Although the term “quiet resignation” may be new, what is happening is just the latest expression of a fundamental aspect of human nature: In the face of constant and unavoidable stressors, people often respond by simply stopping. If you have nothing under control, why even try? Scientists have traditionally called this response “learned helplessness,” but recent research suggests that passivity is our default hardwired response to chronic adversity. Organizations can reverse employees’ passivity by giving them a direct experience of autonomy — the feeling of having control over their lives and choices.
The world is increasingly feeling out of control, with a daily onslaught of dire news and economic anxiety. No wonder that 31% of Americans experienced depression and anxiety – three times more than before the pandemic – and almost 50% of the workforce saying they don’t go above and beyond for their jobs.
And while some say the so-called “quiet withdrawal” is about drawing healthy boundaries between work and personal time, actions like withdrawing from your team, limiting communication in what is strictly necessary, and remaining silent rather than contributing to meetings is “classic indicators of reduced motivation and low engagement.”
Although the term is still new, what’s happening here is just the latest expression of a fundamental aspect of human behavior: Faced with constant and unavoidable stressors, people often respond by to stop. If you have nothing under control, why even try?
Scientists call it “learned helplessness.” After you have endured a stressful situation where nothing you do matters, you tend to remain passive and lose hope – even in new situations where you have control.
A study shows how this happens. The researchers gave the students a sheet of paper with three anagrams to solve. Unbeknownst to the students, there are two different versions of the sheet. In one, the first two anagrams are easy; on the other hand, they cannot be solved. The third anagram on both pages is the same easy-to-solve word.
Students who can easily unscramble the first two words on the first sheet also easily solve the third. But the students who encountered a no-win situation – focusing on two anagrams with no possible solution – were stuck and frustrated, and they didn’t even try the third. As one student put it: “Nothing is working, so why try?”
What Drives Learned Helplessness?
Known impotence was originally recognized in the 1960s by a famous psychological experiment which the modern lab would not allow. Martin Seligman – the psychologist whose later work launched the subfield known as positive psychology – restrained dogs on an electrified platform where they received electric shocks on their hind legs. Over time, knowing that they were powerless to free themselves, the dogs stopped trying.
When Seligman changed the conditions, moving the dogs to an electrified metal plate that they could easily escape from, the dogs didn’t even try to get away. Believing that they still have no power, they crouch on the floor, sigh, and accept their fate. They never discovered that escape was within their grasp.
Seligman concluded that humans respond in the same way as dogs. Thinking that nothing we do matters, we stop trying to improve our circumstances.
More recent research, however, caused Seligman to make a facial appearance in his first translation. Steven Maier, a researcher involved in Seligman’s original experiment, later switched fields and became a neuroscientist. And his research suggests that helplessness isn’t just a response to enduring misfortunes beyond our control. Instead, passivity is our default hardwired response to chronic adversity. When subjected to persistent negative experiences, the brain believes it is out of control — an instinctive response that Maier and Seligman have renamed “default passivity.”
The implication is profound because it means that learned helplessness is never learned. Instead, shutting down and passively accepting the status quo is the normal human response to long-term adverse events. Like a pandemic that never ends. Or a job you hate but can’t quit.
Default passivity offers an explanation for the silent stop phenomenon. People have been stressed for years, but they don’t have the freedom to get up and stop. Feeling powerless to escape a stressful situation, they respond in a way that we now know is normal and predictable: by becoming passive. They don’t contribute ideas to meetings. They don’t take the initiative to switch teams or actively seek more meaningful work. They just did what they had to do to avoid getting fired.
Combating Default Passivity in the Workplace
Fortunately, passivity does not have to be a permanent condition. The original studies found that impotence can be reversed. To test this, Seligman and his colleagues dragged the helpless dogs off the electrified platform and to the other side where they were safe. After a few rounds of being moved to the other side, the dogs lost their adaptability and began to respond on their own. This intervention successfully reversed impotence in 100% of the dogs – and their recovery was “complete and lasting.”
So how can organizations re-engage employees to reduce silent attrition? By providing employees direct experience of autonomy — the feeling of having control over their life and choices. Managers can do this in two ways.
First, you can find opportunities to give employees more autonomy. If possible, let them choose their own schedules and deadlines, and whether to work from home or the office. Let them make their own decisions about who to work with, how to spend their time, and how to approach getting their work done. Ask for their input on goals and strategies, and give them a voice in how decisions are made.
In addition to giving employees more autonomy, encourage them to use the autonomy they already have by making their own decisions whenever possible to promote what psychologists call “internal locus of control.” The brain craves choices, and studies show that even the anticipation of getting the choice activates the ventral striatum, a brain region associated with anticipation and excitement. Encourage employees to switch things up, take on work that interests them, and focus on learning. Maybe that means choosing their own tasks or taking on more challenging work to learn new skills.
Whatever an employee’s role, let them know you welcome their ideas about how they can make their work more meaningful in ways that still serve the needs of the team and the organization. That way, when things get tense and employees feel sad and hopeless, they take action to improve their situation instead of suffering in silence.
Remember that silent quitting happens when employees feel stuck. The more freedom you give them, the less they will feel the need to respond in unproductive ways.