Language selection


Rethinking Leadership GC, Episode 5: The Power and Practice of Mattering at Work (TRN4-P13)


In this episode of the Rethinking Leadership GC podcast, Zach Mercurio, Ph.D., researcher in purposeful leadership and positive organizational development, discusses the power and practice of mattering at work, and how enabling the experience of meaningful work is a vital skill that everyone at any level can learn.

Duration: 00:55:55
Published: January 13, 2023
Type: Podcast

Now playing

Rethinking Leadership GC, Episode 5: The Power and Practice of Mattering at Work

Transcript | All episodes
Listen on: Apple | Google | Spotify | Amazon | Listen Notes | Player FM


Transcript: Rethinking Leadership GC, Episode 5: The Power and Practice of Mattering at Work

Zach Mercurio We are not thinking machines that feel or feeling machines that happen to think. Right. And so when we detach that emotion from why we're doing something, we just get a bunch of activity. So it's it's sort of natural, like it's default that we want to look at things that are measurable. It's harder to like measure mattering and dignity and purpose. And so we tend to not do it.

Robert Armstrong Hello and welcome back to Rethinking Leadership, DC, a podcast series that aims to inspire and challenge your personal leadership journey. My name is Robert Armstrong and I'm currently a regional manager of H.R. programs at Public Services and Procurement Canada. In this episode, we welcome back to the school, the Canada School of Public Service. Zach Mercurio, Ph.D., a researcher in purposeful leadership and positive organizational development. He's a sought after keynote speaker, and he's also the author of The Invisible Leader, which I highly recommend. Over the last decade or so, Zach has used his research on the power and practice of purpose, meaningfulness and positive organizational psychology, with over 100 organizations and audiences to develop purposeful leaders and activate practical tools that cultivate positive and thriving organizations, teams and individuals. Research shows that feeling like you matter at work is a fundamental human need. It's critical for motivation. It's critical for fulfillment. It's critical for your well-being with changing modes of work, job insecurity, and heightened awareness of social injustice. Enabling the experience of meaningful work is a vital skill that all of us at any level can learn. So in this podcast, we will discuss the power and practice of mattering at work. Welcome back, Zach.

Zach Mercurio Thanks, Robert.

Robert Armstrong I'm really happy to see you. You did a workshop for us in December of 2021. It's been a while now. That was extremely well received. We get so much good feedback on it and it's continuing to make an impact across the public service. So we're very excited to have you back and I'm very grateful to be in conversation with you today. There's a lot for us to talk about. I have so many notes here. You have no idea. Lots of ideas, lots of interesting concepts that I want to explore. And I think we'll go around lots of topics that that are about mattering, that are of purpose, fullness and meaningfulness. And these are things just to kind of set the context for you and to remind you these are things that are new to some of us in the public service. Right. We often come to work as public servants with with goals in mind, with objectives, with achievable goals, with these outcomes that we're working on. And we often don't take the time to think about why we're here. You know, we have this grand idea of serving the public. But I'm really looking forward to talking about your perspective on purpose and meaningfulness and what it means for us. So we're talking about leadership, and I just wonder if you could kind of set the context for us. How did you land into this conversation with all of these people that you're talking to and what brought you to the work and the research that you've been doing for well over a decade now?

Zach Mercurio I think that a lot of people who study this experienced its opposite.

Robert Armstrong Okay.

Zach Mercurio And that was true for me. My first career out of college was in advertising. I worked for an advertising firm. By every external measure of success, I was successful, but I was miserable personally. At the same time, I had been educated for success. Like a lot of people are. That success is getting a good job, making good money and achieving and acquiring things. But what I know now through the research is that no human being has ever been sustainably motivated or fulfilled by acquiring and achieving things. And I felt that emptiness when I was in this job, and I had the opportunity to reflect on that environment that I was in. And I was realizing that people would come to work on a monday morning and they would talk about the weekend coming up or the weekend before. I mean, if you really think about it, it is astounding how many people live 4 to 7 years of their lives. The days that begin with the letter S. Right. That's 27% of our lives. And I had this realization while I was there. I was like, there's got to be a better way. And so I became more obsessed with understanding how people work, how people come to find fulfillment and meaningfulness in work. And I ended up leaving that job and spent the last decade a little more than that. Now, understanding how we create moments of meaningfulness in the place where human beings spend upwards of 35% of their waking lives.

Robert Armstrong That feeling of emptiness. Can you describe that just for us? And so I want people to understand what that is, because I'm afraid that some of them might be feeling it. So can you describe it for us in kind of visceral terms?

Zach Mercurio Yeah. It's like when you get up in the morning and you your first instinct is to look at your calendar and ask yourself, what do I have to do today?

Robert Armstrong Mm hmm.

Zach Mercurio How am I going to get through the day?

Robert Armstrong Mm hmm.

Zach Mercurio And it's inertia. It's when your what. What you're doing and how you're doing, it becomes split from why it exists. I'm just doing this because I need to do this. Or, you know, for me, the emptiness is the if then argument of life. If I get to the weekend, then I'll be rested, right? If we have a good quarter, then we'll be successful. If we achieve all of our goals, then we'll make it. If I get to retirement, then I'll be able to relax. And the problem is, is that you always get to the end. And then what? Right. So the emptiness is the bottom of the rollercoaster of achievement.

Robert Armstrong It's.

