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Quiet Quitting and Autism

by Tom Coursey

A few words on neurodiversity and autism

I do not consider myself to be autistic but there are many traits that I share. I feel a kinship to the challenges and struggles of my autistic peers. While this article may be food for thought for anyone, I write in hopes of helping my neurodivergent peers.

The challenges of being neurodivergent in a performance culture

Since the COVID pandemic, there has been a lot of media buzz about quiet quitting. While the recent attention is getting a lot of play in news and social media, the phenomenon has been around a long time.

First off, let's be clear that "quiet quitting" is not quitting. It is not resigning or giving up. Quiet quitting is merely establishing a boundary with regards to meeting your employer's expectations and no longer going above and beyond in the pursuit of recognition or personal satisfaction.

Often, these non-tangible rewards offer diminishing returns when compared to the pay and benefits employees receive for their contribution to the company. While this sounds counter to the "ask not what your country (employer) can do for you," it is a conscious effort to invest your time/energy into things that will return to you a desired outcome from your investment.

My neurodivergent friends and colleagues may be struggling with establishing a workplace boundary. You may give more focus and time than your neurotypical peers doing the same work. For this reason, you are especially susceptible to becoming a workaholic. A very common theme heard from neurodivergents’ partners is that their neurodivergent loved ones are married to their work.

Your laser focus and hours spent problem solving because of your intense interest is commendable but also a double-edged sword. There is a cost associated with hyperfocus and it usually appears as neglect of your personal life. If this resonates with you and you find your situation dissatisfying, consider stepping back a moment and envisioning what less time devoted to work life and more time devoted to personal life might look like.

Example: Tom works 10 hours a day but gets paid for eight. His employer does not notice the extra two hours. In fact, it may be expected that Tom will do everything to "get the job done" with no additional compensation or recognition. After a time, Tom is burned out, overwhelmed, feeling underappreciated at work, and most likely neglecting in his self-care and personal relationships. Tom could, however, take that extra time and precious energy and invest in himself through self-care, relationships, hobbies or even looking for a more desirable employment situation.

According to an article entitled, "Is Quiet Quitting Real?" a June 2022 Gallup poll surveyed 15,000 employees and found that half of them were quiet quitting at work. "Another 18% were actively disengaged." This phenomenon has employers and managers quaking in their cubicles. How will they ever recover the lost productivity that they were getting for free? My belief is that we should allow them to figure it out for themselves, after all, we are going to invest in ourselves where we are more likely get a positive return for our efforts.

Be careful though as managers can be crafty. They most likely did not get that role by being quiet quitters. They will tempt you with “atta-girls/boys” or being their “go-to” person for special projects. These expectations usually come in addition to our normal work duties.

These psychological “rewards” are dangerous. They take advantage of our need to be wanted and feel special. Our managers may hint that no one else is as skilled. They might suggest that we alone are selected for this extra mission. They flatter us. This (psychologically) rewards us without actual currency. We must be happy with the warm feeling we have at the end of our 50-60 hour work week knowing that we gave it our all.

Ironically, as I was writing this article, I also was receiving my review. It was a good year! I am new to my current position and had endured almost a full year of training. My first few months post-training have gone extremely well. On occasion, my production exceeded my peers with more experience. My supervisor offered this: “If you continue this level of performance, I could see calling on you next year to be a mentor to new employees in your position.” I was flattered! I felt important, needed, and valuable to the company. Damn it! I fell right into the trap. Had I not been editing this writing;I might not have been aware enough to recognize what was happening. My supervisor had used these very effective psychological techniques on me to get more without additional compensation.

How to make your situation work for you

Before you take any action, do your research. Know what your employer expects of you to be successful at the end of your performance period. Meet with them, gain clarity, and understand the metrics that will be used to measure your performance. Make sure you understand the performance reward system. If they ask for x and you provide x+n, know what to expect. This will tell you how they value the above and beyond. If you need help preparing for this meeting, feel free to contact me for a free initial coaching session here.

Yes, I used ‘they” to refer to management. Make no mistake, this is a you versus “them” relationship. I spent many years as a manager in Fortune 10 companies and the federal government. While I highly valued my employees’ contributions and did everything in my power to reward them and shepherd their careers, at the end of the day I was beholding to the company first. While partnership sounds great, your management is looking out for the company’s (and possibly stockholders’) best interest first. It is YOUR responsibility to look out for your own interests.

These conversations are often awkward and uncomfortable. It is because you are sitting across the table from the representative who holds power over you. Practice with someone you do not work with such as friend, relative, or coach. Be familiar with the words and facts you want to use and the conversation will be much easier. What is difficult to recognize and use to your advantage is that management needs you as much as you need your job. This is basic economics. Where supply meets demand. You supply the effort and expertise, they supply what you need: money, benefits, and stability.

Once you know how they value the x+n, you can decide if the equation meets your needs or if your contribution is better placed elsewhere. Example: let’s say your employer needs you to spend an extra 5 hours per week on a special project for a year. At the end, your supervisor will put in a good word towards a promotion – although they can’t guarantee anything. That’s 48 weeks x 5 hours per week = 240 hours. If you spent those 240 hours someplace else that was most important to you, what would it be? Time with family? Continuing education? A hobby? What would be the tangible benefit and how would it compare to “a good word with no guarantee”? Maybe you chose the special project at work – at least you made a conscious choice on how to spend YOUR time. I hope whatever you choose, that it pays off.

Putting your plan in action

Should you choose to quiet quit, continue to be professional. I suggest moving slowly, continuously checking for negative indications. Someone may notice you aren’t first in the office as early or staying as late as you once did. Prepare ahead of time for these conversations as they may feel awkward and uncomfortable. Managers may even try to make you feel bad. Be diplomatic but resolute. There are many good reasons to give for giving less time at work. If you need to do so, find one that suits you and stick to it.

Will they fire me? That is a possibility, however, chances are, your employer has spent considerable time and money training you. That is a sunk cost they will have to repeat if they bring in someone new to replace you in addition to the lost productivity during the replacement’s training period. Termination may be tough for management to justify if you are still meeting your performance goals. You’re just not looking to exceed them by much.

What if they ask for more? That’s a great opening for a renegotiation of your at-will work agreement. It allows you to monetize that above and beyond and be compensated for it – OR – to just politely say, no thank you!

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