Minerva Thai, Senior Product Marketing Manager at WorkRamp, recently shared a great post on LinkedIn on Merriam-Webster’s “Word of the Year 2022.” The article discussed nine popular terms and declared “gaslighting” as the word of the year, with a whopping 1740% spike in lookups.
First used in the 20th century, Merriam-Webster defined “gaslighting” as:
psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator
Simply put, “gaslighting” is the deliberate misleading of someone for one’s benefit. The word is a helpful alternative to “lying” and “fraud” that fail to capture certain events, and is “at home in formal and technical writing as well as in colloquial use.” I first came across the word in 2020 when two female friends described their encounters with a serial predator who repeatedly made them question what they suspected of his behavior.
But, on LinkedIn, Minerva shed light on the prevalence of gaslighting in a different – and unexpected- setting.
She pointed out that the perpetrator of gaslighting can be an individual but also a “system we’ve collectively, tacitly agreed to participate in despite it benefitting only a fraction of the whole.” Her focus was on the work culture in the corporate where most people struggle with work-life balance and risk losing their jobs at any time, regardless of their performance and dedication.
They work long hours, often burn out, and yet continue working under suboptimal conditions, wrongly believing their company “needs them” or will promote them if they “work hard.” The quiet quitting trend needs a long, hard look at this backdrop.
In an article for Harvard Business Review, Anthony C. Klotz and Mark C. Bolino defined quiet quitting as “opting out of tasks beyond one’s assigned duties and/or becoming less psychologically invested in work.” Quiet quitters don’t go beyond the core job duties and are not interested in unnecessary meetings, staying back late, or showing up early. The authors noted this behavior “may seem unproblematic at first glance” and that many “leaders” have reacted negatively to the trend because:
for many companies, a workforce that is willing to go beyond the call of duty is a critical competitive advantage. The reality is that most jobs can’t be fully defined in a formal job description or contract, so organizations rely on employees to step up to meet extra demands as needed
Quiet quitting is a problem because it strips companies of their “competitive advantage.” But in an environment with practically non-existent job security, where everyone is disposable, and where CEOs refer to layoffs as “cutting the fat,” why should employees “go beyond the call of duty?”
If most companies do the bare minimum for people, how is the expectation employees “step up to meet extra demands as needed” legit? Article after article describes quiet quitting as a crisis to be managed. But what if by refusing to be gaslit anymore, quiet quitters are actually quietly winning?
The current debates on quiet quitting also oversimplify what constitutes work and how race and gender play into office politics. In her article for The Guardian, Tayo Bero pointed out that women are disproportionately asked to take up tasks nobody else is interested in, “like planning the office party, attending to that time-consuming client, keeping track of employee birthdays and so on.”
She also notes that women of color do more “office “housework” and have less access to … work that gets you noticed by higher-ups, and can lead to your next promotion.” While they bear the brunt of this unpaid labor, “it’s very easy for men to say no, because there are no consequences.”
The freedom to say ‘no’ to unattractive work and not fear losing their jobs is a luxury that many people from marginal identities can’t afford. Regardless, one point needs underscoring. If the employer expectation of people doing more work than they are paid to isn’t strange, what’s stranger is the use of the term “rebels” for employees who don’t.
As Bera put it aptly in her piece, “people shouldn’t be doing more work than they have to. And just doing the work that you’re paid for should be the standard, not an act of mutiny.”
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