Embracing the principle of continuous learning is paramount to me. Each person we interact with and every opportunity we encounter holds valuable teachings. We can glean wisdom from everyone we meet by cultivating a receptive mindset. This principle underscores our shared humanity and fallibility. However, through our dedication to learning, we embrace transparency, openly acknowledging our errors and steadily evolving into improved individuals. I wholeheartedly prioritize this commitment to perpetual growth.

Quiet quitting is the emerging phenomenon of employee disengagement, essentially quitting on the job. What strategies do high-impact leaders deploy to motivate themselves and those around them to move from quiet quitting to quiet committing? Because, at its core, there is no change without commitment. Commitment to change ideas. Change beliefs. Change perspectives. Change routines, rituals and boundaries. Organizations change one commitment at a time. One leader at a time. As part of our series about “Quiet Committing: The Top Five Commitments High Impact Leaders Make & Keep To Themselves Daily”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Sriram Rajagopalan

Dr. Sriram Rajagopalan is working as the Enterprise Agile Evangelist at Inflectra Corporation supporting clients on their product adoption and digital transformation. He also works as an Assistant Teaching Professor at Northeastern University and as the founder of Agile Training Champions. He established and ran the Program Management Office in a Life Sciences company for over 10 years. He received the PMI Eric Jenett Excellence award in 2017 and was the finalist for Kerzner Award for Process Excellence in 2012. He has created and published reference frameworks in scholarly journals and practitioner columns on middle management transformation, product management, and leadership. He volunteered supporting PMI, PMI Mass Bay Chapter, Agile Alliance, NAAAP, Northeastern MSL Leadership Matters, Boston University Agile Innovation Lab, and the Global Skill Development Council. He formed an initiative called “Projecting Leaders of Tomorrow” (PLOT) to promote the value of project management skills to high-school students and non-project managers. He is a published author with his book, “Organized Common Sense.” He has 30+ professional certifications and also trains certification courses on PMP, DASSM, Scrum, and Risk Management.

Thank you for making time for our visit. What was the first job you had, and how did that job shape the leader you are today?

Hailing from India, my journey began with an unexpected role as an Adjunct Faculty at Sri Venkateswara College of Engineering immediately after graduation. Although my initial aspirations were focused on the application of IT in medicine, circumstances led me to embrace this teaching opportunity while awaiting my visa to depart the country.

During my tenure at the college, I observed a significant need for diverse instructional approaches and tailored educational materials to accommodate students’ varied learning styles. So, the process for one group didn’t work for the others, and frequently, the students’ reactions were about the lack of knowledge on the faculty’s part. Many faculty members were entrenched in their ways due to the tenure they had and claimed some students never learned. I reasoned that it was not students’ unwillingness to learn or that faculty members were less knowledgeable. However, it became clear to me that both parties could not empathize with each other’s perspectives.

Recognizing this opportunity, I, with the help of my students, embarked on creating distinct educational materials such as visual aids, video guides, and practice worksheets. In those days, before the advent of smartphones, tablets, video cameras, and streaming services, we had to rely on libraries and their equipment for trial and recording. Unbeknownst to me, I catered to the student’s visual, kinesthetic, and aural needs.

I don’t look at anything and say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” Instead, I say, “If it is working, how can we make it better?” I embraced a continuous improvement mindset, relentlessly applying the lean kaizen mindset. I believe cultivating this mindset became the cornerstone of my approach in every project, program, and organization I encountered. Even the PLOT program, short for “Projecting Leaders of Tomorrow,” which I established, embodied this same ethos — leaving the world in a better state than when we found it.

We’re talking about quiet quitting in this series. What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned from a job you decided to quit?

I always have lessons learned and retrospectives from each organization I departed from. It presents an opportunity for introspection and realignment. Every experience, without exception, imparts valuable lessons, encompassing both positive and negative aspects.

I can only think of one organization. It was in the Financial Services space. My role was Product Owner, improving the team’s ability to deliver more. The goal was to prioritize requests and having proper acceptance criteria to ensure quality. There was no Scrum Master, and the team was new to Agile, so I had to play both roles. Yes, it is an anti-pattern, but that was less important than another significant problem.

After planning what stories or requirements we would work on, I suddenly discovered in the daily standup that the team was working on a different set of requirements because our manager had altered the priority. No tool tracked the prioritization and the reasons behind changing anything. Even though the manager was present in the planning sessions, I found out later that if the priority I chose differed from this manager’s preference, the manager would go to the other team members and change it. Consequently, this made it exceedingly challenging to establish trust with my team or deliver satisfactory results.