Zach Mercurio It's it's when you have achieved or acquired something or not achieved, acquire something. And it's the emptiness of now what? And I didn't have that. I didn't have the now what? The the purpose and the meaningfulness that fills the gaps between those rollercoaster heels. Right. And that's what it feels like for me. It's, it's inertia. It's feeling like. I'm just doing this because I've done it every day and I don't know why I'm doing it. I've lost the will to continue on, but I'm just continuing on to continue on.

Robert Armstrong It's deceptive, isn't it? Because with that, if then Proposition two then is a future forward thinking kind of idea and we imagine that we're moving forward towards something retirement, for example, or the weekend. But it's a false future because yeah, it's a bit of a trap. I love that roller coaster image because people often think is the thrill of the roller coaster, but you've got to climb back up before you get the thrill again. Yeah, that's.

Zach Mercurio And it's very it's exhausting. I mean, and it's exhausting to live your life when your identity is tied simply to acquiring and achieving things because you're constantly pushed forward, whereas mattering and meaningfulness pulls us forward, it's always out in front of us. Like, for example, my day today, I could not achieve one thing on my to do list because of external circumstances. I could get sick, something else could happen to me. But what I can do is I can contribute to someone else's life today. That's that's that is what every day has in common. And so I think emptiness happens when we're focusing on the wrong things and when we're creating environments that. Put people's attention on transient things that don't last.

Robert Armstrong So you're bringing up a couple of good ideas already, right? Where time would identities and a lot of us are. Focusing on identity work and how we can bring out the authentic selves to work. It's a it's a key thing. Over the last two years in particular, we were trying to think about how to be more inclusive and welcoming of everyone's authentic ness. But you're also talking about mattering and where we're going to talk about that a lot, I think, today, because it's something that actually I've been thinking about for a while since I knew I was going to have this opportunity to discuss with you. But let's backtrack a bit to your book, The Invisible Leader and Purpose, because I want people to understand that if they were to pick up your book and search for who is the invisible leader, it's not a who. Right. And they're not going to get an answer to the WHO question. So can you kind of walk us through what that invisible leader is? Because that is a fundamental piece in this conversation.

Zach Mercurio Yes. So the invisible leader in our lives and in our organizations is a bigger purpose. It's the thing that pulls us forward. There was a management scholar. Her name was Mary Parker Follette in the late 1920s, and she said that leaders and followers are both following the invisible leader, the common purpose. And it's that object of our behavior, that broader contribution that we want to make, the significance to the world around us that we're pursuing, that is outside of ourselves that pulls us forward. So that's what the invisible leader is. And to set this up purpose, that purpose is the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists. It's right. It's our reason, it's our usefulness. It's our contribution. And purpose is so vital to experiencing meaningfulness and fulfillment in work and in life. And the where mattering fits in is that mattering is the precondition for purpose, right? Like, if you want to get someone to know their contribution, they first have to believe they have something to contribute. And so that's how mattering fits into purposefulness and purpose, which fits into fulfillment and meaningfulness, which lasts much longer than achievement, acquisition or even happiness.

Robert Armstrong So let's say that again, right? It matters more than achievement. It's interesting because National Public Service, which is the big deal for us, and we recognize people's achievements and rightly so. Right. It's their and annual way to do this because in a big year, people have done cool and interesting and innovative things. But the recognition of those achievements is happens and then goes away. Right. But the mattering as you're conceiving of it is something that lasts as a longer throughline. Right?

Zach Mercurio Yes. So here's something I want to make clear, is that achievements are good, right?

Robert Armstrong Right.

Zach Mercurio On their own, achievements are good. Results are good. If we didn't have achievements, we wouldn't be able to serve the public well. Right. And especially in your role. Achievements are good, but achievements that are detached from the reason why the achievement exists and achievements that are detached from the dignity and worse than the person doing the achieving I don't think are good. Like, for example, I could be a high achiever, a public servant, but not feel like I matter while I'm achieving. I don't think that success. You know, I could you could have all the results in the world and produce and produce and produce. But if you're producing just to produce and you've forgotten why you are producing it, then I don't think your products are going to be as as good for the people that you exist to serve. So the problem is when achievements become detached from why we're achieving.

Robert Armstrong And how can we see that in action? Because I think I have a couple of examples that I don't want to share, but I can imagine, for example, in my own past, people who were high achievers. You know, meeting budget goals, for example, or, you know, output just producing lots of good stuff. But the whispering in the background in that second instance was, well, you know, that's great, that's just doing that, but nobody cares about it, right? Which is an awful thing to have happen to somebody, particularly when they don't know that people are feeling that way. But how? How do we let that happen? How does an organization create a space where those things can actually take place?

Zach Mercurio Well, so. So the good things are that things that are not so good.

Robert Armstrong Let's do both. Let's start with the so great though.

Zach Mercurio The not so good. Well, it's it's basic, really. Psychology. I mean, that neocortex, the front part of your head, your brain, it wants data, facts, things that it can name. Right. It's very easy to define someone by the statistics they produce, how many reports they produce, how many dollar grant dollars they get. That's easy for your brain. It loves it. It defaults to it. It files it. Okay, I can make judgments about you, but the problem is, is that when we do that, we are shutting off a part of our brain that actually activates sustained energy and motivation and meaningfulness, which is the emotional center for our brain. We are not thinking machines that feel. We're feeling machines that happen to think right. And so when we detach that emotion from why we're doing something, we just get a bunch of activity. So it's it's sort of natural, like it's default that we want to look at things that are measurable. It's harder to like measure mattering and dignity and purpose. And so we tend to not do it. But on the flip side of that, how do we create an organization where we're reattaching those things as I think we have to have a collective? So that mentality, what I mean by that is we have to be able to take every thing that we're doing, every decision, every task, every relationship and add. A So that to the end of this, I'm doing this so that what and that so that being able to connect what you're doing to its inevitable impact and its inevitable perfect purpose will also help you test whether it's a good thing to do or whether it's just activity without purpose. And so I think that that is, is the key skill and the key ecosystem that's needed is to connect what we're doing with the so that to vet ideas, okay, that things that we're doing.

