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What's the Matter?

In our jobs, we are all expendable.


Have you ever heard of a job that a person left, and their boss said, "Well, that's that. No one else can do this job. We couldn't even reconfigure the work needed to have several people do it. I guess we'll have to try to run our operations without any of those responsibilities being performed."


Even if you're a solopreneur, and I'm one of them, our current and prospective clients would find other services if we closed up shop. While our business would cease, the work would still get done.


There have been social media posts in this theme of expendability. The posts tend to highlight how everyone can be replaced at work but no one can be replaced at home. The posts beg the question of time spent. In addition, posts will frequently dip into flavors of loyalty. For example, "If you left today, your employer would replace you tomorrow. Why do you have guilt about leaving for another more appealing job?"


These might feel like different issues, but they get to the same thing; belonging. If a person feels that they belong on a team, they will stay for a long time even if it's not going great for them overall. If they imagined the work being 100% perfect and the culture 100% perfect, but learned the culture is 95% of what they thought and the work is 75%, they might stick around longer than if those fully imaginary figures were flipped.


How do people feel belonging?


Answer that for yourself. Really, right now. Get in a comfortable physical position with your favorite beverage and ponder it. What are the circumstances in your work environment when you most clearly feel that you belong?

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I'm not jumping into content yet...

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Please, continue to ruminate...

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How did you feel when you felt belonging?

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The odds are decent, that some of your thoughts went to situations where you made a contribution that others recognized. Maybe you helped a colleague or client with a problem. It could even be a large meeting where, as you critically listen to every speaker, you may find some disagreement, but mostly, they're sharing information and philosophies that align with what you think and know about your organization.


These feelings of contribution, collegiality, and belonging all contribute to mattering. When considering mattering, people might gravitate toward, "Does my work matter?" That's a completely legitimate question. A slightly deeper question is, "Do I matter here?" It might sound like step 1 on a 12-step descent to an existential crisis, but it is a form of belonging.


Do I make a difference within my organization? Do I make a difference to my customers or clients? Am I seen here?


For those who are uncomfortable with this concept, it might feel like fishing for compliments. I truly hope that your exploration of your own impact can be interpreted is finding examples of the difference you make in the world rather than a story for your next interview or self-congratulatory social media post (which, there's nothing wrong with that, but it might feel awkward the first time you do it).


Using my background as an example, sometimes it felt like taking the smallest instance of success was needed to counter the vast array of unknown. In my last role, I was a dean of students for a university. By no means was I the only person serving students, but it still felt like for every one success story where I intervened, there were quite possibly hundreds of people who could have used help, but never received it for various reasons. That's what I would think of; a quick relish in the student who was helped followed almost immediately by, "How can we help everybody else, too?"


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Did my work matter? To the students I directly and even indirectly served, yes. To the many who we couldn't reach, no. Even though there were plenty of single instances to serve as a counterexample, each time we positively impacted any one person, it mattered. It mattered to them, their families, their friends, and their future. The ripple effects were not lost on me, and, the same is true for those who left without earning their degree.


What can be helpful in mattering is the support I received in those moments and over time. "Did you do the best you could in those circumstances with the information available?" This is one way to tell someone that they're doing good work and there are numerous ways it could have gone differently, but only one way it did go. If we're putting forth our best effort in every situation and our colleagues recognize this, it helps to make the case for how the work matters.


It would not be appropriate to simply close out this narrative by saying make people feel like they matter. People can pretty easily sense when they're being patronized or pandered to. When the "thanks for all you do" lands with zero impact and meaning, it can be demoralizing and start to raise questions about whether the person receiving the "thanks" is actually doing anything meaningful... or if their supervisor even knows what the person contributes.


This is why it is critical to move past helping people feel like they matter to understanding that they matter. That requires leaders to know what people are doing and how it contributes to the success of the organization. Sometimes, a person might think their job starts and ends with their timesheet. Once in a while, it is important to take time to thank a person and articulate how their contributions help the organization. It may seem like Higher Up Fluffy Talk (trademark pending) at first, but if and individual doing the work can see that the praise and gratitude is authentic, it can really raise morale and a persons comprehension of mattering,


As a leader, it is unrealistic to expect to know the daily details of everyone's responsibilities, particularly in larger organizations. This is why it takes more effort, more understanding, and more humility to truly understand how someone else matters in your organization. This is beyond the fact that they've got a job to do. This gets to how the person feels about their contributions and whether they see themselves making a difference in some way.


If they don't feel like they matter, they could be headed toward burnout, minimal effort, or out the door. Any leader who wishes for a thriving team would do well by starting with helping each person in their organization fully understand how they matter.


Source: GIF of Lucille Ball from "Job Switching" episode 1, season 2 of "I Love Lucy"






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