I had to engage in some difficult conversations with the manager privately, expressing that this intervention in prioritization rendered my role redundant. Echoing the mantra of the Mandalorians, for me, it always was “This is the way!” So, I decided to quit the manager and not the job. The most profound lesson I gleaned from this experience was that if an organization merely pays lip service to “freedom” and instead embraces a command-and-control management style, it hampers the team’s ability to excel. It not only leads to burnout but also demoralizes individuals. True leaders should address the “Why,” imparting purpose while granting the team the autonomy to operate within reasonable boundaries, mitigating unnecessary risks.

Employee Engagement is top of mind for most organizations. How do you define an engaged employee?

Employee engagement has assumed greater significance in today’s workforce, primarily due to the intergenerational mix of employees working together in teams. The idea of an engaged employee has evolved beyond merely showing up to work or joining the virtual meeting on time, completing the assignments, and looking up to the functional manager, project manager, or product owner for the next task. Engaged employees no longer resort to statements like “I haven’t been trained on this tool or process” or “It’s not my responsibility.”

Today’s engaged employee looks beyond their ‘title’ or ‘role’ and seeks to maximize value. They will demonstrate to their team, organization, and the larger community that there is a larger picture that they are committed to. Such individuals possess the critical aptitude for big-picture thinking, understanding how their contributions reverberate across their team, product, organization, and community.

For instance, engaged employees willingly invest their time assimilating emerging market information. They do not inquire whether it falls within the confines of their job description or if they will be compensated for their efforts. Instead, they will bring new information about better working methods, improved tools, new regulations, risks that could impact them, opportunities to explore, etc. An engaged employee, furthermore, will learn more about this newfound knowledge and evaluate how to bring it to their team, business unit, or organization. They will host lunch-and-learn sessions to bring these techniques and tools to the company or engage in volunteering opportunities. By doing so, they transcend their “title” or “role” and connect with a sense of purpose. An engaged employee would be the voice of reason for their product on new experiences and non-functional requirements, use data and documents to align their value to strategy and integrate the impact of their activities on others in the organization. Ultimately, their continuous and radical improvement mindset establishes them as the go-to person, surpassing the boundaries of being solely a subject matter expert in their domain.

Say more about your Employee Engagement portfolio. What’s working? What’s not working? And what are you piloting now to address the Quiet Committing trend?

Let’s begin by clarifying the term “employee engagement portfolio” to avoid confusion. It refers to the efforts undertaken by organizational leaders and managers to enhance employee engagement within the company. Some may perceive this as primarily the responsibility of the HR department. But I believe that while HR plays a role, ultimate accountability lies with the organizational leadership.

Consider why individuals quietly leave their positions. If salary, compensation, and benefits are the only factors that come to mind, you are in the minority. These are necessary but minimal conditions. In the management realm, these aspects can be connected to what the Herzberg Theory of Motivation refers to as hygiene factors: they are satisfiers but not motivators. The motivators are feeling a sense of accomplishment or pride for solving a tricky problem due to their individual or combined expertise. When there is inequity in pay or preferential treatment for career enhancement opportunities, satisfiers are not met. If managers and leaders fail to ask themselves why employees would be better off working for them, they neglect the key considerations needed to stimulate and motivate their workforce. Managers and leaders must ensure the presence of both satisfying and motivating factors.

As the Vice President of the Program Management Office (PMO) at a previous organization, I oversaw a team managing numerous projects, products, programs, and portfolios. To foster an engaging environment, I employed the Balanced Scorecard approach. While 50% of our focus was on financial performance and customer satisfaction, the remaining 50% was dedicated to internal process improvement and individualized learning and growth. By brainstorming ideas that could be used as improvement opportunities, we were able to create job shadowing, job rotation, and mentorship within and outside the PMO for people to experiment with newer roles, walk a mile in others’ shoes, explore other opportunities inside the organization to volunteer their talent and expertise and learn new concepts during work hours. This approach proved highly successful, as employees supported one another in their growth and development.

However, what hindered progress was the resistance of some leaders and managers to embrace change. For example, when a project manager expressed a desire to transition into a Cyber Security Project Manager role within the IT department, organizational policies and processes sometimes presented obstacles to their learning journey. Even when such issues were resolved, the IT department often needed more commitment to provide mentorship. Mentorship and coaching require a different mindset and commitment.