Robert Armstrong I'm loving this right now because you're talking about so that right so let's let's take that if then that you mentioned earlier will put that to the side. Right. And that has a time and reason, but not now. So we're doing this so that lands on the things that we're doing at work. I'm doing this so that I'm supporting the organization's mandate or so that I can serve Canadians or so that whatever. Find an example. I want us to talk about the trap, though, of purpose and mission and vision. You've been there. You've probably led workshops with organizations trying to define their mission statement or their vision. The plaques are going to put on the wall. Right. Can you help us kind of sort through that? I find wading through the nuances of those three is a struggle for folks and struggle for me, frankly. So can you help us get through that first and so that we can focus on purpose?

Zach Mercurio Yeah. So the way I define it is, well, mission in the Latin, the root word means to send out. Right. And it's like what you're going to send people out to do. It's the what in the hell. It would be absolutely ridiculous to send someone out to do something without them understanding why they're doing it. And that that why is the purpose. Okay, so you have purpose, which is why it exists. The broader contribution that the organization or the individual wants to make the mission is how you're going to do it. What you're going to do to achieve that. And your vision should be, what would the world be like if we were done? If we had accomplished our purpose through our mission, what would the world be like? That's how I define those three things. But again, so let's go back up to purpose. Why it's so important. I mean, a mission without a reason is just activity. Yes. So it's just activity. And that's where you get to just an achievement activity based organization and not a purposeful organization. I will also argue that having a purpose without being purposeful is also short sighted. You can have a big purpose statement, but not an act to that purpose every day. So there's a difference between having purpose and being purposeful. Having purpose is knowing why you exist. Being purposeful is contribution centric, thinking, being and doing where you are. I know a lot of organizations, especially in public service, especially in nonprofit world, especially in health care, that have a purpose, but people don't experience it and act purposefulness in the work. So that's, I think, an important nuance as well to bring those words off the decals on the wall.

Robert Armstrong So you're hitting a nerve here because you're talking to public sector folks, mostly in this audience, and I'm one of them. And you just hit a nerve because I'm imagining all of my colleagues who work on employment insurance. Right. All of my many colleagues who work on passports and refugee claims, the folks who work at the border crossings that do who do security screenings. Right. And those are like thousands of people. Those are some of our biggest parts of the operation. Right. And there's a lot of activity. There's a lot of business. There's a lot of processing and transactional work. I think people remember what the goal and the mission are, right? It's getting people's passports to them so that they can cross borders freely and, you know, benefit from from travel and all these things. But how is it that we can have them experience their purpose differently? So you determine, like, how can the organization help those individuals recall that on a daily basis? Because it's so easy for us to get trapped in those transactional days, day after day after day.

Zach Mercurio Absolutely. The good work can become routine work. Yeah, right. For you, it's like you're a public servant. You just wake up every day and do it right. And the key is to break up the routine and make maintaining meaningfulness a key practice. There are a few ways to do it. I mean, one way to maintain meaningfulness for yourself is to have that so that mentality and ask yourself those questions regularly. The second is to ask yourself better questions, like instead of What do I have to do today? How am I going to get through the day? What meeting do I have? What what documents do have to process today? Ask yourself, how is what I'm going to do today going to impact other people? Spend 3 minutes doing that at the beginning of each day. It's it's a habit. Everybody has the capacity to do it. For leaders, we should be regularly providing people with the evidence of the significance of their work. They should be through impact story collecting and storytelling regularly. I mean, people should be able to visualize the human impact of their work on a daily basis. Those cues should be there in the environment. And making sure that, for example, when we're delegating tasks to people, that before we tell people what to do or how to do it or when to do it, by that we're showing them very vividly why it matters. So those are some I mean, I just mentioned that very quickly. I could go into.

Robert Armstrong A24.

Zach Mercurio Hour workshop on each of those skills, but that it's creating an environment that gives people the regular evidence of their significant and it's the individuals adopting that purposeful perspective. That's where you start making, you know, the water that's all around you. Yeah. As the goldfish that's in it. And the water is your purpose. It's all around you. That's where you can be. The goldfish saying, Hey, this is water. It's the David Foster Wallace. Yeah, right. But this is water. That's what purposeful people do. They never let the water that's around them get taken for granted.

Robert Armstrong I feel like you're pointing at me again. It's this is one of these moments where I'm I'm feeling like the goldfish in the bowl, right. And so and I wrote it down the evidence of meaningfulness at work and then the need for it to be vivid. And I fear I do that those of us in the public sector have lost that skill. Right. And so.

Zach Mercurio Can you can.

Robert Armstrong You give me an example of a leader who might be able and it doesn't matter whether it's a senior leader or somebody at a lower level, but somebody who's good at or has demonstrated that ability to to show the team the impact through story. Right. Because you're talking about storytelling here, I think, in many respects. Do you have a good example or a story to tell us about that coming into a workplace and changing it or affecting it somehow?

