What do employees need most to feel satisfied and successful at work?
It’s not what you think.
Sure, opportunity for advancement is important. So too is “work/life balance”, whatever that means. (I prefer work/life “Enoughness“).
Ample vacation time and competitive salaries should make the list.
But there’s something more appealing that workers want… that they need… to survive and thrive in demanding workplaces.
It’s quite simple:
They want to know their work matters.
They want to know THEY matter.
Why spend your day at a desk or in relentless meetings if the purpose of your work is ultimately unimportant or can be done by someone else?
Why bear unbearable hours if doing so doesn’t seem to make a difference?
Why put your company first if the company has made it clear that you should feel lucky to be there and not that they’re lucky to have YOU?
Sure, you might get employees who are looking for the “lazy girl” job and are just in it for the paycheck. The type of people who want to do as little as possible without being called out. But for companies who want high-achievers, those who “buy in” and “give their all,” consider those workers value the impact they can make.
“I just felt like I didn’t matter. There was no point in my being there.”
Take “Jess,” for example. A hard worker and 8-year high performer at her company, she’s under the thumb of a permanently displeased division leader who tells everyone on his team they’re easily replaceable and should just be happy to have a job.
In that one sentence, the boss reduced their value to an open personnel count.
When Jess attended her most recent department meeting, she sat in the back of the room and watched as colleagues competed for the floor. She had plenty to add to the conversation but chose not to.
“I just felt like I didn’t matter,” she explains. “Like there was no point in my being there. Why speak if they’re not interested in listening?”
Jess began seeking opportunities elsewhere and when she gave notice, saw firsthand how eager her boss and HR were to appropriate her personnel slot.
“I always thought I’m more valuable in my role than anyone else. But I guess the company didn’t think so.”
Jess has since moved on to a bigger role in a smaller company where she feels her experience and skill set are not only valued, but outwardly appreciated.
“It’s like being on a hamster wheel and you can’t keep up… Only the wheel keeps spinning and the hamster is dead.”
How are you showing employees their work is of value?
“It’s like being on a hamster wheel and you can’t keep up,” Megan said. “Only the wheel keeps spinning and the hamster is dead.”
Or take the dilemma of Megan, who has had six bosses over the course of four years. Each time there is a company re-alignment on the onboarding of a new department head, she and her colleagues try to stay positive and jump on board with their new leader’s mission. But they ultimately wind up shrugging their shoulders.
“What’s the point?” they ask, knowing that another change will come a few months down the road.
How are you showing employees the value of their work?
If you want to keep high achievers achieving, believe in the impact they can make and demonstrate that they matter.
Show how their work aligns with company priorities, whether they are a C-suite contributor, a payroll admin, or a member of the janitorial services.
Remember this oft-shared motivational story?
During a tour of NASA headquarters in 1961, John F. Kennedy encountered a janitor mopping the floors.
“Why are you working so late?” Kennedy had asked.
“Mr President,” the janitor responded, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”
The moral of the story:
Each employee at NASA, no matter how small or seemingly separate their role, was similarly focused on the “one giant leap for mankind.” Each took pride in their work and how their work connected to NASA’s goal.
When it comes down to it, what more can any of us want than to know we matter and that our work is of value TO and valued BY our organization?
Show your employees that their work matters. That they matter.
And while you’re at it, throw in a nice raise, flex-work options, and an ample bonus structure.
If we can make it to the moon, surely we can do that.
Valerie Gordon is a career and communications consultant and the founder of The Storytelling Strategist. A former Emmy-winning television producer, she helps corporations and clients capitalize on the power of storytelling to advance high-achievers into leadership positions and build strong, collaborative teams.