Learning & Development

Can Conflict at Work Lead to Quiet Quitting?

Most organizations like when their employees go above and beyond the letter of their job description. In some cases, this discretionary effort is an expectation; indeed, there are companies that could not function without it. Efforts to build a strong company culture and boost engagement will of course benefit individual employees but also make it more likely they will invest extra time and energy in their work.

quiet quitting

Recently, however, cracks have begun to appear in this cozy picture. While some have always questioned the demands put upon them by their organizations and the idea that work is central to their lives, this feeling has been supercharged by COVID-19. People suddenly had the opportunity to stop and take stock of their lives, often because they had been laid off during the pandemic. As things began to recover, many people looked for new jobs in what has become known as the “turnover tsunami” or the “great resignation,” with those left behind questioning how much effort they should put into their work.

This has led to the phenomenon of “quiet quitting.”

Not Feeling Valued is Key for ‘Quiet Quitting’

Quiet quitting doesn’t mean that workers quietly resign from their job without making a fuss. In quiet quitting, they remain in their post and carry out the basic duties of their job but nothing more. Viewed from some angles, there is nothing wrong with this; organizations arguably should not put themselves in a position where they need to rely on employees constantly going above and beyond. However, even in the best-organized businesses, there will always be times when discretionary effort is needed. And quiet quitting can easily slide into putting off difficult tasks, expecting others to take up the slack, or being “absent” while nominally at work.

There are many reasons an individual may decide to quietly quit, but one key factor is how valued the worker feels. Those who feel more valued by their organization are more likely to put in additional effort. In previous research, we have found that employees who felt more included and valued (especially by their manager) had higher levels of well-being, which, in turn, led to greater job engagement and a greater likelihood of their putting in additional effort to help the organization and fellow workers. In our latest research, we’ve found that the way individuals perceive and deal with conflict contributes to how valued they feel.

The Impacts of Healthy Conflict for Companies

One finding was that research participants who agreed or strongly agreed that they felt valued by their organization spent, on average, less than 2 hours per week dealing with conflict of some sort at work. In contrast, those who disagreed or strongly disagreed spent almost 7 hours a week on average—almost a whole day. Those who spend more time dealing with conflict feel less valued and therefore are more likely to show quiet quitting behaviors.

Of course, some conflict in the workplace is inevitable, but research also shows that conflict does not have to be negative. Just over half (52%) of the people in our survey felt that workplace conflict had a mix of positive and negative results, while 17% saw conflict as mainly or entirely positive, and 31% saw it as mainly or entirely negative. Of those who saw conflict as having positive results, 80% agreed or strongly agreed that they felt valued by and at home in their organization, but of those who saw it as having negative results, only 43% felt valued.

So, anything organizations can do to help employees take a more balanced view of conflict is likely to be of use. Our research showed that those who had the opportunity to assess their conflict style experienced a range of positive outcomes, including a better understanding of their impact on other people.

Managers in particular could benefit from this approach. We asked our survey respondents how well their manager or supervisor dealt with conflict. Among those who felt their supervisor managed conflict very well, 83% agreed or strongly agreed that they felt valued. Among those who felt their supervisor managed conflict poorly or very poorly, only 50% felt valued. The more effectively a manager deals with conflict, the more valued that manager’s direct reports will feel, the more engaged they will be, and the less likely they will become quiet quitters.

Conflict takes place whenever there is a difference of opinion among people, so healthy conflict can lead to new insights and creative solutions. To realize these positive outcomes, people need to recognize how they typically deal with conflict so they have the power to change their style when needed. This, in turn, can build engagement and lessen the likelihood of quiet quitting.

John Hackston is a chartered psychologist and head of Thought Leadership at The Myers-Briggs Company, where he leads the company’s Oxford-based research team. He is a frequent commentator on the effects of personality type on work and life and has authored numerous studies, published papers in peer-reviewed journals, presented at conferences for organizations such as The British Association for Psychological Type, and written on various type-related subjects in top outlets such as the Harvard Business Review.