Zach Mercurio Yeah. I mean, so let's look at an example that you would think, gosh, it's really hard to find meaning and purpose in the world. Okay. Right. So one of the clients that I work with is a tunnel car wash. So basically the where you go drive your car in, it goes into a car wash. They wash it. It goes out. Right. Awesome. There's a big operation here in Colorado. It's a very big company. And I got to meet with the general manager and we sat down. We were talking about purpose. And I asked him, you know, I say, what human problem do you exist to solve? And he's like, We just wash cars and make money. And then he left our meeting and then he came back and he said, I realized what our problem is and the problem leads us to solve is nobody wakes up and wants to work at a car wash. Right. They employ a lot of people who just got their high school education and haven't gone to post-secondary school. So their purpose became to prepare people for the for their future and provide for the community. Now, one thing that they did is they started to go out and actually interview people who are coming to get their car wash on why they got their car wash.

Robert Armstrong I'm fascinated by this already.

Zach Mercurio Now, here's what's interesting. Nobody said I'm just coming to the car wash just because I want to give you money.

Robert Armstrong Right.

Zach Mercurio Everybody had a reason. There was someone who was driving their youngest, the first in their family to go to university, to college, and wanted their car to look nice. There was some there was a funeral procession that literally came into the car wash. There were people who were saying that they wash their car because it makes them feel better about themselves.

Robert Armstrong I bet. Yeah, it's like wearing a suit or a new shirt.

Zach Mercurio So all of a sudden they went and interviewed 100 people. They had 100 stories of why their job exists, and every time they delegate a task, they add a one of those stories to the end of this. If we sweep the sidewalk, people will feel better as they come in here, because that's why people are coming here. So that's an example of actually going out, collecting these stories, telling them. And the results are like profound in this car wash industry. Right. That they get incredible amount of applicants now for single positions. Why? It's because they have unlocked the human yearning for meaning. And that's why it doesn't matter what you're doing. Purpose is not pleasurable all the time. It doesn't matter what you're doing. It's the ability to attach the human story, the human outcome to the task mentally.

Robert Armstrong So we're talking about emotion here, right? Because purpose is very much connected to emotion. I love that car wash example because I can imagine that, you know, we're talking about Cry, your heart comes out, you're now more proud of your car. You're going to walk a little bit straighter on your way to the job. Or if you were to that first date, you know, you're trying to impress somebody. But it is it is fundamentally emotional when we're talking about purpose, but. Again, we talk about, you know, mattering at work. And so we've forgotten sometimes about remind how to remind ourselves about why we matter and how we matter. But you also talk about other things. When you talk about moments of mattering, you talk about noticing, you talk about affirming and you talk about needing. Can you walk us through that kind of triumvirate of things that actually build into the mattering?

Zach Mercurio Yeah. So one of the one of the best parts to create that environment that shows people regularly the evidence of their significance so that they remember this is water is the skill of creating mattering. Yeah. So I'm glad you tied it all back. Right? So everything that we've talked about, the skill of creating mattering is essential. And mattering is the belief, right, that we're a significant part of the world around us. It's the belief that and the feeling that I am valued, plus I add value. And what the research indicates is there are three things that create the experience of mattering for someone. One is noticing people. Two is affirming people, and three is showing people that they're needed. So just real quickly on each of them and then we can dig in. Where you want to dig in is noticing people. There's a big difference between knowing people and noticing them. Right. You can know your best friend not notice that they're suffering. You can know your team member for ten years that you've worked with, but not noticed that their parent is in the hospital. You can know your assistant or coworker and not notice their strengths. So noticing is the deliberate act of seeing the personal attributes of a human being, both in work and outside of work, and showing deliberate actions to show that person that they are seen. And it's important. It's that's the important first step because if someone doesn't feel seen. It doesn't matter if you affirm them. It doesn't matter if you show them they're needed. It doesn't matter if you give them purpose if we feel invisible. The precondition for our lives to become animated. The belief that I matter is gone.

Robert Armstrong Right. Why would.

Zach Mercurio We? We don't get out of bed if we don't believe that our life matters. So noticing is important. The second is affirming, and that is showing people how that uniqueness that they have, how their unique gifts make a unique difference in the organization and in the world around them. And that's really important. It's not a thank you at 1:00 every day. It's not an awards banquet. It's not an email from the leader. It's every day being able to have your strengths known and having those strengths connected to the impact that it makes. And then the last piece is really important. It's feeling needed, an indispensable. So when people feel replaceable, they will act replaceable. In the US, we have the great resignation right now. Yes. And I don't know why people are surprised. We've treated people like they can be replaced in an instant in our workforce. And when people feel replaceable, they'll act replaceable and not going to show up. They're not going to commit. They're going to go to another job when it becomes available. But when people feel irreplaceable, they act irreplaceable. So a good question to ask yourself as a leader or just as a human is, do the people around me feel noticed, affirmed and needed? And while these things that I'm talking about sound like common sense, sadly they're not common practice.

