People at Work Want to Matter

People at Work Want to Matter

Everyone in the workplace knows that the bottom line matters, and that without a healthy bottom line, jobs are at risk. Everyone also knows that customer satisfaction matters, since without it there is no healthy bottom line. And everyone knows that quality of products/services matters, because without it the customers won’t be satisfied. And more often than not, this is where the conversation stops.

There’s one more step in what matters: the people want to matter.

Balancing Necessity and Humanity

In an Ohio manufacturing company that had about 250 people working in the plant, whenever there was an economic downturn, a good 20% of that workforce was let go. It was an economic necessity, or so they were told. When the economy recovered, they started rehiring again, and tried to get the same workers back. Many had already moved on or lost confidence in leadership. The company had to incur major costs of recruiting and training new workers, costs that went straight to the bottom line.

The company then adopted a culture of collaboration, the workforce was organized into teams, a new governance process was put in place, and high trust was built. When the next downturn came and management wanted a 20% reduction, the workforce chose to take a week of unpaid leave instead, preserving the jobs of 50 of their fellow workers. When the economy came back, the company had saved the costs of recruiting and training, had maintained loyalty and confidence, productivity improved along with quality, and profitability went up—and the workforce got to share in some of those profits.

People who matter are most aware that everyone else does too.
-Malcolm Forbes

The workforce found out that they mattered—to each other, to leadership, and to the customers.

Lead with Respect

What we know about people at work is that at the end of the day, they want to matter, to feel significant. They want to be respected, heard, honored, and supported; they want to win, learn, grow, and do their best. What we need are cultures that recognize this principle, and lead accordingly. Here are some key dimensions of such a culture:

  • Trust: Build a workplace based on trust, not fear, where people can speak their truth to power respectfully and not fear retribution
  • Ownership: People take care of what they own—they don’t wash rented cars; give them ownership of their jobs, the culture, vision, mission, and strategy
  • Listening: People know they matter if leadership listens to them, and then acts on what they have learned
  • Learning: Create a learning environment, where mistakes are opportunities to improve and grow
  • Acknowledgement: Honor not just the job well done, but who the people are as human beings; develop them, nurture them, coach them

By creating a leadership culture where people feel they matter, everything else the business needs to do will happen—productivity, quality, customer satisfaction, and profitability.

Can you add to this discussion? I welcome your thoughts and ideas on social media. 

About the Author

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Edward Marshall

Faculty Dr. Edward Marshall is an adjunct professor at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, and Managing Partner of The Marshall Group, LLC, where he works with companies to build leadership cultures based on trust and collaboration. You can contact him at:, 919.265.9616.