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Closing The Worthiness Gap

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This summer, it seemed every time a friend texted me, it was to say they were leaving their job. Some left for high-tech jobs and doubled their salaries.  Others left for startups that gave them great-sounding titles of ten-person organizations like ‘chief growth officer’ with handsome equity packages.   The “Great Resignation” was in full swing, and it felt like just about everyone I knew had decided that the twin perils of uncertainty and monotony in pandemic work-life required chucking it all for something more worthwhile.  If we were going to spend our lives wearing stretchy pants while talking into a webcam for ten hours a day, it needed to be worth it.


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Earlier in the year I had led a quantitative study on love and worth at work.  Eighty nine percent of the people we surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that it matters to feel worthy; yet, five out of ten indicated they sometimes, often, or always struggled to feel worthy.  I call this difference between how much it matters to feel worthy, and how hard we struggle to feel worthy, the Worthiness Gap. We want to feel worthy, but struggle to do so.  And yet we have no choice but to show up and go to work every day, bringing our unworthy-feeling selves to the workplace.  Or we choose to try to find our elusive worth elsewhere.

Worth matters because 84% of people said they do their best work when they feel worthy.  Workers who rate their employer highly for humanity and for genuinely caring about their experience, are two and a half times more likely to be motivated at work, and one and a half times more likely to take on more responsibility than their peers. Beyond increasing productivity, greater worthiness in the workplace boosts creativity and innovation.

There are two kinds of worth, intrinsic and extrinsic.  Extrinsic worth is the kind that you can measure with paychecks and job titles.   Don’t get me wrong — like many people, I want to get paid more and promoted to an ever-cooler sounding job title.  But I also want to feel that both me and my work matter, particularly now that in the U.S. we work more than any other culture and any other time in history .  The strategic workplace needs to focus on closing not only the extrinsic pay gap in this volatile labor market, but also closing the Worthiness Gap.  While the market must absolutely correct for hot skill areas, poverty-level wages, and pay inequities for minorities and women, we also need a different kind of currency that taps into people’s feeling of intrinsic worth.

By definition, intrinsic worth is an inside job. It is that internal feeling of being enough before we say or do anything, write a report or give a presentation.  It is present regardless of how well the report goes over well, or whether the presentation is ‘the’ bomb or ‘a’ bomb.   Showing up to work every day, we see our actions and omissions subject to constant evaluation—that drain our intrinsic worth and tells us we will never be ‘good enough.’  I can say with absolute certainty that there will always be someone who is smarter, faster, or just generally better at some aspect of my job than I can be any single day in every moment. No one is that good all the time.

Filling The Worthiness Gap

In my experience and research there are four ways that strategic organizations can stop the drain on talent and begin to fill the Worthiness Gap.

First, as any manager knows, the actions of an individual leader matter.  Just by being the ‘leader’ your words and actions, no matter how small, gain a significance that other words and actions lack.   We all want to believe that we are seen as worthy by someone who has authority over our work.  The challenge, as a wise friend and mentor once told me, is to leave an individual feeling better off for having interacted with you no matter how brief, insignificant and infrequent the exchange.

For leaders, this means using your authority, allyship or power on behalf of the people on your team to make them feel that both they and their work matters.  I am frequently surprised how important a small micro-affirmation, act of conscious kindness or sign of gratitude can seem to a team member who previously felt invisible and unworthy.  I will never forget when my CEO ended a meeting simply by saying, “I see you.” Three powerful little words.

The second way we can close the worthiness gap for colleagues is to become an active sponsor.  Many organizations are formalizing programs to match junior team members with senior ones.  My definition of sponsorship is about more than simply matchmaking, mentoring, or seeing the worth in rising employees who may not yet see it in themselves.  Sponsorship means using your personal and positional power to act on behalf of a colleague to remove obstacles.  Having a sponsor at work feels amazing.  Sponsorship, built on personal relationship equity, is hard to walk away from and replicate with pay or job titles.

The first two ways to close the worthiness gap rely on the acts and efforts of individual leaders that, depending on their sphere of influence, may not scale broadly to the organization. Much depends on your luck in finding a leader who recognizes your worth and takes you on as a sponsor.

The third way to close the worthiness gap is to institutionalize a process of recognizing the fundamental worth in others – thereby making people’s feelings of mattering the norm rather than the exception.  In my practice, we created the “Human Experience Dream team.” We issue a survey every six weeks simply asking the question, “What could we do to elevate your experience?”  The dream team responds to each survey with small but deliberate acts to make our employees feel worthy.  They have sent gift cards for coffee, locally-sourced chocolate (my fave), stuffed animals, freshly baked cookies, and more to colleagues all over the country.

Finally, beyond an individual’s actions, sponsorship, or team dedicated to recognizing the worth in others, we can celebrate worthiness at scale.  Many organizations, including my own, enable employees to ‘catch someone in the act’ of kindness and reward them with points, tokens, or other small gifts. Thrivent, a financial services organization, and one of the very few not-for-profits on the Fortune 500, goes beyond individual recognition to public celebration.   Their ‘goodness’ points are tied to an internally-focused social media recognition program.  All employees have a level-based monthly budget of points and an unlimited number of “free” social recognitions to apply to any colleague doing something worth celebrating.   Recipients can redeem their points for company merchandise or items from an extensive catalog, but the main value is the enterprise-wide celebration and recognition of their worth in public channels.  One leader at Thrivent told me he knows he won’t find another financial services company that makes him or the people he works with feel more worthy than his current employer.

When you can’t pay people any more, and you’re out of better-sounding job titles, consider investing in a new form of currency that helps to close the Worthiness gap in employees.  It just might be worth it.

About the Author

Amelia Dunlop is the Chief Experience Officer for Deloitte Digital, and she leads the Customer Strategy and Applied Design practice for Deloitte.  She is based in Boston, and author of the forthcoming Elevating the Human Experience: Three Paths to Love and Worth at Work (Wiley, Oct. 26, 2021).