professor precisely because of its appeal as a lifestyle: a way to live a life of the mind, regularly reading books, conducting research, discovering ideas or new species or new planetary objects while engaging in big, challenging ideas and shaping curious young adults to be thoughtful, ethical citizens. Many of us who became professors had amazing experiences with our own college professors – maybe dinners at their house, or philosophical chats over beer and pizza. I remember a walk through the zoo while discussing my future, as well as taking a motorcycle ride into the mountains to sit by a stream and reflect, as particularly powerful conversations I had with faculty. I think about the best creativing writing instructor I ever had, who listened to us talk about our personal lives and helped us shape those experiences into vignettes or poems that carried meaning. She didn’t work 40 hours a week. She couldn’t have. And she may not have even wanted to, because the ideal is a life – a life that integrates curiosity, intellectual stimulation, time with students, time to write or create. It’s not a job. It’s a way of being in the world. And oh my god it is beautiful.
And that beautiful vision – that glorious myth – persisted even as the professoriate changed: as women and other traditionally-and-still-marginalized groups became professors, meaning that suddenly professors might not have wives at home tending to the family’s domestic needs because the professors were themselves people with responsibilities for children, aging parents, and extended families.
On top of that, I think in the last century the job itself has changed, as shared governance increased the number and types of committees required to run a campus, as expectations for disciplinary expertise rose and continued to climb, and as service expectations grew to include things like advising students, sponsoring student organizations, hosting co-curricular events, supporting admissions, and even participating in fundraising.
I’m guessing all of those work requirements were “added on” in part because higher ed as an industry is steeped in the historical expectation that if you’re a faculty member, your job is your calling and you should be working in and living your vocation all…the…time. The possibility of tenure – shrinking as that possibility is – ideally exists to help offset that imbalance: yes, we’re going to ask a lot of you, but you’ll have lifetime job security at a campus you love. Isn’t that a great trade off?
There are two problems here, though. The first is the reliability and reward of tenure. Now, I know tenure is a wonderful thing for some folks. I have friends and colleagues around the country who are devoted to their institutions and their students, thriving in the classroom, and able to manage the additional responsibilities that come with their tenured faculty role. I see people who honestly love their work and enjoy their career and are flourishing. So I can see evidence that sometimes this set of expectations works.
Overall, though, it’s increasingly problematic. And perhaps increasingly it doesn’t work. Some folks no longer see tenure as a pay-off – I mentioned last week the article in the Inside Higher Ed where Elizabeth Haswell mentioned that tenure brings a kind of Stockholm syndrome. We read in the news that folks with tenure still lose their jobs through restructuring or other means. Not all institutions even offer tenure. And none of this even addresses the inequities designed into the T&P processes, including who gets accepted into and supported throughout doctoral programs, who gets hired, who gets funded, who wins grants, who suffers from biased teaching evaluations, and so on.
The other problem, tenure aside, is the way work gets ‘added on.’ I’ve come to think of this as systemic accretion. We get asked to do small things that individually are totally manageable and sometimes are even exciting. And we’re all super smart and super competent and we get excited and so we say “yes!” and we mean it. And not only do those expectations never go away, they accrete over time. And soon we’re cramming extra meetings into our calendars, working over lunch, skipping our morning exercise or meditation, and taking work home and doing it after the rest of the family goes to bed because all of our meetings during the day prevented us from finishing our actual tasks.
Another challenge, I think, is that this expectation that your vocational devotion to your institution and your students is naturally, and probably thoughtlessly, extended to everybody working on a college campus, whether they’re faculty or not. For folks accustomed to working in industry – I’m thinking of staff who work in dining, or facilities, or public safety – it seems natural that they would expect to put in their 40 hours and leave work behind when they go home. Increasingly I suspect that’s not true.
So higher ed was fertile ground for this crisis of burnout – where as a sector, the industry has come to rely on folks working increasing numbers of hours on increasing kinds of tasks, which necessarily take you further and further from your purpose.
But I can totally see how this could have happened. Any of this work, in individual parts or in small doses, is fine, right? Volunteering once a year to help students over move-in weekend is awesome! Showing up at a water station for a running race wearing your university gear and cheering on the runners is terrific! Attending faculty meetings and being part of the representative voice for faculty matters is actually really important. These are fantastic opportunities and ways to live lives connected to our work, our institutions, and our students.
It’s not any one of these. Its the constant, steady, accretion of all of them, over time.
If you love to teach, and you love the life of the mind, and you thrive in the classroom when trillions of neurons are firing simultaneously and you can feel the electricity in the air, then you are most energized when, quite literally, your labor and your purpose are connected. I suspect it’s the years-long accretion of all the purpose-less work that is making folks burn out.
