Psychology of Mattering at Work and What We Can Learn From Captain America About It.
The Captain’s story
“I can do this all day!” is a one liner that represents all positive attitudes towards work: motivation, commitment, satisfaction and work longevity that any leader wants to hear from their team. For Marvel fans out there, this one liner may sound familiar to you.
The fictional story is about Steve Rogers, a scrawny, thin and weak – but patriotic – young man from Brooklyn, who ended up becoming a US Army Captain in the Second World War, and retired in 2019. Some of you might know him better as Captain America.
To refresh your memory (and to help our non-Marvel readers get the idea), here’s a short summary. After getting his super powers, he started his military career in the Second World War in 1943, where he met his girlfriend, Peggy Carter.
During the war, somehow he got himself frozen and he hibernated near the North Pole until he was found around 2009 or 2010. He then restarted his career as a leader of small group of heroes called The Avengers. However, he missed Peggy.
Image credit: Daily Superheroes
To make the long story short, in early 2019, he realised that he wasn’t satisfied with what he was doing in the current time and decided to get back to the 1940’s. He continued his life with Peggy in his ‘correct’ timeline, doing his ‘superhero’ job in the ‘past’ and eventually retiring in 2019, satisfied with his career.
If you’re a big fan of the soap opera called the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you might understand that Captain America lived well in the 2010’s, with facilities, a good life, good friends, good looks and super powers most of us would die for. But he ended up dissatisfied and leaving it all behind.
Just like leaders who think their followers can be satisfied with awards and financial compensations, we sometimes fail to understand what matters to us at work or what satisfies us. We fail to identify our ‘Peggy Carter’.
The Captain’s dissatisfaction with his job in the ‘current’ timeline is a good analogy for the turnover intention amongst good employees. Going back to the past represents the turnover of dissatisfied people in organisations, and the era of 1940’s represents another company the workers will choose to work for, in order to live with their own version of ‘Peggy Carter’.
In 2017, Timothy Judge from Ohio State University and his fellow researchers collected hundreds of research reports on job satisfaction conducted over decades, and concluded that starting from the late 1990’s, organisational psychologists agreed that affective elements such as emotion, feelings of importance, need for growth, and self-actualisation contributes to job satisfaction, or any positive attitude towards a job.
Those were the days where ‘employee of the month – wall of fame’, achievement badges, or a standing ovation in a company annual gala dinner, were popular. The experts discovered that in order to be satisfied, the workers needed to feel acknowledged.
Many organisations had been practicing these for decades and had experienced great successes, but high-achieving workers soon realised that they can’t exchange the employee-of-the-month award for 10 kilograms of rice to feed one small (Asian) family for a month.
Money matters, but does it motivate us to go to work every day?
Most Asians tend to put money, the most valuable and versatile cognitive element, as the actual source of every positive emotion. We go to school, get good grades, and get into good universities, so we can earn more money.
Thousands of my fellow countrymen from Indonesia left their family and comfort zones to work in Malaysia as blue collared workers because they make more money (myself included). We were wired that way since we were much younger… I remember the day my grandfather gave me 100 Rupiahs (RM 0.03) for every white hair I plucked off from his head. Like it or not, that’s us.
Nevertheless, turnover occurs among the best people in the organisation. They will still leave regardless of the financial compensation, annual income, or their bright financial future in the current organisation. Some of them leave a financially established position in a huge multinational company to start their own small business, where uncertainty is way more certain.
“I can do this all day!” They say from their customer-less, small shop lot they rent with half of their retirement money. “I’ll be my own boss!”
Do they make more? No. Are they satisfied? Yes, at least for now.
Have you ever had a former secondary school classmate calling you out for a drink with the sole intention of asking you to join a multilevel marketing (MLM) business? Your former classmate, who is an assistant vice president of an American bank, invites you to join him in selling household products! MLM businesses often offer huge financial success for their members who generate big and consistent sales through their network, but that’s not what made your former classmate call you.
Even if they had managed to sign you up, they may not immediately be able to buy a yacht or a private jet. They might just get a handshake and perhaps a small celebration for new members who managed to get their first sign up, which is an acknowledgement that they ‘matter’. This apparently is enough to satisfy this junior member to keep doing it until the day he (hopefully) achieves the promised success. These small celebrations and handshakes might not be comparable to his income as a successful banker, but it did move him to call you!
“I can do this all day! I will quit my job and have financial freedom!” He said on the stage, applauded by senior members who would be expecting him to recruit more people soon.
