In recent weeks, there has been an avalanche of discussion about “quiet quitters”. These are people who have grown disillusioned with their workplaces and given up putting in additional effort; no monitoring their emails during the weekend or working on a pressing project during the evening. Quiet quitters have retreated into their job description, trying to preserve their sanity by limiting what they do.
Yet the discussion about quiet quitters has entirely overlooked their noisier cousins: the “loud labourers”. If you have had a colleague who spends more time talking about work than actually doing it, then you have witnessed a loud labourer first-hand. These are employees who see their core task as telling everyone what they have done. For these individuals, the actual work is a distant afterthought. They graft for the ‘gram, toil for the tweets, and labour for the LinkedIn likes. Actually getting anything done is just an afterthought.
Loud labour is nothing new. If you give a group of people a task, there will always be those who sigh the loudest. Evolutionary psychologists will tell you that moaning, grunting and sighing is a way we signal our contribution in the hope of reaping rewards. The hunter who plays up the effort she made to catch the prey may hope for a greater share of her quarry, or at least more status within her group. The cook who talks about the extensive effort he has made to prepare the dish hopes for greater rewards – even if it is just praise. Even the grunting of professional tennis players has been interpreted as a kind of competitive signal they send out in the hope of getting an advantage over opponents.
As work has become increasingly complicated, so too have the tactics of the loud labourer. Sighs, groans and grunts are no longer enough. They have adopted other tactics of self-promotion. They know how to brag at a team meeting about the momentous energy they have been putting into a project. They are great at developing detailed plans, pitches and visions for what they will achieve in the future. For the loud labourer, a task not talked about is a task not done.
During the past decade, as workplaces have increasingly been replaced by virtual spaces, many employees’ efforts have felt increasingly invisible. Many feel underappreciated because there are no bosses or colleagues to see their hard toil. Workers have become increasingly desperate for some kind of recognition. In this world of virtual working, we rapidly learn that it is often only those whose work is seen and spoken about who get handsomely rewarded. So we clamour for our efforts to be visible.
Loud labourers have learned a crucial lesson from performance artists. The performance artist takes nearly any aspect of their life and calls it art. The loud labourer takes nearly anything they do and relabels it “work”. There is no experience, no matter how ephemeral, that a loud labourer can’t turn into weighty work. They show their unstinting work ethic by making their entire life into an endless assignment.
More than a century ago, the American sociologist Thorstein Veblen identified what he called “conspicuous consumption” – the excessive rituals that the rich used to show off their wealth. Today, we are witnessing a strange inversion of what Veblen saw a century ago: “conspicuous production”. Instead of showing off status through consuming fine food, we try to boost our own status through excessive displays of productivity.
Being a loud labourer is easier for some. A recent study by a group of economists found that boys from the age of about 11 or 12 are more likely to engage in self-promotion, particularly when describing stereotypically male tasks. Clearly this can put others at a disadvantage. A study of female classical musicians found that while they felt intense pressure to promote themselves in order to get work, they were less likely than men to do so because, among other things, “pushy” behaviour conflicted with normative expectations of women as “modest”.
Tooting your own horn too much at work can backfire. A series of experiments run by my colleague Irene Scopelliti found that self-promoters thought that sharing their successes would make people like them more, but usually it made them less likable. Too much self promotion can be disastrous for work teams and entire organisations. A recent study found that having a heavy self-promoter in your team dragged down the performance of the entire group.
While some quiet quitters have silently opted out, the loud labourers have noisily opted in. But in doing so, they have taken up only work that can easily be bragged about. This means people underinvest in the quiet and unflashy work that needs to be done to achieve anything. It is this work that makes any institution or organisation operate. The boasting of the loud labourer may catch our attention, but it is the work of their quieter colleagues that deserve our praise.
André Spicer is professor of organisational behaviour at the Bayes Business School at City, University of London