Employees who can’t quench their thirst for knowledge represent a flight risk. Although I am not currently piloting any initiatives within my organization, I have proposed allowing dedicated time for exploring experimental ideas, on-the-job learning, and finding mentorship and training opportunities. Such initiatives can mitigate flight risk and foster a culture of continuous learning and development.

As goes the leadership, so goes the team. How do you hold leaders accountable for their own level of engagement?

Leaders walk the talk! There is no point in any leader saying that the organization should continuously improve when the leader doesn’t demonstrate continuous improvement. Leaders cultivate other leaders and should not rely on hope as a strategy.

In my previous role as the Vice President of the Program Management Office, I reported directly to the Chief Operating Officer (COO). Now, as the COO, this person had a lot of responsibilities, yet, this person made it a commitment to go through with “Executive Education on Leadership” and made it publicly known that there were assignments to work on, took time off to finish the work, and also came to the ‘brainstorming floor’ as we called it, to work with all of us. The COO actively engaged with the team, sharing newfound knowledge and collectively exploring how to integrate change into our work. This person epitomizes how a leader should walk the talk and harvest change from within.

A leader is an advocate for eliminating excuses. Although I have a full-time job, I also work part-time as an Adjunct Faculty, run my own training business, and volunteer time to students and professionals, mentoring and coaching them. Whether pursuing new certifications, devouring TED talks, immersing myself in literature, or sharing my insights through blogs, books, or recorded videos, I am invested in exemplifying the principles I encourage others to follow.

Leaders must effectively communicate their personal growth endeavors and contributions to the organization. They must strike a balance between their personal and professional life commitments and avoid taking on too much, set reasonable stretch goals (recall that these are required as part of transformational, situational, and servant leadership), practice emotional intelligence and self-care to have the physical, mental, and spiritual state of mind, and show that they are just humans too! Leaders must convey their humanity, showing others that failure is acceptable as long as it catalyzes learning. Leaders should remain receptive to knowledge from individuals of all ages, tenures, and areas of expertise.

The first phase of the pandemic ushered in the phenomenon called The Great Resignation, where employees left organizations to pursue greater meaning and purpose. Then came The Great Reshuffle, where employees left organizations to pursue promotions, pay and perks. Now we’ve entered a third phase, Quiet Quitting, where employees are deeply disengaged. What do you believe to be the key drivers of Quiet Quitting?

The underlying causes of “quiet quitting,” where individuals disengage from their work and fail to perform as expected, can be attributed to several key factors: lack of transparency, absence of a sense of purpose, failure to foster a sense of belongingness, and an unsupportive organizational culture. Let me elaborate.

The innate desire for achievement is universal among humans. Like the janitor taking pride in cleaning the floors where mainframe computers were located that enabled NASA’s mission of sending humans to the Moon, who said, “I am supporting my team to send humans to the Moon,” everyone longs to be part of something more significant. Organizational leaders’ collective responsibility is to provide a clear purpose, making this information transparent for individuals to monitor progress. In essence, leaders must be comfortable being uncomfortable yet accountable and approachable, propelling the organization into motion.

During job interviews, I often inquire about a business unit’s vision for the next 2–3 years. Suppose the hiring manager fails to articulate a clear purpose. In that case, I question how I can contribute to the success of the unit or the organization without a compelling goal to strive towards. While job descriptions exist, they can quickly become outdated. Therefore, offering individuals a purpose that transcends mere job titles or roles is crucial. By providing appropriate stretch goals that challenge and motivate individuals, organizations can effectively address the issue of “quiet quitting.”

However, this issue persists unless practices are in place to encourage engaged employees to propose new ideas, receive timely feedback, have the autonomy to experiment, and even embrace failure. But if we don’t have time for any new idea because we are focused only on delivering things faster to the market or the quick wins, or have no time available to review the concept for its strategic alignment or potentially even a disruptive innovation, or put in place process guidelines to evaluate the proposition against ethical, moral, legal, and regulatory guidelines and provide guardrails for innovation, or mandate a never-ever-fail atmosphere, giving a sense of purpose alone does not provide the direction required.

