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Is That One Employee Draining All Your Mental Energy?

As a leader, what do you spend the most unproductive time on? What consumes your mental capacity even after hours? Decades of managerial experience and now as an executive coach have taught me that disengaged or "difficult" employees can significantly drain a manager's energy.

I believe there is a way to turn this around. It's actually a simple method. The answer you are looking for may be as simple as instilling a sense of "mattering".

The first time I heard the term "mattering" was from Adam Grant during a webinar with Tal Ben-Shahar on flourishing. Adam described mattering as a fundamental human motivation — to feel seen and appreciated by others. This concept struck a chord with me because it resonates deeply with my own experiences and with struggles I've seen in the workplace.

Mattering Explained Simply

When I was about five or six years old, my dad handed me a Swiss army knife and asked if I could figure out how to open it, as it seemed stuck. "You're really good with these things," he said. I found the secret latch and managed to open it. He thanked me, saying, "I knew you could do it." This seemingly insignificant moment made me feel incredibly important and capable. It wasn't about the knife; it was about feeling valued and trusted.

Fast forward to my years in the corporate world. I saw so many talented people unhappy and disengaged at work simply because they didn't feel they mattered. They craved recognition and appreciation, and the lack of it consumed their mental capacity, leading to negative emotions and behaviors. These behaviors are what managers encounter in those disengaged and “difficult” employees.

Why Mattering Matters in the Workplace

I’ll try to explain the negative effects of not feeling valued and appreciated on the following aspect:

Productivity: When people don't feel their contributions matter, it's a productivity nightmare. They become disengaged drones thinking, "Why bother if no one cares?" Self-doubt seeps in, sapping motivation and creativity.

Collaboration: Perhaps most insidiously, those who feel undervalued become cynical. They stop appreciating managers and colleagues, fueling a toxic, adversarial culture. Your company's driving force turns to resentment.

Churn: High-potential players may leave when the unspoken employer-employee contract is violated. They give discretionary effort but receive no acknowledgment in return, so the psychological deal is broken.

The reason I say it’s simple to create a sense of mattering for others is because all it requires is for us to reflect on our own need for mattering. I will always remember this specific performance review ages ago. My manager told me then, that she watched how I managed my team, and she learned so much from me about leadership. She went on with specifics on what she learned from me. Despite promotions and raises that year, it was her acknowledgment of my leadership style that made me feel seen and appreciated. This had a lasting impact on my motivation and performance. It also made me realize how significant it is to show my own employees where they bring value, how they contribute and what I learn from them.

How to Create a Sense of Mattering for Your Team

Build real human connections: Show interest in individuals' goals and aspirations.

Empower Contributions: Explicitly tie contributions to shared goals. Help each person see their irreplaceable impact.

Recognize and utilize unique talents: Have the humility to say, "You'd be better suited for this than me," and make them the go-to expert.

When Fostering Mattering Isn't Enough

While fostering a sense of mattering should be the priority, there may come a time when difficult decisions are unavoidable for the greater good of the team. A manager's time and energy are best utilized when concentrated on leading, empowering the full team, and navigating the long-term strategy. If, despite significant efforts to provide training, create an environment of mattering, an employee remains unwilling or unable to meet the requirements of their role, another implicit contract is violated – the obligation to pull their weight for the team's collective success.

At times, this breach may be unrecoverable through standard motivation and coaching techniques alone. In such cases, managers have a responsibility to the rest of their teams to make the tough call and conclude an employment relationship that has become counterproductive. These decisions are never easy, but preserving a cohesive, high-performing culture of mattering must take precedence for effective leadership.

Gaining Your Own Sense of Significance

As leaders, sometimes we are the ones feeling undervalued. Take control; here are actions to gain a sense of mattering for ourselves:

Find your area of influence: Identify what you are naturally good at and seek opportunities to apply these strengths in your work. This not only boosts your confidence but also increases your feeling of competence.

Recognize where you bring value: Ask yourself, "What do people come to me for help with?" These are clues to your unique contributions. Actively seek opportunities to expand these elsewhere.

Foster mattering in others: By helping others feel valued, you reinforce your own sense of significance.

Looking for Additional Support?

As managers you face countless challenges daily. From resolving workplace conflicts to maximizing team performance. As an experienced executive coach, I provide personalized mentorship to help you navigate these obstacles with confidence.

Reach out for a free consultation.