Quiet Constraint”, an HR topic? Really?

If you were fed up with “The Big Resignation” and are still wondering what to do with “Quiet Quitting” you are not out of the woods yet because here comes your new source of headaches: “Quiet Constraint“.

Quiet Constraint: the new pernicious effect of remote working

First of all, what is “Quiet Constraint”? It is the fact that employees do not share and keep to themselves information that could have been useful to others.

And what is the main cause? As this article explains, it is the consequence of remote or hybrid work.

Well, yes. People don’t see each other anymore, so the link is distended, the information doesn’t circulate anymore because we don’t want to circulate it.

It’s a question of social ties and exchange, it’s due to new forms of work, so it’s an HR issue and HR must find a remedy at all costs. And this remedy is to set up communication channels and spaces to decompartmentalize the organization.

At least, that’s the conclusion of the article in question.

It’s reassuring: we have the problem and the solution in the same article.

Ah but… does this subject remind you of anything?

2022: the discovery of the collaboration gap

So there is a collaboration gap in businesses. I’m relieved that in 2022 people took the time to think about it and identify the problem.

Because that’s what we’re talking about. Call it collaboration, formal collaboration, informal collaboration, social collaboration or emergent collaboration not sharing information is not so much a communication problem as it is a collaboration problem.

Collaboration is what we do, communication is one of the ways we do it. So let’s talk about the real problem, which is a collaboration problem.

Well, it’s also a bit of a Knowledge Management problem. We can’t say that the processes inherited from the industrial era favor the capitalization and sharing of knowledge in knowledge work as they did in industrial activities. But don’t worry, this is a subject we will talk about again soon.

Let’s be serious for two minutes. This is a subject that I have dealt with many times here, this blog having dealt almost exclusively with collaboration for the first 5 or 6 years, and I think I have enough experience to have a strong opinion on the subject.

The lack of collaboration or even, in extreme cases, the withholding of information is nothing new and is a subject that companies have been trying to address for… 40 years? 50 years? More?

Has the evolution of work styles added to the problem? It certainly has. But it was already a major problem before so if I’m surprised that some are only discovering it now. Unless it’s opportunism?

Remote working: a false problem

It’s easy to blame telecommuting for a problem that largely predates it.

In my experience, there are many companies that operated remotely, or even completely for some of the pioneers, that had no problems with collaboration and communication between employees. Perhaps even more so the pioneers of “100% remote” that had to excel on the subject from the start because it was a question of survival.

And I can give you a list of companies as big as the phone book that were dysfunctional on the subject while everyone was in the same office, sharing the same open spaces etc.

So I’m sorry, but communication and collaboration problems are not a matter of distance. Their causes are well known:

  • Culture
  • Management
  • Process and collaborative know-how
  • Knowledge Management Practice and Personal Knowledge Management.

Collaboration is not the result of people’s desire to work together, not of the fact that people meet at the coffee machine, but of a work system, as Jim Benson said in this excellent article. In a similar vein, you can also read what I was saying at the beginning of the 2010s about social routines, the socialization of businesses and their processes, or the mobilization of tacit knowledge for business purposes.

It’s not even a matter of technology: technology is only useful if these presuppositions are met. And honestly, what company doesn’t have the necessary technology today, in 2022?

But let’s get back to what creates the conditions for collaboration

What makes collaboration possible?

I was saying…

1°) Culture: it starts from the company culture but it is not everything. There are companies that have a real culture of collaboration that goes far beyond that. And this culture is not spread by speeches and proclamations, but because it is part of the company’s “process factory”. Work and operating methods are designed to capture, capitalize and disseminate information at different levels and through different channels

2°) Management: this is the cornerstone of the system. The exemplary nature of the manager, psychological security, evaluation methods that do not put people in competition…

3°) Processes and collaborative know-how: the company’s processes must (and this is often the result of a culture) be designed to capture and disseminate information, or at least make it available. And then there is a collaborative know-how that is also acquired more by practice than by training.

3°) KM and PKM: information management within the framework of company operations is a matter of knowledge management, when it is at an individual level, for example the non-sharing of a personal watch, it is a matter of Personal Knowledge Management which is a matter of individual discipline but also of a certain know-how which does not fall from the sky.