One of my former managers always emphasized the importance of “never wasting a failure.” My parents used to say a similar thing too. I have gained invaluable insights from this statement, as failures serve as stepping stones to success only if we learn from them and avoid repeating the same mistakes. No organization, project, or stakeholder has the appetite, threshold, or tolerance for recurring errors. That fail-forward environment where people continuously learn, share knowledge, and improve is pivotal in addressing disengagement. Setting up the environment at the individual, project, team, and organizational levels is a responsibility of all of us, as leadership belongs to all of us. However, leaders can only achieve this if they prioritize and proactively nurture such an environment.

When these forces of transparency, a sense of purpose, belongingness, and environment exist, we can address the disengagement diseases that plague the organization.

What do you predict will be the next phase in the evolution of the employer/employee landscape?

Towards the end of 2022, I made predictions regarding the key trends that would shape the future of work over the next five years. While some trends might emerge earlier in the 2023–2028 timeframe, I anticipated a convergence of several trends, propelling rapid evolution. Below, I present a summary and a visual overview of my thoughts. Notably, the top two trends center around talent attraction, retention, and fostering a culture of continuous learning. These trends are intimately linked to creating an engaging environment that offers individual consideration and cultivates motivation toward a greater purpose.

Specifically, 2023–24 will see an increasing demand for multi-disciplinary talent that uses business priorities and technology for problem-solving and decision-making. Specifically, we have been talking about project managers with business analytic and client management skills, engineers with architecting and test management skills, testers with development and operational skills, and operational managers with planning and benefit/value delivery skills. These requirements will become increasingly mainstream. For instance, Informatics and Data Analytics professionals will be expected to understand new project management approaches better. Similarly, leadership will be required of everyone rather than the managerial cadre.

Consequently, organizations will demand skills beyond the traditional T-shaped model, encompassing Pi- and E-shaped skills. Firms will seek individuals with versatile skill sets, referred to as “biz linguists” or versatilists, who possess various power skills, strategic business acumen, and leadership. On these trends, people can look up my TONES reference framework for middle management transformation and PARAG reference framework for Product Management.

This shift towards novel skill combinations may necessitate employees to demonstrate their competencies. As a result, the impetus for continuous learning will exponentially increase. However, many massively online open colleges will struggle to find a balanced curriculum catering to people’s demands. Organizations will adopt a project-based learning environment where people demonstrate their knowledge from learning. So, every employee must develop their own narrative with supporting portfolios at all levels. To emphasize their commitment to continuous learning, some elements of the balanced scorecard, such as individual learning and growth, may even be mandated and supported, ensuring employees are well-suited for their roles.

What leadership behaviors need to evolve to improve employee engagement in a sustainable way?

The essence of leadership lies in the correct practice of transformational leadership, rooted in the four I’s: idealized influence, individual consideration, intellectual stimulation, and inspirational motivation. I have cultivated these principles throughout my leadership journey, recognizing that each individual is unique and should be treated as a person, not merely a resource. Leaders are responsible for tailoring their approach, stimulating and inspiring individuals differently, and considering task orientation and relationship building factors. These concepts align with exemplary leadership practices, the laws of leadership, servant leadership, and level-5 leadership philosophies. As a result, leaders must adapt their behaviors to the team’s maturity level and the direction required, incorporating situational leadership and approaches like delegation, participation, coaching, and selling. I published the SLEEP reference framework for leadership that says leaders must “swiftly lead energizing and empowering people.” Leadership cannot be approached with a one-size-fits-all mindset; otherwise, its responsibilities could be automated.

Empathy serves as a crucial foundation for leadership. It entails active listening, where leaders listen to learn rather than solely replying. I have emphasized the importance of “listening with the eyes” in an article I wrote, highlighting the significance of non-verbal communication, which constitutes over 55% of human communication. Leadership encompasses more than what meets the eye.

Furthermore, leaders should maintain an unwavering focus on principles. I advocate for adopting the 3E lens, often overlooked but essential for leaders to emulate and establish controls within their organizations. The first E refers to ethical principles, including autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice. In today’s AI-driven world, products should address these principles, granting users autonomy. The second E, efficacy, goes beyond efficiency and effectiveness, measuring the extent to which a product achieves desired outcomes without adverse effects. The third E, environmental considerations, aligns with the triple bottom line and emphasizes the planet’s well-being. These principles should guide product development, despite variations based on country, culture, industry, and organization.

In the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution Technology (4IR), marked by automation, artificial intelligence, and various technological advancements, leaders are responsible for assessing these technologies’ impact on humanity. While technology transforms the world, we must ensure that appropriate high-touch controls are in place, ensuring that high-tech benefits outweigh any negative consequences. I firmly believe in the value of high touch over high tech.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, leadership is not defined by a title or a position on the organizational chart; it is a role we assume. Each one of us can make a difference if we genuinely care. The power of leadership can be seen in democratic systems. Therefore, leaders should promote the mantra, “Leadership starts with YOU!” as true leaders inspire and create more leaders.

Change requires commitment and happens one choice at a time. What are the top five commitments you make and keep to yourself daily that have a material impact on those you lead?

I developed a model called the 5A principle. This is about how we continue to improve ourselves. The 5A’s stands for Awake, Arise, Adopt, Adapt, and Adept. Based on this 5A approach, I have some commitments to live by.

1 . The more I know, the more I understand how little I know. In that, I learn! (Modesty / Learning Mindset)

Embracing the principle of continuous learning is paramount to me. Each person we interact with and every opportunity we encounter holds valuable teachings. We can glean wisdom from everyone we meet by cultivating a receptive mindset. This principle underscores our shared humanity and fallibility. However, through our dedication to learning, we embrace transparency, openly acknowledging our errors and steadily evolving into improved individuals. I wholeheartedly prioritize this commitment to perpetual growth.

2 . People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care! (Empathy / Trust)

As I previously mentioned, we are not robots! We can make ourselves approachable, but the only way people will genuinely open up to us is when we treat them with empathy. Please note that I am not talking about sympathy, where someone acknowledges others’ challenges at the least. But empathy picks up from where sympathy leaves by taking the time to feel what others feel and do something about it! I ensure that I live this commitment daily so that people around me think they can approach me. All that knowledge you have gained from continuous learning can help others only if they take the initiative to approach you.

3 . Don’t count the days but make the days count! (Focus)

Leaders are ‘excuse stealers,’ in my humble opinion. Time is a finite resource, limited to the days, weeks, and months we are given. Similar to deliverables or requirements, goals only manifest when accompanied by actionable tasks. The key lies in focusing laser-like precision on these tasks. Engaging in multitasking, which often leads to delays, should be avoided. I start each day by asking myself, “What constitutes a successful today?” and promptly act upon it. As the age-old adage asserts, actions resonate louder than mere words.

4 . Convert failure into success (Don’t waste a failure)

Every comfort we enjoy today results from someone failing to succeed at the first attempt yet trying repeatedly. Failure is part of learning. Failure is the stepping stone to success. In my coaching sessions, I ask, “Tell me the person that has never failed, and I will show you a failure.” But, a successful person looks at the reasons for failure, learns from it, and avoids repeating the same mistakes. But, a good leader would ensure that such learning is documented and shared so that others learn from the same mistakes. As my parents during my school days and one of my managers used to say, “Never waste a failure,” as it teaches more than any success.

5 . This too shall pass (You have done your best)

At times, my best endeavors may fall short. As leaders, it is crucial to enable the growth of others. This encompasses capacity, succession, and transition planning. While coaching and mentoring, we must avoid becoming overly entangled in the predicaments of those we guide. Thus, we must learn to embrace the notion of “letting it go.” It parallels a parent relinquishing control over their children, allowing them the freedom to experiment and act independently. Attaining inner peace, knowing we have done our utmost, becomes paramount. In doing so, we awaken to the realization that there is always more to learn!

What’s the most effective strategy you’ve discovered to get back on track when you break a commitment you’ve made?

In essence, the key lies in candidly acknowledging our shortcomings. I employ a plan inspired by Dale Carnegie’s book, “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.” Whenever a commitment is broken, I openly admit it and proceed to assess the underlying reasons. This involves a systematic four-step approach: 1) Identifying the problem, 2) Determining the root causes, 3) Exploring alternative solutions, and 4) Selecting the best course of action. I pose these questions to myself and meticulously record my answers. While seeking external advice is permissible, it is essential to jot down the ideas generated. With the insights gained from this four-step process, I can determine the optimal solutions and set them into motion.

To ensure my commitment to goals remains unwavering, I employ the practice of granting myself meaningful rewards. Whether it entails watching a new movie at the theater, connecting with a coach or a celebratory companion, or fulfilling a long-standing desire, I allow my accomplishments to be the catalyst for these rewards. I embrace the joyous moments and celebrate them with delight!

Thank you for sharing these important insights. How can our readers further follow your work?

You can contact me through LinkedIn or also check out the free resources that I have compiled on my own at my page www.sriramrajagopalan.com.

We wish you continued success and good health!