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Why ‘mattering’ in the workplace doesn’t really matter

For those of us not in attendance at the great private-jet-powered, sustainability-obsessed meeting of minds that was Davos this year, there was one buzzword brought back by attendees that has really stuck with me (or in my gullet, to be precise): “mattering”.

Supposedly, the “secret to management in a new hybrid-working economy” is not honouring working hours, or making sure employees are achieving a proper work-life balance, or even just keeping in regular contact with them. No, the most crucial thing is “delivering” and “cultivating” something known as “mattering” — the belief that you are important to others in your workplace.

“Cultivating mattering at work is truly a meta-skill for modern management in a fragmented world,” writes Alexi Robichaux, chief executive of coaching platform BetterUp, in a report published by the World Economic Forum. “Managers are uniquely positioned to help provide this sense of mattering to the workforce . . . The manager should be able to tell a compelling ‘mattering’ story.” Shudder.

If you are wondering why “mattering” is being used as a noun, I regret to inform you that the verb “to matter” seems to have been officially — to add another ugly word to the mix — “nouned”. That, of course, gives it new status as a management-speak buzzword.

What that means is that your job no longer merely needs to give you a sense of meaning; it now needs to provide mattering too. “Mattering is an existential imperative,” Robichaux writes.

But it’s not just mattering that we need to consider; there’s also — take a deep breath — “anti-mattering”. According to a report in the Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment last year, this is nothing to do with physics. Instead, it is a “complementary yet distinct construct involving feelings of not mattering that may arise from being marginalised and experiences that heighten a sense of being insignificant to others”.

The authors of the report have devised “The Anti-Mattering Scale”, which they describe as “a five-item inventory assessing feelings of not mattering to other people”. The researchers found links between “elevated AMS scores and levels of depression, social anxiety, and loneliness”. Go figure, as they say.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I need a five-item inventory or an “anti-mattering score” to determine whether or not I feel I matter. But this entire concept is not, you might have already gleaned, just about making us feel happy and worthy.

Like anything of value in the modern world, this is also about boosting productivity. Or, as the WEF report put it, “individual wellbeing fuels both performance and productivity . . . organisations have tangible reasons beyond a moral imperative to address barriers to employees thriving in the workplace”.

I don’t wish to argue that employee happiness and wellbeing is unimportant, or even that organisations are wrong to think about these things in relation to productivity and performance. But the idea that you can make someone feel like they matter simply by telling managers to “deliver mattering” is not just patronising; it is also wrong-headed. Employees want to feel like human beings, not robots. “Delivering mattering” as a management technique, rather than making someone feel like they matter by showing them, over time, that they really do, is not going to achieve that.

There is no technique for “hacking” this. The way to make someone feel that they are valued is to actually value them. When someone feels that they don’t matter, they need more than empty words to feel reassured that they do. There is no shortcut; no number of “anti-mattering scales” or “meta-skilled” managers can make a human being feel like their contribution is worthwhile. “Creating mattering”, as one prominent “mattering” expert puts it, is in fact a contradiction in terms.

The 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote, in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means”. “Delivering mattering” feels to me very much like treating employees as the latter.

The belief that one’s work and contributions are important to others is not something that can be magicked up by an overpaid middle manager. It can only be earned by taking responsibility, doing valuable work and enjoying the sense of self-worth that comes with it. Giving employees an artificial “mattering” treatment risks having the opposite effect, making them feel like they don’t matter at all.

jemima.kelly@ft.com

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