It started in China, where overworked and burned-out employees across the country simultaneously came to the conclusion that work is not worth the continuous sacrifice of their health and well-being. There, it took the name tang ping or ‘lying flat’ - where ‘flat’ is actually the default, no more and no less than what one is expected to do in their role, and ‘standing up’ means to put additional effort in to stick out. It's worth noting that in Chinese, the word for 'flat' also means peaceful or harmonious.
Then, a little earlier this year, a TikTok video called it ‘quiet quitting’, and the term took off on English-speaking social media, where it has since become a synonym for entitlement or healthy boundaries, depending on who happens to be commenting.
But the very phrase ‘quiet quitting’ is a gross misnomer. Employees who choose not to go above and beyond are, in fact, still doing their work - what they are paid to do. They have not stopped working, nor has the quality of their work changed. They are not doing less than what is required of their role. Most of them have not even lost interest in their jobs. In other words, they have not quit.
So it’s unsurprising that the debate on social media involves a considerable amount of pushback from employees who have decided to ‘lie flat’.
Someone who is still engaged and still performing is certainly not going to appreciate being called lazy or entitled, let alone accused of quitting.
On the other side of the debate, the people who are most against the practice of ‘lying flat’ tend to take exception to the idea that employees do not want to do more than what they are paid for. In a profit-driven business, an employee who goes above and beyond - who provides more value than what their salary justifies - is certainly going to be highly desirable. And if that employee suddenly stops providing that extra unpaid value, the employer will obviously not be happy - because they will now have to pay more in order to get the same amount of work done.
This is understandable: it’s human nature to push back when you have been getting something for free and it’s suddenly taken away. But when that something free is another person’s labour, which furthermore accrues to your own profits with no return to them, pushing back is not easy to justify.
Rather, it is profoundly entitled of employers or managers to believe that they should always get more than what they are paying for. Going above and beyond is a gift that an employee gives to a company, and if the employee chooses to stop giving - whether because they feel unrewarded or simply because they are no longer able to give - it would be nothing less than mean-spirited to denigrate and mislabel the employee rather than appreciating what they have given so far.
Unfortunately, too many employers and managers today seem to have forgotten that an employee’s passion is the gift that it is, and take it for granted. It’s hard not to wonder if this entitlement and lack of appreciation is why so many people have decided to stop giving free labour, and instead ‘lie flat’ and do no more than what they are paid to do.
As good managers and leaders, it’s time to reclaim a proper sense of what employees’ time and labour are worth, and to understand that doing what one is paid to do is actually the default. It’s time to stop taking for granted the extra value that our fellow human beings provide.
Starting, perhaps, with acknowledging that people who ‘lie flat’ are still doing their job.