From “I’m Not Important” to “I’m Contributing to Something Important”

By: Josh

I recently finished Adam Grant’s newest book, Think Again, which argued for developing a willingness to and skills for questioning our assumptions, knowledge, and approaches to how we work with others. I found it a compelling and intriguing read.

But there is one statement he makes in the book that keeps coming back to me over and over. In a section regarding happiness, work, and professional pursuits, Grant mentions self-esteem in saying:

“When my students talk about the evolution of self-esteem in their careers, the progression often goes something like this:

Phase 1: I’m not important

Phase 2: I’m important

Phase 3: I want to contribute to something important

I’ve noticed that the sooner they get to phase 3, the more impact they have and the more happiness they experience. It’s left me thinking about happiness less as a goal and more as a by-product of mastery and meaning.”

I do certainly think we all have a personal responsibility to make our way to phase 3 and that our ability to have a positive impact on others through our work influences our happiness. But I also couldn’t help but view this argument through the lens of leadership. As leaders in whatever role or space we serve, how do we help our people move out of phase 1 – feeling not important – toward phase 2, and most importantly, to phase 3? I believe this is a significant factor toward shaping organizational culture, employee commitment, and helping everyone find value in their work.

From Not Important to Important

Unless we are in the executive suite or serve in some strategic-level managerial role, it is all too easy for people, including ourselves, to feel unimportant at work.

I’m just a warehouse goods stocker.

I’m just an IT helpdesk specialist.

I’m just a customer service representative.

If we don’t feel valued at work, we won’t find meaning in our work, and we won’t pour our best selves into it. Leaders are called to help others transition from feeling not important to important in their work.

Yes, we all serve as just a single puzzle piece within a much larger organizational puzzle, but leaders help people step back, take a broader view of their environment, and see how the puzzle doesn’t work without their specific piece.

Doing this – helping others see their value and feel important – isn’t hard but does require intentionality by committing time and effort toward this leadership responsibility. I realize it is difficult with overscheduled days and endless tasks that may seem more important. But there are simple ways leaders can begin helping others feel important:

  • Value employees as people first: Being seen and feeling cared for is an essential first step to feeling important. Jess Buchanan, a humanitarian who was kidnapped by Somali pirates in 2011, states that “people are working really hard just to show up every day.” However, if bosses and leaders took a little time and effort to know their people – their history, their story, family, struggles, and dreams – people would quickly begin to feel a bit more important each and every day.
  • Tell the story of their work: Use meetings, short team gatherings, or even simply an email to tell a story of the impact that peoples’ work has. Are you a warehouse manager overseeing ordered goods being packaged and shipped out? Share how this box of baby formula is getting to a mother who desperately needs it now to keep her baby healthy and growing. Are you a manager of a cleaning crew somewhere like a hospital? Share how the team’s diligence and thoroughness every night keeps the hospital pristine to give weary and often scared patients confidence in their care and experience. Or are you a grocery store shift manager? The organization, cleanliness, and helpful customer service can improve a customer’s day – a customer like the husband of a pregnant wife having to come in to grab essential items in the middle of the night, or an elderly person who needs help pulling items off the shelf, or a mother with multiple children trying to make it through her shopping list without making a scene. Our individual efforts at work matter, but we often don’t get the opportunity to directly see the impact. Use stories and examples to help your people see the extended impacts of their work.
  • Give credit: And do it timely and often. Credit doesn’t have to be some flashy, grand display with an associated bonus either. A simple hand-written note, personal thank you, or verbal recognition in front of the team can go a long way.

From Important to Contributing to Something Important

Leaders have a duty to help others feel important, but that should not be the end state. People who eventually promote to managerial levels and higher who simply see themselves as important tend to have deteriorating effects on the organization and the people they work with. Leaders who think it is all about them do not build resilient, cohesive, fruitful teams or create meaningful work for and with others. Leadership is not about being important. It is about service – service to a calling and service to people, customer, stakeholder, and employee alike. It’s about doing something important. Thus, while leaders have a duty to help others feel important, of course, they also must help others find value in their work by contributing to something that is important. Leaders help others find their “why.”

By feeling important, my happiness, worth, and self-efficacy improve. But the issue with this is that it is all still about me; I am the center of my story and work. By making the transition from being important to contributing to something important, I move beyond myself, find greater meaning, and, as Adam Grant argued above, move more toward happiness through mastery and impact. Leaders help make work for others not merely a job, but a worthwhile and valuable calling.

  • Start with why: Though famed by Simon Sinek and his book, Start with Why, the concept is noteworthy. We must be intentional about finding, clarifying, and committing to our “why” in our work…and helping others find it in theirs. Simple questions like, “why do you work?”, while onboarding new employees can set cultural foundations for the organization’s commitment to its work.
  • Autonomy, empowerment, and delegation: Giving others the space to lead in their work by granting them autonomy, empowering them with authority and responsibility, and using the important art of delegation can help others create meaning in their work.
  • Role model: Why do you work? What drives you to pour into your work and people every day? Being willing to share this and make it apparent in your daily actions can inspire others to follow suit. Don’t underestimate the power of your example, your optimism, and your energy.

Closing Thoughts

Our life, our work, and our impact are important. But in the routine busyness of every working day, it is easy for many to lose sight of that.

Leaders must champion people finding their importance and finding their purpose. We help others feel important, both personally and in their work. But, more importantly, we must be a champion for helping them to feel like they are contributing to something that is important and much bigger than themselves.

How are you helping others feel important today?

And how are you helping them find meaning in and contribute to something important?

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