Robert Armstrong So let's dig into this, as you said, and I've been waiting days to talk to you about this. I've been thinking about this a lot. Right. Because mattering at work and you've mentioned this before, right? That the amount of time that we spend at work and and why that matters no matter your work matters because. And so can we tackle each one of these in turn? Right. Because I, I want us to talk directly to the audience now. And I think, you know, in our audience a lot of people are managers or supervisors, but they could just be colleagues as well. So and I think it might apply to them all. But you're talking about noticing first and so then involves the scene of those people. How can we give people practical advice or, you know, just shortcuts or reminders on how they can do that with how do I put it with some grace, right? Because without being clumsy about it. Right. Because it's for people who don't have that. As you could say, it's a skill. But for some people, it's a skill that they're relearning or maybe learning for the first time. So can you kind of dig us through that noticing bit in how to see people authentically and genuinely?

Zach Mercurio Yeah, I mean, for everybody listening, you know, raise your hand if you'd prefer to be invisible at work. Right.

Robert Armstrong No.

Zach Mercurio Nobody's saying that. So we generally know, even if you're like, oh, you know, I don't want to be people's I don't need to be people's best friend. I'm their boss, whatever that mindset is. That's fine. But the general universal truth is that we want we all want to be seen. I think we can all agree on that. The key is, is that oftentimes what happens to this in organizations and in our work life is we think it's common sense and it's that's very dangerous because intuition doesn't scale. Right. You can't you can't just say, oh, I'm a good leader. You know, I make people feel seen. And that's coming. Getting to know people. That's common sense. Because what I want you to do is I want you to take a look at your to do list today as you're listening to this and find one item on the to do list. That has to do with deliberately making someone on your team feel seen today. Oftentimes it doesn't make it. So a couple of things that you can do is one. Ask better questions of people. So instead of How are you doing today? Hey, how you doing? If someone asks me how I'm doing, I mean, I couldn't tell you really how I'm doing. But if someone asks me what has your attention today, I can answer that question. If someone asked a question of What have you been struggling with at work, I can answer that question. What problems are you thinking about? How would you describe your energy today? Right. So think about all the places, opportunities you have to do that. This costs nothing, right? In one on ones in group meetings. How you check in with people, ask questions that people can actually answer that give them the opportunity to feel seen.

Robert Armstrong I love that. I want to spend 30 seconds more on that because I think it goes back to good interviewing. Right. I don't that's I'm between my age art background, but it's about avoiding the open ended question because the how you doing today is fast and it's it's not insincere in a negative way. It's just through it's pat. It's routine, right. But if I ask your particular question, for example, you know, what time is your son's event today? Because I know you have a cool thing happening at the end of the school year. Today, it's it's about asking a specific question of somebody, isn't it? Right. So that you're relating better to them as an individual.

Zach Mercurio Yeah. And it's even, you know, at the end of the day, you know, reflective questions for people. Right. Even better. One of the you know, and one of the things that I started asking my son, who is not talking to me and I mentioned this in the session, he was not telling me how his day was going. I was asking him, how was your day? What did you do today? And I started asking him two different questions. Who did you help today and who helped you today? And it all of a sudden, you know, the questions we ask each other determines what people pay attention to. And are you getting your people to pay attention to what matters? So creating the space to to ask better questions is important. I think another practical, really practical tool that you can do is that before you jump into what to do with your team, make sure you create this space for your team to talk about how to be with one another. Yeah, one of my favorite practices comes from Jerry Colonna. He's a coach at this organization called Reboot, and he talks about this red, yellow, green chicken. Right. And it's simply going around and having your team say, hey, here's where I'm at today. I'm red, I'm offline, I'm stressed, things going on in my life, yellow. I'm here. But there's some things pulling me in different directions. Green means I'm in flow, right? And you just have people go around and say where they are. Red, yellow, green. It's a simple check in, but it gives people the opportunity to be to be seen as their full human selves. And here's how it's powerful. And you asked about a story. We did this with a group of nursing nurses who are having daily huddles. And all they would talk about was what went wrong, right? Right. In every room. Most of our meetings are update fests. We go around. Do Update. Update, update. Update, update. What if you started meeting with, Hey, how's everybody doing today? And rate yourself on a green to read. Because what will happen is imagine people leaving that meeting. Imagine people going to the next meeting. And I see Robert and I know Robert was a red in that meeting. Imagine me thinking to myself, Huh? Robert was a red. I'm not going to check in on him. No. What it does is it incites empathy and compassion. And then the other thing that it does is it gives people you I'm not going to argue with Robert about a project in a meeting where he just said he was red.

Robert Armstrong Not today. Yeah.

Zach Mercurio Not today. Because you're seen, you're allowed to be. And so any practice doesn't have to be that. But any practice, you can kind of open up that space, give people the opportunity to be seen. Asking better questions are very practical. They don't cost anything. And for people who are nervous about doing this because it's not their style to simply tell tell it, we blame it on me. Say I listen to this podcast because Zach guy, he told me that noticing people is important and I'm wanting to do that. So this may feel awkward at first, but give me feedback because the intent is I want to see you all more and give me feedback. And that's a way to be transparent. And to start doing this and to decrease the awkwardness is to name it.

Robert Armstrong I love it and it gives us more empathy for one another. It creates better relationships. I love it. So let's hit on the second one really quickly with us. Again, you talk about affirming and it's about affirming. Our uniqueness is how is it that I can discover somebody's strengths better because you're talking about all of those things that that they bring to the team. But how can I do that again without coming across this kind of. You know, I went to this works. I've read this book and I'm going to give this a try.

Zach Mercurio Yes. So you will you have to notice people before you can affirm. Okay.

