Culture does not just break out of nowhere — poor culture starts with a chip, like a rock hitting a car window, and as poor leadership behavior continues, the crack grows. This is seen in double standards, profit over purpose and rewarding toxic behaviors that make money at the expense of people and their well-being. Sadly, leaders often think that culture can be dictated. It cannot.

The 2022 US Surgeon General’s report on workplace well-being showed that “mattering at work” as a top priority for improving workplace mental health. It also showed that 76% of respondents reporting at least one symptom of a mental health condition, a 17% increase since 2020. Additionally, 80% of respondents said that workplace stress was impacting both personal relationships and family. If this information is not riveting enough, only 38% of these respondents who know about their organization’s mental health services and offerings feel comfortable using them. Mattering at work is just one piece of creating a healthy environment and culture.

Mattering is an interesting problem for leaders because it is relative, environmental and based on perceptions. If someone thinks they do not matter to their leader or employer, they don’t. This is something leaders must understand at the deepest level. The thoughts someone has impacts how they behave. In learning, we know that behavior is what does or doesn’t get results. Results drive business performance, and environments where people feel like they matter and belong are imperative to getting work accomplished.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, people came together and rallied around each other. Now, as we have adjusted to living with COVID-19, many organizations have gone back to their old norms. The pandemic gave people pause and many questioned whether they were satisfied with their jobs. Much of this drove The Great Resignation. “Essential workers” were expected to keep performing at a consistent level in the heat of crisis purely because they were necessary and often leaders and consumers did not make them feel essential at all. They had to keep up the pace because they were deemed necessary, not because they felt valued or that they mattered.

So, what exactly does it mean to feel like you “matter”? Mattering means that colleagues both feel like they are valued and like they have value. Studies that look deeply on mattering at work indicate that when someone feels valued and appreciated, they have a much lower risk of burnout, stress, and mental health challenges. Mattering also improves overall colleague engagement.

Productivity Paranoia Increases Stress

Counter to mattering is the feeling that leadership has “productivity paranoia,” leadership’s fear that employees are less productive because they can’t physically see them. As people feel the pressure or sense this from leaders, their stress levels rise.

What mattering really means is that leaders see both the value in someone and affirm it by asking about them and giving them meaningful work. When work is done effectively, we should notice and appreciate employees with the words, actions, compensation or mobility that matters to them. It also means when constructive conversations happen, they are done both in meaningful and safe ways, allowing space for practice and improvement.

When someone feels like they do not matter at work, they may feel like they do not have a voice and they will slowly stop contributing. Showing employees they matter is a key tenant of good leadership practice.

In learning and development (L&D), preparing the front-line leaders to drive performance is one of the most impactful jobs we have. This is the population we need to prepare to support our programs or nothing will succeed.

How We Make an Impact

1. Create rubrics that support the leaders and the colleague on continuing performance post training.

Why do people say they leave on the exit surveys? Beyond low pay, lack of development is a big contributor. Learning leaders know that training goes far beyond the end of class. It’s what happens after class that really matters. Of course, we wish for the impactful Level 3 assessment that shows the training made a difference: did the colleague take what they mastered in class and continue to get even better on the job? If there is not support here, the colleague will not feel like they matter, and progression will slow down. We can support the impact the colleagues have on the job by co-creating rubrics with observable metrics based on what people need to do to be successful in the role.

While we measure program effectiveness when the learner is on the job, those measures should align with the performance management objectives the leader uses for the mid-year and end of year evaluations, which should also align with organizational goals and objectives. Once day 91 post-training happens, we should not just walk away with a hand-off. We need a handshake and support tools that help the learning live beyond day 91 and help the employee know where they are headed.

2. Create frameworks for conversations between colleague and leader that can be used for one-on-one or coaching conversations.

These can be tools as simple as a guided growth document that shows leaders a plan for supporting the new learnings while they are being applied on the job. The one-on-one tool can include guided questions that consider the whole human and the human in the context of the role. For example: How are you doing? What do you need help with? Are there any barriers keeping you from being successful?

These are conversation starters and can progress into on-the-job related performance success questions. Guiding leaders to check with people on how they are doing, before they focus on what they are doing, will make a difference in the conversation and the relationship.

3. Knowing when to have conversations.

It is important to train leaders to sense if having a “what are you doing?” conversation should be happening in that moment. When a colleague is experiencing challenges in how they are doing, the “what” conversation will not be effective. Let’s prepare leaders to home in on cues as to whether they are having the right conversations at the right times. Sometimes reschedules are necessary and sometimes there are accountability problems that need in-the-moment discussions — the key is preparing the leader to know what time it is.

4. Affirming employee strengths.

There are several great tactics for affirming someone’s value. These can be as simple as discussing the impact someone had on a project or task, saying “thank you” or “good job” with specific information about what they did or reminding someone of their unique strength and how it is making them successful through their behavior.

5. Creating Meaning

For a task to be meaningful to a colleague, they need to how why it is necessary, why it matters (to the individual, team, organization) and how it impacts the milestone or outcome they are trying to achieve. Giving the task purpose helps the employee see the value in their work and, in turn, feel more satisfied in their role.

Equipping front-line leaders with support tools that allow them to continue performance focus in meaningful ways helps drive colleague engagement, increases the success of learning programs, and help colleagues feel like they matter. This is a win all around.