Of course your employees matter. If they didn’t, you wouldn’t hire them, trust them to do important work, or keep paying them week after week. And if you think about it at all (which you probably don’t), you assume they realize that. It’s only logical. But according to Christine Comaford, you may inadvertently do and say things that make them feel otherwise—and it has little to do with logic.
“Mattering is one of the three most primal human needs, along with safety and belonging,” asserts Comaford, author of the New York Times best seller SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together (Portfolio/Penguin, June 2013, ISBN: 978-1-5918464-8-2, $26.95, www.SmartTribesBook.com). “When employees are made to feel that they don’t matter, it happens on an emotional level, not an intellectual one. And we now know that emotions, not intellect, drive 90 percent of human behavior.
“The really bad news for leaders is that when employees feel they don’t matter, they simply cannot function at their highest level of performance,” she adds.
When leaders say or do something that makes employees feel insignificant (and/or frightened or isolated; the three tend to work together), they revert to the fight/flight/freeze part of the brain—falling into what Comaford calls the “Critter State.” Once in this state, all innovation and collaboration skills fall by the wayside, and every decision boils down to a single question: What will keep me safe right now?
Comaford trains and coaches leaders at midsized and Fortune 1000 companies in neuroscience techniques that get people out of their Critter State and into their Smart State, where they have full access to their creativity, problem-solving ability, collaboration, and emotional engagement. Under her guidance, clients often see their revenues and profits increase by up to 21 percent annually. Furthermore, 33-42 percent of the entire employee base takes on increased levels of responsibility—without asking for more pay.
So what might you be doing that makes employees feel they don’t matter? Comaford reveals six of the top offenders:
• You don’t respond to their emails. Sure, you’re busy, and sure, your employees know that—but the Critter State doesn’t spring from the rational part of the brain. Instead of thinking,Oh, the boss will get back to me when she has a moment, they think, She doesn’t like my idea. She doesn’t like me. I feel rejected. I don’t matter.
“When an employee emails the boss, especially when that email asks for your approval or contains sensitive content, she’s putting herself out there,” says Comaford. “Always respond—even if it’s just to say, ‘I need a little time to think about that but I’ll get back to you in a day or two.’”
• You don’t give them feedback—positive or negative. When people matter to us, we want them to know they’ve done a good job. If they haven’t done a good job, we want them to know that too, so they can improve. To the employee’s Critter Brain, silence means we don’t care enough to let them know either way.
“Hopefully you’re giving feedback in performance evaluations, but give it informally as well,” advises Comaford. “A simple ‘Good job writing that proposal’ means a lot. And while it’s less fun to hear ‘You need to work on the close to your sales pitch,’ when your employee starts getting better results, he’ll know you cared enough to speak up.
“It feels un-PC to make this comparison, but consider how well children respond to being consistently held accountable,” she adds. “Rules and boundaries make people feel loved. It’s true for employees and leaders too. In the Critter Brain, we’re all two-year-olds.”
• You acknowledge people ONLY when they make mistakes. This makes them feel like a faulty cog that must be repaired to keep the company machine running smoothly. To let them know they matter, make a positive personal connection with employees as often as possible. Be specific about what you like and let them know their unique contribution makes a real difference to the company.
“Better yet, make a point of praising them publicly,” says Comaford. “Social rewards are extremely powerful—far more powerful than cash rewards, in fact.”
• You don’t celebrate victories. No, just getting paid isn’t reward enough for doing a great job. (Again, a paycheck can feel like oil for the cog—necessary, but not meaningful.) When your team has an especially significant win, make a point to order in a special lunch and celebrate the team company-wide.
“Team victory celebrations foster a sense of belonging and camaraderie—which go hand in hand with mattering,” notes Comaford.
• You inadvertently show favoritism. In many companies, there are certain team members who are perceived as “above the law” or in the “in crowd.” These people tend not to be held accountable for their lack of performance, and they often get the lion’s share of raises, promotions, or perks, even if they don’t deserve them. And yes, says Comaford, other employees notice.
“People think lovability isn’t an issue in business, but I’m here to tell you it is,” she says. “Feeling that others are more ‘loved’ triggers safety, belonging, and mattering issues in those on the outside. Absolute equality may not be possible in an imperfect world, but it’s critical to aim for it.”
• You burn them out. Do your employees slog away like slaves, working looong hours and completing one high-stress task after another, day after day after day? Not only will they feel that you don’t care about their well-being, they’ll burn out. Yes, from time to time we all have to exert extra effort…but no one can sustain such a pace forever.
Comaford points out that this dynamic starts when leaders “self-sacrifice.” Even if you don’t tell employees they have to work until 8 p.m. every night, they see you do it and feel that they’re expected to do so as well. This isn’t good for you or for them.
“Sustainability is about creating win-win agreements with ourselves and others,” she asserts. “We all need a good blend of people, activities, and things that excite and energize us in order to balance out those (inevitable) things that drain us. If your employees matter to you, you’ll help them strike that balance.”
To many leaders, paying so much attention to what goes on inside employees’ heads is a foreign notion. But Comaford says that when her clients see the astonishing results, they are more than willing to change the way they lead.
“When we’re able to break the mental patterns that hold us—and those around us—back, we can reach heights of performance we never thought possible,” she says. “And the best part is, it’s more rewarding for everyone. It can take work from being drudgery to being fun and exciting and meaningful.”
Christine Comaford is a global thought leader who helps mid-sized and Fortune 1000 companies navigate growth and change, an expert in human behavior and applied neuroscience, and the bestselling author of Rules for Renegades. Her latest book, New York Times best seller SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together, was released in June 2013. She is best known for helping CEOs, boards, and investors create predictable revenue, deeply engaged and passionate teams, and highly profitable growth. Her coaching, consulting, and strategies center on increased accountability, communication, and execution. The results? Hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue and value for her clients. Under her guidance, clients often see their revenues increase by 30-110 percent annually, profits increase by 17-200 percent annually, and sales close 50 percent faster.