Robert Armstrong Fear specifically. Right.

Zach Mercurio I mean, so I think that if you starting to do that, noticing, you're starting to dig into people and who they are and what they do and what's unique about them, you can give them unique affirmation. What I mean by affirmation is it's showing someone how their uniqueness makes a unique impact. One of the best ways to do that is to just change how you thank people and say Good job. So any time you say thank you or good job, commit to showing people the difference that they make and how they made it. One of the tools I use is an SBI model. Tell them the situation. When and where did it happen? What behaviors did they exhibit and what strengths did those behaviors display and then show them the impact that it had on other people the other way? So so that's something that you could do immediately, right? Is to do that. The other thing is to do those things I was talking about before, regularly collect and tell stories of that person's works impact. Right. How did their work and their strengths impact you? If someone gives you a report two days early, bring them to your computer or share your screen and show them what you were able to do because they got that report to you two days early. Show them the difference that they make.

Robert Armstrong It's this is this or that, right? Because it actually says you this is what you did so that we could do this and this is how we were connecting it to the larger thing. I love it. The third one is feeling needed. Right. And so I think that that's touching on it, isn't it? It's showing how in that moment on that project for this accomplishment, that was an indispensable piece of it.

Zach Mercurio Yeah. And look around your team and find one thing uniquely human that each person brings that nobody else can bring, and make sure they know the answer. The end of this statement. If it wasn't for you, use that language. If it wasn't for you with at least, at least once with everybody on your team in the next week and see what happens when you say that if it wasn't for you, an example that I give often is I had this line leader for a big manufacturing company who told me, Oh, Zach, this guy won't show up for his shifts. And I say, okay, well, how do you try to get him to show up? He says, I try to get I try to tell him, you know, you got to start showing up. You're going to get attendance points, which is just a threat. It doesn't motivate people to do anything. And so I said, Well, what do you miss about him when he's gone? And he she was thrown off and he started thinking, well, I mean, if I had to say something, I love how he sings when he comes into work and he's working on the line and I go, okay, the next time he's absent, when he comes in, I want you to tell him I really missed your singing yesterday on the line. Tell me what happened. And the leader went and said to him when he was absent, he said, Hey, I really miss your singing. And the leader came back to me about two weeks later and said, I want to let you know that so-and-so I'm not going to name hasn't hasn't missed a shift. And we started talking about why he's been absent. So that singing, right, noticing something unique about somebody made him feel irreplaceable and he acted irreplaceable. You might be able to replace someone skills you cannot replace a human being and the irreplaceable attributes they bring to your team.

Robert Armstrong I it's. You're talking about something that we don't talk about, right? This idea that we need to feel affirmed and needed and to feel indispensable. And we work in a culture that's so large. How can we scale this? Because I imagine I live in a lovely neighborhood. I go to some really nice local kind of shops, and I watch these little teams of three or four people working together. And I get the vibe from these people that there are friends outside of work, that they're support each other, they know one another. It's, you know, I mean, and it's very much I kind of envy them it to be honest. Right. It looks like a cool place to work. And maybe when I retire, I'll go work at that shop. But we're bigger, we're massive. We're, you know, in some places were thousands of people working on things together. So how do we scale up these skills of creating environments where people can all equally feel like they matter?

Zach Mercurio You know, and I think that's important. One thing that's important is mattering is not directional, doesn't come from the top down. Okay. Does it come from the bottom up? It comes from all around. Right. Are you creating this for your leaders right now?

Robert Armstrong Again, I feel targeted. Yeah. Yeah.

Zach Mercurio Right. That's another question. Right. Are you creating this for the people around you? What the way this scale is in organizations is when individuals commit to doing it to the 3 to 4 people immediately around them. That's lovely. And then what happens is those three or four people do it for the 3 to 4 people immediately around them. And then you set the norm. The norm setting does come from the team leader leadership perspective that, hey, this is how we act here. This is how we treat people here. These are the things that we do. You should be able to feel like you're noticed, affirmed and needed here. And if if you don't feel that way, you can tell me in this way. And then scaling upwards. We should be holding leaders accountable for these things. As robustly as we hold them accountable for their program goals.

Robert Armstrong Right.

Zach Mercurio Because again, what you reward is who you become as an organization. And so and I don't mean reward, just giving people money or perks or awards. I mean implicit recognition. Like as a society, a general community, we tend to reward. Again, going back to the start of our conversation, the things that actually don't create leadership legacies go on LinkedIn, everybody's posting about their product launches or their program goals or their awards. Have you seen someone in the last week post? I remembered someone's full name today. Right. So as an organization, what you need to do, I think, is to create an environment where leaders are recognizing the behaviors that create mattering to start creating these new norms. But it does start individually. I mean, got every person if every person is listening, just ask somebody what their last name is or who relies on them outside of work today. Or does one action to notice somebody today. You could alter the culture of the organization.

Robert Armstrong So let's cut through the crap. Because I had a true story. I was working with a colleague who we were colleagues. I became a manager for a while. I heard through the grapevine that I had offended inadvertently because I wasn't paying attention to her kids, her husband, the situation at home. Right. I felt really small and terrible about it. And I realized that there is a need there that I wasn't meeting as a supervisor. Right. And I was new to the role. I didn't really get it. Interesting. Yeah. And I learned a lot from it and we got through it, but it has always stuck with me. Right. That and that was in a sense my not not fulfilling her need to feel seen and not really realizing that she had other needs than just getting her work done. Right. So I want us to kind of cut through the doubt because there are people listening right now who are going, you know, this is just millennials who want this or the Gen Y or the needy ones, right? Or it's certain personality type. Right. The greens and you know the earth greens from the inside. Yeah. You know, not everybody needs this and they're just being oversensitive. I can't feed this. Right, because I'm not there to feed their souls. I'm here to get work done. So can we kind of make our way around this land mine for a minute and maybe even exploded? Like, why does it actually matter? Why did they decide to do it for all of us?

