“Take this job and shove it!” That bitter take on workplace loyalty comes from a 1977 song by David Allan Cole, made popular by Johnny Paycheck and by a subsequent movie. Today’s version might be more like, “Take this job and watch me do the minimum.” It is less bitter but also harder for an employer to cope with because the employee is still at the organization.
It’s a common misconception that Gen Z is “soft” and, as a result, not loyal to their employers or engaged at work. Indeed, engagement dropped 2% in 2021 alone, even though roughly $1 billion dollars is pumped into improving engagement in organizations across the U.S. every year.
Why is this happening? Blame is usually placed on organizations or leaders for not getting their people to engage. The reality is more complex than that. People today, perhaps especially Gen Z, understand that in the absence of employers (and managers) taking a real interest in their careers, they have to navigate their career growth themselves. To compound the problem, research from 2022 found that most workers who changed employers saw a 9.7% real gains in their earning whereas those that stayed saw a 1% drop. So, why give more at your current job when, in all likelihood, it is another job at another company that will provide greater opportunity? And what is the incentive to work harder at the current job?
This helps to better understand the trend of quiet quitting; people are not focused on going above and beyond the job expectations or trusting the advice of their employer because the employer isn’t committed to them. Rather, they are focused on meeting their current job expectations and navigating the system themselves. This is because traditional leadership practices don’t align the best with modern workplace necessities. But to understand that more, it is useful to consider an extensive body of research in an area called organizational citizenship behaviors (OCBs).
OCB is a term from the late 1980s and 1990s that methodically categorizes workplace behaviors that go above and beyond the job requirements. Some OCBs are about people helping other people, such as when an employee mentors a new person who is struggling with some aspect of their job or when an employee shows up at an optional after-hours event. In other words, OCBs are the opposite of quiet quitting because they represent a commitment to the organization and their teammates that goes above and beyond what is required. Importantly, OCBs are strongly linked to almost every imaginable positive work outcome, including engagement.
What has happened, however, is that the link between OCBs and benefit to the individual employee has been broken, and the reason has to do with both leadership and followership.
Why Doesn’t Commitment Pay?
In my Ph.D. studies, I researched the link between OCBs and followership and found strong followership skills lead to greater organizational citizenship behaviors. When organizations have intentionally developed active followership in the same efforts as they develop leadership, the followers were better positioned for leadership growth and improved retention, according to Deloitte. Furthermore, when organizations train on both leadership and followership, it changes everything: In the 2007 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, the FDIC was rated by its employees in the bottom third of mid-sized federal US Government agencies. During The Great Recession of 2007-9, at a time when the FDIC was also struggling with the meltdown of the mortgage market, the organization underwent a culture change initiative that featured training for all employees on both leadership and followership. And it was incredibly effective. By 2011, the FDIC had risen to number one in the Employee Viewpoint Survey for all mid-sized agencies. What’s more, they kept that top spot every year until 2016. It is compelling evidence that engagement isn’t just a management problem, and quiet quitting isn’t just a followership problem. In fact, the two are linked.
There is growing evidence of the impacts of followership on organizational strength, preparedness for leaders and business impacts; however, the mention of the word creates hesitation across organizations, particularly in the leadership field. The reality is that people are all following and leading at different times in their current roles and careers. It is far more beneficial for the organization if those people were skilled at both. It amplifies the strength of the organization. Sharna Fabiano articulated this in a recent article when she suggested, “power does not come from leadership alone, rather from what happens when leaders and followers synchronize their actions.”
This points to the reality that the wrong question is being asked with engagement. Dr. Marc and Samantha Hurwitz are researchers in this field who suggest in their book, “Leadership Is Half the Story,” instead of asking “how do I engage you?” people should be asking, “how do I commit to you?” By asking this question, the assumptions of hierarchy are removed, and leaders and followers are then engaged in collaborative conversation. Leaders need to commit to followers, but followers have to understand their role — OCBs and engagement — to commit to leaders. This is balance, and this is what people want.
How To Generate Commitment
Here are a few behaviors and practical ways to improve the commitment between leadership and followership:
Help people as a leader, help people as a follower: People are moved by altruism. When a team member is in need of help, don’t wait for them to ask, rather approach and offer help, or just help them if they are welcoming. There shouldn’t be an expectation of reciprocity from helping, and it’s the lack of expectation in reciprocity that makes helping altruistic and creates the appeal of commitment from others. People want to commit to good people.
Give back: While there shouldn’t be an expectation of reciprocity, it is important for people to see that you are committed to their success. As a follower, find out what success means to your leader and figure out how to contribute. As a leader, find out what success means to your team and figure out what you can do to make it happen.
Be a good sport: Overlook inconveniences and allow for challenges and pushback. Teach team members how to challenge ideas with productive alternatives, and then let them contribute to the idea. When people are able to offer ideas and contribute to its success, they feel valued and from that value comes commitment.
Involve people: Put people in decision-making roles on projects and shift to a follower role to support them leading. Openly set this expectation to the team that this person is leading this initiative, and there is an expectation that when someone is leading the others are active followers supporting the leadership. Involving people in organizational decision-making creates civic virtue which doesn’t just create commitment to leadership, it creates commitment to organizations.
It’s time to shift from setting expectations for followers to engage in generalized behaviors to a more collaborative and inclusive approach in commitment. Altruism, being a good sport and involving people aren’t just good followership behaviors, but they are good people behaviors. When leaders and followers share in their commitment to each other, and exercise good people behaviors, commitment will start paying again.