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This is the secret to management in a fragmented world

Davos 2023 ; Employees want to know that their work matters, and the management is uniquely positioned to help provide this sense of mattering to the workforce.

Employees want to know that their work matters, and the management is uniquely positioned to help provide this sense of mattering to the workforce. Image: Unsplash/Brooke Cagle

Alexi Robichaux
Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, BetterUp
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Helping employees know they matter is critical to enduring well-being and performance.
  • BetterUp research found that employees with the best well-being had 56% fewer missed days and were five times more likely to be rated top performers.
  • Employees want to know that their work matters, and managers are uniquely positioned to help provide this sense of mattering to the workforce.

Managers endure a lot of tension. They are responsible for 80% of the workforce and are held the most accountable for delivering business outcomes and managing high-performing teams. However, delivering on those outcomes has become more challenging than ever.

Why? Volatility and uncertainty across the world, the economy and business have changed worker expectations and the work environment. Employees are managed remotely across time zones and offices. Leaders are asking teams to adapt and do more with less. Critical skills are hard to retain, and needs are constantly changing.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but science tells us that well-being is the core driver of sustainable performance. Modern leaders need to recognize this in order to see their workforces thrive. Poor well-being is associated with additional absenteeism, presenteeism and lost productivity. Our research found that employees with the best well-being had 56% fewer missed days, were five times more likely to be rated a top performer and had 25% higher productivity and 34% higher engagement.

Managers must invest in building practices, processes and mindsets that support the well-being of their teams to deliver business outcomes. If you invest in people's well-being proactively, you'll get ahead of burnout and build resilience before it's needed, and you'll support the type of growth necessary for people to perform at their best.

Companies try to address well-being in the workplace in many different ways. Helping employees understand and feel that they matter to the organization is essential to well-being and, by extension, essential to the modern manager's ability to deliver both organizational and individual performance.

Why ‘mattering at work’ matters

In autumn 2022, the Office of the US Surgeon General delivered a Framework for Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being. This groundbreaking report recognizes that individual well-being fuels both performance and productivity and that organizations have tangible reasons beyond a moral imperative to address barriers to employees thriving in the workplace regardless of role or industry. The report has five pillars: protection from harm, the opportunity for growth, connection and community, work-life harmony and mattering at work.

The fifth pillar, mattering at work, is the least understood and used lever for well-being. We all need to feel that our work matters, has an impact, and helps our organization, colleagues, or society. People want to know that they matter to those around them through their work and also that the quality of their actions matters to the value of the work. The former is an emotional feeling; the latter is an individual’s perception that their actions affect important outcomes for the business.

In the view of MacArthur Fellow Rebecca Goldstein, mattering is an existential imperative: if we don’t matter, why live?

Have you read?

Mattering is crucial because it provides the “why” that fuels us. The working world is fragmented in terms of where work occurs and who does it, but also in terms of time, levels of effort and direction. Priorities and resources shift and projects are shelved – often abruptly. We experience more discontinuity and it’s easy to lose the thread of what we are working on, aiming toward and how it all ties together. Mattering provides us with the motivation to endure the stress of ambiguity, volatility and disruption in a fragmented world.

Our lab has researched the importance of mattering for workplace performance for many years. There are tangible benefits from knowing one matters, including lower stress; while the converse – feeling like one does not matter – can raise the risk for depression. In addition, when we refined this concept for the organizational context in research published in 2019, the data suggested that knowing one’s contributions matter to the organization correlated with more satisfaction, and employees were more likely to occupy leadership positions, be rewarded and promoted and be less likely to quit.

BetterUp research revealed that 70% of workers want to know that their work matters and, pre-pandemic, workers who found their work meaningful stayed at their current job an average of 7.4 months longer than those who did not. Managers are uniquely positioned to help provide this sense of mattering to the workforce.

How managers can deliver mattering

Most organizations don't yet have language for managers to help people understand that “my work matters to the organization” or the ways that mattering is undermined. Fortunately, the research offers practices and tools for how to create a sense of mattering and how to remove blind spots.

Action-oriented mattering may consist of two parts: recognition and achievement/excellence. Managers must work across both, although they may emphasize one or the other based on what matters most to each individual.

  • Recognition comes from others. The manager is uniquely able to offer specific, personalized recognition. Some people want external recognition. Others will be motivated by company or department-wide acknowledgement. Others may crave more frequent 1:1 recognition of their efforts.
  • Achievement comes from within. The manager can help the individual cultivate a sense of mastery and pride. For some, that comes easily; for others, it doesn’t. Sometimes something matters just because it was really excellent work. Only a manager can create that moment when a person feels the quality of their work is seen and appreciated.
Davos 2023 ; Advice from the US Surgeon-General on workplace mental health and well-being
Advice from the US Surgeon-General on workplace mental health and well-being Image: BetterUp

What can the modern manager do?

  • Tell the story. The manager should be able to tell a compelling “mattering” story. Why did a project or series of actions matter? What will be the ongoing results of that work? Where might it be relevant in the future? What did the team gain from doing that work?
  • Deepen understanding of the business. Understanding how and why one’s work matters require understanding what drives value within the business. Managers typically have broader visibility into how the business works and what it needs most at any moment. They can share this perspective and how the work fits within it while also helping employees deepen their understanding.
  • Formalize project endings. Even, or especially for projects disbanded prematurely, managers help team members make sense of where they are, how they got there and what they achieved for the organization and for personal growth and career goals. Recognize achievements and the possibility of returning to ideas in a new way in the future.
  • Be systematic. Include mattering in every performance review and critical touchpoints throughout the year.
  • Be specific and get personal. A generic mattering story that doesn’t touch on specific actions actually tells people they don't matter. Even better, couch actions and impacts in a way that reflects the individual’s values or goals.

Humans care about mattering. It drives behaviour and shapes potential. Given the degree to which a sense of mattering supports the levers of well-being and performance, cultivating mattering at work is truly a meta-skill for modern management in a fragmented world.

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