And there’s a weird way that higher ed has contributed to this via the notion of quiet firing. If you’re hired to teach, deepen your disciplinary expertise, and support governance through service, then literally everything you get asked to do that is not one of those three things is a sort of quiet firing: it’s the accretion of assignments that don’t help you advance, that prevent you from doing your work, that make it harder for you to get promoted, and that block your vitality.
From all my reading about “quiet quitting” over the last several months, the one phrase I’ve come to love most is the antidote to quiet quitting and the opposite of “quiet firing”: it’s “loud retaining.” I love this phrase for several reasons.
First, because it puts the onus for engagement where it belongs: on the institution itself.
Second, because it acknowledges that retention is an activity that makes itself known.
And third, because it puts the value in the right place: on the humans at work.
Oh, and there’s a fourth reason, which I love even more now that I’m thinking about Marx. This comes from Anthony DiMaggio, who writes in Salon, “Quiet quitting is understandable but it won’t save us from predatory capitalism.”
Right? It’s the system that we need to fix. The people who are burning out and quiet quitting are simply showing us that the system is broken.
I’m not alone in thinking this. Consider this excerpt from a piece in the Chronicle, written by Jonathan Malesic, and called “Are We All Really Burning Out”? Here’s the extended quote:
“…if a college wanted to combat burnout, what would it do? I sometimes imagine this hypothetical college calling a radically honest all-campus meeting at which everyone acknowledges that the institution’s whole way of operating was harming everyone involved. Everyone would own up to playing a role in a dreary reality: how the students and faculty and staff and administrators were causing each other to burn out, but no one could admit that something was wrong, and everyone felt forced to work hard, to live up to some impossible ideal.
I want to believe that a college, or any organization, could begin building a whole new way of working, once its members recognized that everyone was in this predicament together. They might then realize that even though they all feel powerless, together they are the college. And for that reason, they can remake it.”
I get all dreamy-eyed about the idea of rebuilding a college’s culture in a way that kicks alienation to the curb and supports every single employee’s desire and human need to feel purposeful in their work. So maybe there’s a book, or a research project, or a fantasy novel project in there…I dunno…but for today, let me propose two things YOU CAN DO to build connections between people’s work – the labor that they do on behalf of your campus – and their purpose.
OK, I have to take it back and tell you three things you can do. The two things I’m going to recommend here require trust. So if you’re missing trust on your team, go back and listen to episode 15 for some advice about actions you can take to build it.
So now I’m going to assume that you’re working from a place of trust and good will.
First: Build trust, build trust, build trust.
The first thing for you to do is untangle the purpose-less from the purposeful. And you can do this simply by sitting down with your colleague and pulling apart their calendars.
Second: Diagnose the problem(s).
Have your overworked colleague make a list of everything they need to do, including teaching, service, research, grantwriting, advising, assessment reports, volunteering, mentoring junior colleagues, supervising student workers…whatever their role, have them list everything they are expected to accomplish. Then sit down with that list and a calendar for the year. Map out the duration of every project. Look at due dates for assignments, when other people are expecting your colleague to deliver something completed, when an event is happening (complete with its planning deadlines), everything. Then add in all the meetings: all-campus meetings, staff meetings, department meetings, association meetings, all of them. For faculty, add in class times and office hours, advising periods, grading and assessment time throughout the semester, seasonal breaks when they won’t be teaching, time when they’ll be at conferences, all their scheduled committee meetings. Literally get it all out on a calendar of the semester or, if you can, the year and take a good, hard look at it.
I have done this my friends. I am here to tell you this will hurt. When I looked at my calendar this way in January of this year it stopped me in my tracks. But the only way you can solve this problem is to see its full scope. Get it all out there.
Now: whittle it down. Your goal is to eliminate as much purpose-less work as you possibly can. You won’t be able to get rid of all of it – unless you’re super magical, in which case I bow to your awesomeness and request that you share your secrets. BUT…if you’re human like the rest of us, this will be a work in progress. If your colleague is used to saying “yes” to everything, then helping them choose what to say “no” to might be especially hard. You can make it easier by using the person’s PURPOSE as your guiding principle.
As you help your colleagues rebuild connection to their purpose, keep three things in mind:
1: Their desired future – not just what they want to accomplish this year but why, where they hope their purpose will lead them.
2: Your relationship. You’re doing this because you care about them. Let them see that.
And 3: The importance of communication. This is a conversation, one you’ll need to revisit several times if you want it to work. Be trusting and trustworthy, and commit to shared accountability.