Zach Mercurio I'm smiling because.

Robert Armstrong Okay, good.

Zach Mercurio You can say that you don't think it matters.

Robert Armstrong Mm hmm.

Zach Mercurio But when you were a baby, the first instinct, the researchers find, is you tilted your head upward to look for someone to care for you before you looked for food. You search to matter before you search for food. It is an instinct. It's a biological instinct to matter. Can you imagine if the genes in your body did not believe that your organism was important? What? What? What do you do? You want to be animate. Life would not be animated. And, you know, I think this goes back to a discussion that you and I had when we were prepping for this podcast and I talked about it's an evolutionary biological trait. You can't escape it. And there's a great philosopher at NYU. Her name is Rebecca Goldstein. And I just want to read you something that she wrote, please. She says that I matter, that my life demands the ceaseless attention I give it. Exactly what those genes would have any organism believing if that organism was evolved enough for belief. The will to survive evolves in a higher creature like us. In the will to matter, we have this inherent will. If I were to ask everybody on this call, how many of you all prefer to feel insignificant? Nobody would say that, even if they said all these millennials want significance. This is not a millennial trend. It's a biological human instinct and a psychological human, basic need. So let me just throw that out there. Now, when we're uncomfortable with something, we tend to attribute the problem to other people. It's human attribution error. So when we're uncomfortable doing something, we attribute the reasons why we're not doing it to other people. To them, it's them all. They need this or they need that, or they're really needy. And so we have that fundamental attribution error in recognizing that, that what your thoughts are, that I don't want to be their best friend. I just want to be their boss. Yes. Ask yourself, could that be a defense mechanism.

Robert Armstrong For.

Zach Mercurio My discomfort that I'm feeling and doing this in changing my beliefs about work and changing the way that work could be done and changing the way that I could help people feel more significant. Is that getting in the way? Because I often see that that is a is a barrier that's a limiting belief that results in limiting behaviors. And so ask yourself that, you know, and that's a hard question. It's a cutting question. I ask myself that all the time. Like I don't go out and I'm not I don't run around on the street and just like notice a firm and need everybody, I mean, all the time. I mean, you know, this is a this is something that's a consistent practice and it's a habit you have to cut through the cut through the limiting beliefs that aren't enabling you to create this environment that most everybody, I think listening would say that's a good idea.

Robert Armstrong Okay, fair. Let's I have two more things I want to cover.

Zach Mercurio That's my only lecture for this.

Robert Armstrong I'm off I'm off camera lecturing because there are doubters and there and I think I think you just hit on it though with the doubt is not about the value of this. That doubt is in one's own ability to be right. But I want to go back.

Zach Mercurio To have empathy. We have to have empathy for each other as we're trying to do this for each other. Right. Like so there's a there's a line, right? You can't think that the goal of this is not to think, oh, I matter, I need to be noticed, I need to be affirmed. You know, that's not the goal. The goal is actually to create that for other people. So you're in a community that creates it for you, right? The goal. So you could get into an ego driven space. It's like Robert's not noticing me or Robert's not affirming me. That is not what this is about. This is not about you. It's about participating in a community that gives people the evidence of their significance regularly.

Robert Armstrong And I love the bi directionality of it, right? Because the thing is, if I'm noticing, affirming and meeting others, then I'm going to get that back naturally from them as well. Right, because we're going to create that community. But let's go to the community then. Now, because I'm worried personally. I have teenagers and you have younger kids. And, you know, there's there's war, there's climate crisis. The end of the world is coming. I mean, there's things beyond under control. There's injustice everywhere. And I'm having an awkward conversations with teenagers now about, well, that doesn't matter, right? Or why should we worry about that? Because the world's going to burn anyway. It's serious, awfully serious conversations with people. And so public servants, I think. I think maybe we're on the front lines of that then perhaps in the private sector because of the work that we do. And I'm hearing that from people and it's I think it's a symptom of Brno, maybe in some cases. But how do we rekindle that with the the knowledge that mattering and noticing and affirming and needing it? It's all kind of important and purpose is important, but some people have lost the sense of any grander purpose at all. So. Do you have any advice for us on that? I know it's terrible. I mean, it's gigantic.

Zach Mercurio Cosmic question. And I think that just the fact that someone's using mental energy to say nothing matters means that it actually does.

Robert Armstrong Okay.

Zach Mercurio And what you know, one of the things I might say is, you know, why are we asking these questions if it doesn't matter? Because I think the questions are important. Like, you know, if people are asking questions like, why does this matter? Why does anything matter? We're destroying our planet. You know, what I would say to people is I would ask, why are we asking these questions? Then why are we even thinking about whether it matters or not? And then the key is to reframe people off of short termism that.

Robert Armstrong Okay.

