Meet Jim Churchman. Jim was a teacher and later a school principal. Upon retirement he played a lot of golf, but, in his own words: “Got tired of that pretty quick. I didn’t feel like I had much self-worth.”
Like many retirees, Jim was still looking for ways to be relevant and to feel valued, so he looked for a part-time job, which he found in a big-box retail store. There, he worked as a greeter. But more important than the job itself, he found a community. When his wife was diagnosed with cancer, everyone was very supportive at work. Says Jim: “We’re a big family.” Jim is part of a team, which makes him feel valued, and to which he adds value.
Nayan Busa is a software engineer. He works at Next Jump, an e-commerce business. To thrive in the company, Nayan had to overcome his own insecurities and anxieties. But he was not expected to do this by himself. Nayan got a lot of support from peers and from the CEO.
Although they are in vastly different industries, Jim and Nayan thrive because they feel valued. They feel that they matter at work. Jim feels valued by peers and customers. Nayan is respected by his boss. They are fortunate. They experience “mattering” — but not everyone is so lucky.
To understand the experience of feeling valued or devalued at work, researchers conducted a study with members of the cleaning staff of a hospital. For the most part, cleaners felt completely ignored and invisible. Bertie, one of the cleaners, talked about feeling devalued: “I don’t think they (doctors and nurses) value our jobs.” The cleaning staff felt insulted, diminished, and disrespected.
The mattering effect refers to the positive or negative consequences of feeling like we matter or not. Feeling valued is a precondition for personal health and well-being. Adding value, or making a contribution, is a prerequisite for a meaningful life. The negative effects of not mattering, on the other hand, can be devastating. Ostracism, exclusion, and rejection are not only painful, but they can also lead to violence and depression. These dynamics are acutely felt at work.
We build our sense of mattering at work through interactions with others. Every exchange is an opportunity to make you feel valued or devalued. The message you get from colleagues and bosses can build you up or put you down. Leadership expert Jane Dutton and colleagues argue that “valuing interactions are associated with positive emotions such as pleasure, gratitude and appreciation. Devaluing interactions are associated with hurt, anger, frustration and sadness. Thus, social valuing emphasizes that interaction at work creates powerful feelings for individuals that contribute to a sense of felt worth.”
Leaders, researchers, and organizations are increasingly concerned with the consequences of feeling valued or devalued — and for good reason. Summarizing the state of the art on the psychologically healthy workplace, psychologists David Ballard and Matthew Grawitch argue that “feeling valued at work is critical to employee well-being and performance, as workers who feel valued by their employer are more likely to be engaged in their work. Employees who feel valued are significantly more likely to report having high levels of energy, being strongly involved in their work, and feeling happily engrossed in what they do.”
Employees who don’t feel valued disengage quickly from work. Work disengagement, which is rampant around the world, costs the global economy no less than $7 trillion.
A safe, engaging and productive workplace culture can be characterized by the acronym SER: Supportive, Effective, and Reflective. The health of a workplace can be gauged by its efforts to become a SER organization.
What can you do to create such a culture in your workplace? In 2013, we asked ourselves that question at the University of Miami. We subsequently embarked on an ambitious project to improve our culture. I was part of a small team created to oversee the process. The group formulated a comprehensive plan that would improve our support to employees, our effectiveness, and our reflectiveness.
The process culminated in the creation of an Office of Institutional Culture, which I led for several years. Our aim was to foster a culture of belonging where everyone feels valued, and everyone has an opportunity to add value. The process entailed the creation of task forces, assessments of our culture, the formulation of a new common purpose, and the establishment of common values as well as new leadership expectations and service standards. Thousands of hours and significant financial resources were invested in training the workforce on these pillars.
After about four years of hard work, our efforts were recognized by Forbes magazine, which in 2017 ranked the University of Miami as the best employer in the country in the education sector. The key to our success was a deliberate effort to make sure our employees felt valued and had opportunities to add value during the process itself. We created multiple avenues through which employees could exercise their voice and choice. Faculty and staff were delighted to share with others the many ways in which they add value to the university, which, in turn, made them feel valued.
Isaac and Ora Prilleltensky
Teams usually succeed or fail on the basis of their affective, not cognitive, acumen. Yet most leaders focus on the latter and neglect the former. Leaders believe, erroneously, that people should be able to check their emotions at the door and focus on the task at hand.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In high-performing teams, it is not technical skills that drive great productivity. Rather, it is the relational acumen of team members. Skills such as emotional intelligence, empathy and turn-taking make all the difference. If we want to improve the workplace in America, we should focus not just on productive, but also on relational value.
If you’re serious about building relational value in your organization, be patient. Culture change is a marathon and not a sprint. Leaders must demonstrate commitment to the psychological needs of employees. At the University of Miami, it took several years for faculty and staff to trust the authenticity of the process. But once workers felt more valued, they added more productive value. That’s the mattering effect in action.
Isaac Prilleltensky is an academic and consultant. He holds the Mautner Endowed Chair in Community Well-Being at the University of Miami (Fla.), where he also served as dean of the School of Education and Human Development, and vice provost for institutional culture. His latest book, from which this article is excerpted, is “How People Matter: Why it Affects Health, Happiness, Love, Work, and Society ,“(Cambridge University Press, 2021), co-authored with his wife, Ora Prilleltensky. For more information, visit www.professorisaac.com. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org