Addressing this basic but often overlooked need can transform attitudes and improve performance

Hearing that we’ve done a good job is satisfying. We all want to be seen as technically competent by our peers and leaders. While that’s an important motivator to us professionally, we have a deeper and too often unmet need: knowing that we matter to the people around us.

Our need to feel significant is basic to our humanness. Knowing that we are wanted (not needed, which can be stressful) by people we like and respect is an immensely powerful thing. It’s so important that Maslow placed it just above food, clothing, shelter and security in his famous hierarchy of needs. Working enables most of us to afford food, shelter and clothing, so we check that box. Work is also a social experience, making it an opportunity to check the next box, but apparently we as a nation are missing it. By missing it, we are also missing out on the incredible potential of a more motivated and energized workforce.

The people around us are the mirrors in which we see our social reflection, and most of us spend more waking time with the people at work than we do with our families. If that reflection is dim, distorted, or just plain missing, then it’s very hard for us to know if we are making a difference or simply going through the motions. If we don’t feel valuable to and valued by the people around us— we rarely want to stay there, let alone feel motivated to achieve our full potential.

And this deep need for significance isn’t being met, even where you work. How do I know this? Cigna released a remarkable study in 2020 on loneliness in the workplace. Over 60 percent of workers in the US report feeling lonely. That’s three out of five people, which is shocking. “Engagement” is the big buzzword people like me throw around today, and it’s as good as any. Ask yourself this: Is it possible for you to feel simultaneously engaged and lonely?

Compounding the problem is that people who feel lonely probably lack high-trust relationships at work. As a result, they are the people least likely to admit to feeling disconnected to you or the team.

So, what can we do about it? We can start by consciously, authentically and specifically showing appreciation more than we do now.

I have the opportunity to coach leaders and to teach them coaching skills. When I’m teaching, I’ll often start my classes having the participants reflect on what their best coaches have done for them. As you might expect, there is a good deal of variety in the specific responses, but this is what I hear most often: My coach believed in me or my coach saw something in me I didn’t see.

I’m doing the work that I love—that I was born to do—and it never would have happened if I hadn’t had two leaders who made me see much more in my reflection than I had seen in myself before I met them.

If you’ve had a similar experience, you know how incredibly empowering it is to have someone you respect show you that you are worthy of their time, talents and belief. It’s very hard, on the other hand, to maintain a belief in oneself without some kind of external support.

Many leaders have told me they have appreciative thoughts about their people far more often than they express them. That’s probably true for most of us. I’ve lost a number of friends, acquaintances and family members, and with few exceptions I’ve wondered if those people knew just how important they were to me or how often I thought of them. If they didn’t know, the fault is mine.

Don’t get me wrong. I can’t imagine any serious person suggesting that a leader’s job is to ensure their people are emotionally fulfilled. But at the same time, too many leaders see their role simply as managers—keeping track of tasks and accomplishments and prioritizing efforts. Those are all real and important things, but they are not leadership. Management is a task. Leadership is a relationship, and that requires care and concern.

Communicating someone’s significance is more than telling that person they have done a good job, by the way. We should do that whenever it’s true, but that’s appreciating something they’ve done, rather than who they are.

If it has been a while since you have expressed sincere appreciation for who an employee is—the traits or characteristics that make them valuable to you and the team—then give it a go in your next conversation or meeting, even if it makes you uncomfortable.

A leader’s role is to give people what they need in order to succeed. If we know what people need but ignore it, or worse yet withhold it, then the fault is ours.