Zach Mercurio You know, if in this moment. You know, if someone looks back 100 years on your life and in this moment where you could choose how you were going to respond, and you want someone a hundred years from now to read that story of how you responded right now to all of these challenges. What do you want them to read? And I think that when you get people out of the short termism that can be so debilitating, depressing and into the the long term legacy building that you can start having now in terms of how you respond to what's happening. I mean, that I think is a really powerful way to get people out of that cycle of despair that people can can get into, because then you start cultivating positive emotions like hope.

Robert Armstrong Right.

Zach Mercurio And joy. Joy is happiness that's been liberated from circumstance. Gratitude for what we do have. Ask if. If my son was like, Hey, you know, everything's socks and.

Robert Armstrong Everything's going to.

Zach Mercurio Heck. And I would say, well, what's what's one kind of thing you noticed someone did today, huh?

Robert Armstrong Right.

Zach Mercurio I mean, and that's the that's the reframe, right? What did you notice that gave you pause today? Right. And those are really powerful tools.

Robert Armstrong And that's I think you've hit the nail on the head there. It's the taking taking time to notice. Right, to reflect. And you have spoken about the importance of that. And so giving pause to to enable those moments where we can actually see things from that different perspective. So. We're running short on our time soon. We need to kind of come up with some concluding remarks in a minute. But I want to return one last time to the idea of implementing mattering so that we can see evidence of mattering. And how do you think the public sector can do this in its own special way? Do you have any kind of last bits of advice for us who work in public service?

Zach Mercurio Yeah. I mean, I think that it's really important that, again, the good work does not become routine work. So breaking up those routines to create little moments of realization. Uh huh. Right. Of that, the work matters. Think. Think about. Think about the time in your public service life. The moment. A moment of realization when you thought, Oh, this is why I'm doing this. Right. And hold on to those stories. Right. And tell yourself those stories regularly, because we tell ourselves really bad stories a lot. Like, my job doesn't matter. The world is going to crap. I'm not paid enough, you know, all, all of the time. And think about the stories you're telling yourself. And remember those moments of realization and look for those moments of realization of your work. The other thing I would say is do it for the people closest to you. If there's anything practical advice I have. Do it for the next person you see today, like in the next conversation. How can you notice that person more? How can you can do one thing to help someone feel affirmed? Can you say if it wasn't for you to one person in the next week? And I think everybody on this podcast listening can do those things and that's where it start. I often find that in the research is is relatively clear on this, that motivation doesn't precede action. Action sometimes precedes motivation. So sometimes we have to do it right. It's a ten minute rule. If I say go, just go. If you don't want to exercise, go get on the bike for 10 minutes and then get off. And if you do that every day, you'll want to spend more time there because you get the intrinsic reward. And that's how habits are built.

Robert Armstrong The other day you go do something. The other day you talk to me about scheduling good intentions as they were me.

Zach Mercurio Yeah. I mean, so what? I'm like, I'm the best person in the world when I'm walking my dog, right? When I have time to think, like I think, Oh, I should thank this person. I should really write that person a letter. Oh, my gosh. You know, I'm really grateful for this. And then I go back and here's a to do list.

Robert Armstrong Right?

Zach Mercurio And what I've been doing is one of the things that I'll do is I'll throw it on my calendar.

Robert Armstrong I'll.

Zach Mercurio Send so-and-so a thank you. Email. All of those good intentions that I have when I'm thinking about being a good person, I'll put on my to do list. So that's a great thing to think about, is translating your good intentions and putting it on your task list right up there with your projects that need to get done.

Robert Armstrong I love it. I love it. I'm very happy to have had this conversation with you today. Zach I think mattering is going to be something that we're going to be talking about for a while. I feel like there's a bit of a movement afoot to to humanize our workplace a little bit more than it has been. And I'm very happy to have had the opportunity to talk to you about noticing, about affirming, about feeling needed, about uniqueness, about normalizing some of these conversations that we can have with our teams and in our organizations about being more purposeful about the work that we do and actually bringing it not just into our lives, but perhaps into our personal lives as well. It's been a real interesting and eye opening conversation for me since the beginning of this journey with you. And I'm so happy that the Canada School of Public Service has enabled this to take place. Do you have any final comments for us before we close things off?

Zach Mercurio My only comment is to think about the world and think about if we lived in a world in which every single person. Believed that they mattered. An experienced feeling, valued and knowing how they add value to their community every day.

Robert Armstrong Lovely. Thanks so much, Zack. I really appreciate it. Our time together. And for those of you who are listening, do be sure to check out Zach's website. Also, his book, The Invisible Leader. If you missed Zach's workshop in December 2021, you can visit our learning platform to register and view the recording. The code is Tierra and 150. It's called The Power and Practice of Mattering at Work. And it's coming soon. It's been a pleasure. Thank you for joining us. I hope you have a marvelous rest of your day, Zach. I'm Robert Armstrong. Thanks to everyone for listening to Rethinking Leadership Tech. Stay tuned for another exciting episode to inspire and challenge your personal leadership journey. We hope you'll join us then. Thank you.


Any views or opinions presented in this podcast are solely of the individuals themselves and do not necessarily represent those of the School or the Government of Canada.

  • Robert Armstrong, Regional Manager, HR Programs, Atlantic Region, Public Services and Procurement Canada / Government of Canada
  • Zach Mercurio, Ph.D., Researcher in purposeful leadership and positive organizational development, sought-after keynote speaker, and author of The Invisible Leader

Tell us what you think

Share your comments on this episode by using our feedback form.

Related links

Date modified: