People at Work Want to Matter

people 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 in the comments section below. 

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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.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • susanmrushworth

    I have observed a similar example to the Ohio Manufacturing company in my home country, Australia. Intrepid Travel faced two sudden market downturns – first the SARS epidemic (their tours were heavily based in SE Asia) and then the Global Financial Crisis. In each case, the company was confident that the market would recover and they did not want to lose staff. So they gave employees the OPTION of accepting a temporary 10% pay cut (nobody was forced) with the promise that when business recovered they would get back the sacrified pay AND a bonus.
    It worked – both times. And this is in an industry where high turnover is the norm, so many companies would not have seen it as a problem to fire and rehire. The difference is that Intrepid has a deliberate focus on maintaining company culture and understands the damage done to that by staff turnover and loss of trust. The company is a founder member of Conscious Capitalism Victoria (the Australian state in which the company is based).

  • J.F. Patterson

    The article reiterates the basics of human decency and engagement. Why are many employees not engaged with their jobs because they feel like they are regarded as expendable overhead.

  • Yuvarajah

    The key word is “teamwork”. Unfortunately, companies don’t believe or value it anymore. Individual ‘talents’ matter. Yes, there is collaboration – until the good times last. When the s..t hits the fan the true colours shine through. Retrenchment/layoff is so common, people are more keen to save their own skin. Taking pay cut is unheard of. I miss the military culture- no one gets left behind.