So, what is the actual source of satisfaction at work? Is it acknowledgement, positive feelings, financial benefits, facilities? Or is it people, such as ‘Peggy Carter’?
You may be interested in: Seven Steps To A Greater Financial Freedom
Work mattering: How and when it matters
The story about your former classmate illustrates the importance of the sense of mattering in maintaining a positive attitude towards the job. The concept of mattering was first coined by Morris Rosenberg in 1981 as the sense that one matters. Mattering consists of three elements: Awareness, importance, and reliance.
In order to feel that we matter, we need to sense that others are aware of our presence, acknowledge that we’re important to them, and will rely on us when they need support. Work mattering is about how one feels they matter at work. Take for example in your daily office context, your work mattering might come from the sense that your colleagues notice your presence, considers you as important and reliable to solve problems at work… and they don’t form a WhatsApp group without you in it.
This may interest you: The Quality, Not Quantity, Of Your Relationships Matter
A few months ago, I collaborated with a friend to conduct a small research on mattering. The purpose of this research was to determine if mattering predicts job satisfaction, moderated by monthly salary.
To date, we have collected and analysed data from 81 white collared workers in Malaysia and Indonesia, and discovered that mattering significantly predicts job satisfaction amongst those who earn an average of USD 3,708.96 (about RM 15,475.63) per month and below. For those who earned more than that, mattering did not significantly predict their job satisfaction.
What this pre-finding means is that employees who earn about RM 15,000 per month or less, will be satisfied with their job when they feel that they matter at work. Although this research is currently ongoing, we were already able to observe a trend on how mattering and money interact in relation to job satisfaction.
Mattering and competitive atmosphere
In order to promote satisfaction at work, leaders might want everyone in the organisation to always feel that their presence and capabilities are acknowledged. Non-financial rewards should be tailored to improve their sense of mattering, instead of merely good feelings. It doesn’t sound too hard, until we think about improving work mattering for everyone in the organisation.
This might go against the idea of gamification (another research interest of mine), a method to improve organisational effectiveness by employing game elements, such as badges, levels, and leaderboards. Gamification is proven to be powerful in short-term projects, trainings, or educational settings. However, in the long run, competition at the workplace, in any form, is likely to diminish a sense of meaning and breed feelings of envy and hostility among colleagues.
Back in 2017, Armando Toda and his colleague from the University of Sao Paulo discovered that competitive elements of gamification leads to a loss of performance among the winners and the non-winners. From the darkest point of view, a recognition of the winner means recognising the rest of the team as losers, and at the same time taking away the sense of mattering from everyone in the room.
The non-winners won’t feel that they matter anymore, because they didn’t win. Social distances will be created between the winner and the non-winners, and it will make the winner feel alienated and that they don’t matter as well.
Sometimes, we don’t realise when a competitive atmosphere is created. Think about this situation: You see your boss’ Instagram story showing a short video that he had a beach party with some of your colleagues, and you’re not invited. Moreover, he puts the hashtag #workhomies or #officebesties. At that very moment, you will feel that you don’t matter at work.
Once leaders make an impression that they have an ‘inner circle’ of elite employees in any form; happy hour group, cycling group, lunch group, or WhatsApp group, they will also create ‘the uninvited group’ amongst their followers.
Be challenged by: Why Competition is Necessary for the Leaders of Tomorrow
Making mattering work
Now that we know that mattering matters at work, we need to be mindful about how we make one feel at work. But how exactly are we to do this?
One way is by emphasising that everyone is of equal importance and that everyone matters.
Think about leading a small team of junior market researchers; you know that one of them, Diana, has more experience in data analytics than the rest of the team members. Hence during your team meeting, you may want to start by acknowledging Diana for her strength in data analytics, but at the same time convey equal importance to the rest of the team members that they matter.
Example: “Guys, we have Diana here, we can rely on her for data analytics. Not to worry, Diana, you can rely on Bruce, Clark, and myself in handling other stuff.”
By saying that, you give a sense of mattering to Diana as well as to the rest of the team members. You are conveying a message to them that they can rely on each other and that they are all equally important in achieving team goals.
Imagine if you had said, “Yay! We’ve got Diana here, we’re saved! We won’t be able to do this without you Diana!”
While the acknowledgement, importance and reliance was given to Diana, you’ve also made the others feel that they matter less. If this situation prolongs, don’t be surprised if they leave. They may prefer to work elsewhere, where they feel they matter.
To tie it all in, as leaders, it is important to keep in mind that everyone matters. Hopefully, this will help us to retain good talents that we have within the organisation.