HR vs Quiet Constraint?

Let’s go back to my main point: is Quiet Constraint an HR topic? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to prove that HR is illegitimate, but rather that they have enough work to do as it is and that it’s not doing them any favors to throw a new hot topic in their face.

If we look at the components of the work system, HR only has the cultural lever in its hands. And even then… While they can initiate its dissemination, it is the managers and employees who make it happen. Culture is not what HR proclaims, but what employees experience, and there is often a huge gap between the two.

Then there is another approach to collaborative capabilities in the organization. We often talk about knowing, wanting and being able to collaborate.

Knowing how to collaborate? Some will say that it is a matter of training, I would say that it is 95% a matter of practice. What makes people collaborate is not so much the fact that they have learned it but that they are immersed in an environment where it happens. And it’s more about attitude and behavior than hard skills.

Wanting to collaborate? Yes, maybe the fact that we see each other less means that we know people less, that we may have less desire to give them something of value. But the desire still comes from the context: when in a company, in a team, we see information circulating and people helping spontaneously, we get in tune, even if we just arrived without knowing anyone.

Being able to collaborate? This is more a matter of management (making things possible or not restricting good initiatives) and tools.

So yes, HR has a role to play, but it is minimal. We might as well leave the subject to those who are already dealing with it in the company and ask HR for help on their own subjects from time to time.

An “HR channel” against the Quiet Constraint? A major mistake

One of the advocates of the article I mentioned above is that HR create an alternative communication channel where people will feel free to talk. This is the worst thing you can do and the worst part is that we have at least 20 years of hindsight to prove it.

Let’s go back to the years 2005-2010. This is the beginning of the advent of enterprise social networks. Everyone wants to try it, no one knows or wants to do what it takes to make it work.

The following story is one I’ve experienced in at least 10 different companies.

The company launches a Corporate Social Network pilot with a small population. Not wide enough or targeted enough (your choice) for the innovation department who launches another pilot with another product. But then again, not everyone is concerned, so a lot of BUs and departments launch an experiment more or less under the radar.

Next comes HR, which, except for the HR population, has no legitimacy to lead professional communities based on expertise and operations and says to itself “it’s our role to get people to talk to each other”. What legitimacy does HR have to lead a community of sales people for sales intelligence, of engineers for technology intelligence? None. To lead operational communities around a given process or operational field? Even less.

To create a virtual coffee machine? Yes. But people don’t have the time and by dint of multiplying the tools they will concentrate on the one that is most used in their daily life. That of their BU or department. Not the HR one.

Not only does this not work, but it also creates competition between initiatives that, on the contrary, are meant to bring people together.

In 2022, the result would be the same for the same reasons, only worse. Indeed, at the time, the tools were in the pilot stage, today, from Microsoft 365 to Gsuite and a host of more or less specialized or niche solutions, they are installed, they are part of the daily life of employees and it is smarter to try to use them rather than add others.

And if you are HR, read the article carefully. Who does it speak to ? HR. Who is speaking ? Lots of people who have solutions or services to sell you and no HR practitioners or professionals who talk about how they live and manage the situation.

In other words, it tells you “we’re going to make you believe that there is a new problem, that you need to fix it as HR and that’s fine, we have plenty of things to sell you to do so even if it will cause more problems than it will solve”.

Don’t fall into the trap. Quiet Constraint is a serious topic, but by no means a new one. People are working on it in your company, the tools are already there, work together to improve things instead of taking the white knight role and going off alone to certain failure.

Bottom line

The Quiet Constraint is the new product of the marketing machine to manufacture Buzzword to sell products and services.

But it’s nothing new. It has been known for over 30 years as the inability of companies to collaborate, to get their people to collaborate formally or informally.

There has always been people working on it. The technology is there. And yet progress is slow.

HR can’t imagine solving the problem alone, they don’t have the means. But they should collaborate with those who have been trying to improve things for a long time, and their help will be welcome.

Image : Quiet Constraint by pathdoc via Shutterstock

Bertrand DUPERRINhttps://www.duperrin.com/english
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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