With those three things in mind and with your colleague’s PURPOSE at the front and center of everything, jump in and start asking the hard questions:
Such as – What is truly essential? What is motivating and purposeful? What is nice but not necessary? Separate everything you can into these categories so at the very least you have a sense of how much of the person’s work is connected to their purpose.
In addition to purpose, ask about urgency. What is on fire? What is important but not urgent or time-sensitive? How long can it wait? Push out and postpone the things you reasonably can.
What in their workload is soul-crushing? Can it be eliminated? Postponed? Reassigned to someone who would enjoy it?
What can be delegated?
What can be systematized?
What meetings can be canceled? Or shortened? Or held less frequently? Or wholly reimagined? (For more on making meetings matter, have a listen to episode 14, where I offer some strategies to make meetings both more enjoyable and more purposeful.)
Throughout this conversation stay attuned to your relationship. Let the person whose calendar you’re looking at be your guide. Listen to them, check their vocal register, pay attention to tone and body language. Help them cut through the noise of the busy-ness and give an honest assessment of the value of everything on their plate – the value to them, and to the institution. Be guided by their priorities and preferences, and coach them to think about their purpose in terms of their professional success, the quality of their life as they contemplate how to reorganize their workload, and how they can take control over their contributions.
Reworking your calendar this way can be hard and it can be slow, but it is sooooo worth doing. I have done it myself twice this year, and it is a truly life-affirming exercise.
And revisit this! It will be a work in progress. It would probably be a good idea to check in once a month to see how the new plan is going, and revise as needed. At a one-on-one every month, check in to see how things are going.
Third: Support your team by advocating for change.
OK, so now imagine everyone on your team has adjusted calendars so they are rebuilding their connections to their purpose. It’s messy and it’s new and it may be confusing and folks are trying to change their habits and this is not an overnight, quick cure. AND: If this is a cultural change at your institution, your second responsibility is to be a public advocate for this change.
Someone, somewhere, is likely to be unhappy about…something. The delayed project, or the canceled meeting, or the shifted priority. Help your team by leading: step up and step in to advocate for the well-being of the folks who report to you. Explain what your team is doing and why. Explain how these choices support and enhance campus culture. Explain how being connected to purpose increases engagement, and how increased engagement leads to retention. If you need to, demonstrate that your team is still meeting its top priorities while being attentive to their needs as humans.
Be clear, and friendly, and positive, and optimistic. Help people see why encouraging connetion to purpose is beneficial. You leading the way will make it possible for others to follow you.
And – if you haven’t yet done it for yourself, set aside a couple hours one day and do it. If you need some guidance to get it done, gimme a call.
Humanity vs. The Economy
This doesn’t look like an issue of money, but it is totally an issue of resources, expenditures, operations, exchange, an interaction. This is 100% about the economy of our campuses.
And I’m just suggesting that in the debate over quiet quitting and burnout – which can be framed as a debate over humanity vs. the economy – that we choose humanity. Because without humanity, there will be no economy.
The pandemic forced us into a period of time when to keep the economy moving we made some choices that put humans at risk. We’re in an analogous situation here: the systemic accretion of work that is leading to burnout puts all of our colleagues at risk. As leaders we bear the responsibility for changing that. In that context, making calendar adjustments is a pretty small thing, isn’t it? And how lovely that such a small thing can help restore meaning and purpose to our colleagues’ worklives.
Remember – the goal of recalibrating the calendar is to more deeply connect people’s work to their purpose. You’re reducing the alienation that leads to burnout. In turn, people’s lives can start to feel more rich and meaningful.
So two steps: help your colleagues reconnect to their purpose through the super practical method of adjusting their work calendar, and then lean into your leadership by supporting and advocating for these changes.
I’m going to keep mulling over the interplay of the ideas behind quiet quitting, quiet firing, and loud retaining, and I’m guessing I’ll come back to them. One of my favorite books on supervising is called The Progress Principle and it uses research based on real people at work to draw the conclusion that if managers want their teams to feel joy at work, the most important thing they can do is give them consistent feedback on meaningful work. You can’t do just one – give feedback but assign work that doesn’t matter, or assign lots of important work but give no feedback. Managers have to do both, and when they do, their teams thrive, no matter the situation. If you’re in a role where you’re getting consistent feedback on meaningful work, it seems to me highly unlikely that you would disengage, and also unlikely that you would be “quiet fired.” Consistent feedback on meaningful work strikes me as a foundational component of loud retaining. We’re human beings and we love working in our purpose. So yeah…I’ll be thinking about this for a while.
Thanks for thinking it over with me.
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