Francis Wade | Making workers matter: A leadership guide
In my line of work, I meet lots of employees who aren't sure they matter.
Logically, they say they should be valuable due to their role, background, responsibilities, and pay. Yet, in terms of their emotional experience, they draw a disturbing blank.
It's no surprise. For the most part, our society reserves overt acknowledgement for funerals. However, before then, we try to be careful not to 'spoil' people with too much praise. After all, we argue, we don't want it to go their heads.
While we are busy protecting them from this imaginary affliction, we rob staff of essential facts. They never know whether or not they matter: their presence, performance, attitude, body language, dress. And in the void, they assume the absolute worst.
Slavery relied on the forced acceptance of a lie. Workers were subhuman, and owners acted to 'de-matter' them daily.
Arguably, Jamaica's history is driven by challenges to this rank, outrageous falsehood. Consider the labour strikes led by protagonists ranging from Sam Sharpe in 1831 to Alexander Bustamante a century later. These protests to overturn the de-mattering of people's work were powerful enough to catalyse self-rule and independence.
Today, de-mattering continues, according to Dr Kenneth Carter, author of Why Workers Won't Work - A Case Study of Jamaica. Some 65 per cent of employees consider their jobs to be unimportant in relation to the objectives of their organisation. Also, 80 per cent of workers report that they are rarely consulted about changes that affect their work.
Most leaders severely underestimate the depth of this sentiment. As a result, they treat subordinates just as they would their management colleagues, arguing: 'Those people know they matter'. Why does this mistake happen, based on Carter's research?
Studies show that employees and managers alike give the same high priority to human morale factors: recognition, appreciation, feeling involved, promotion, and growth. However, a switch occurs when someone is promoted to become a first-time supervisor.
Now, suddenly, the individual reports a change: workers (that is, their former colleagues) only want tangible wages, fringe
benefits and job security.
How and why this shift happens may be debated, but this new mindset is a definite downgrade. As it occurs, workers are dehumanised and de-mattered. Instead of friendly peers, comrades-in-arms or fellow strugglers, they become the opposition, merely assets or resources.
Furthermore, if you are a new manager, there is a benefit: de-mattering lets you off the hook, relieving you of the obligation to motivate employees. After all, if there's no money to give 'dem people' what they really want, then you are powerless to make a difference.
Unfortunately, as pervasive as this mindset appears to be, I'm unaware of any training that makes use of this finding. De-mattering is never distinguished as the blight it is on the mindsets of new managers, so it continues to shape behaviour, albeit in the background.
However, there are the exceptions. The most effective leaders in all spheres of life go out of their way to interact with their people in ways that produce a feeling of mattering.
Some hug and kiss their employees or followers. They spend quality time with them, sharing personal details while asking about their families. A handful excels at remembering faces, names, and personal anecdotes. This rare skill gives others the impression of being connected, even after only a brief introduction. Some use social media to cement this technique.
Others apply honorifics: Mr Plumber, Boss Lady, Run Tings, Super, or Captain. This Jamaican habit is a way of letting ordinary people know that they matter. It broadcasts their importance publicly.
Finally, a few give 'brawta' inexpensive, thoughtful extras that build relationships beyond transactions. For example, I make a point to encourage clients to be bold in making additional requests of me. I explain that we don't charge them by the half-hour like lawyers, so added time within reason doesn't create a fresh bill.
Although these are individual tactics that don't work for everyone, they all have the same effect: they leave other people with a feeling of mattering. The answer for you, a manager, isn't to copy them blindly, but to ask the following questions:
- What can I do to grant the experience of mattering to others in my company?
- What experiments could I try to produce this effect?
- What personal habits do I need to eliminate that frequently de-matter others?
Don't be like the majority who underestimate their power. Compared to other cultures I have worked in, Jamaica is a highly leader-centric society. It's a feature that expatriates notice quickly.
The fact that you are being scrutinised grants you an opportunity to alter the way people see themselves. Use it wisely to empower and engage staff by using your daily actions to show people that they matter.
- Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of "Perfect Time-Based Productivity". To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email: firstname.lastname@example.org