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Yes, You Are a Cog in the Machine – But, That's a Good Thing

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Jul 05, 2024

Let’s pause for a moment and imagine this.

Your organization is hyper-focused on making a difference in the world. Not only are you surrounded by the top specialists in your field, but YOU were the one who managed to hire them all. This alone is a marker of impact; you’re an integral piece of the machine that keeps the company running.

One problem.

You don’t work in the “front-facing” departments that do the doing. This could be accounting, administration, operations, maintenance, or even the mail room. 

Before the imposter syndrome kicks in, let’s take a step back. 

It’s not uncommon for employees to share the sentiment of not feeling like a core team member and, sometimes, not being credited as such. 

However, to fully understand how the machine works, let’s take it apart.

Defining the Machine

Think of your organization as a car.

Consider the driver to be the organization’s leader(s) and the roads ahead are the projects you undertake. But how do we propel the car forward? Well, as we all know, without the engine, tires, steering wheel, and all the other supporting parts, the car won't vroom

Yet, every time you see a flashy sportscar, you often comment on the sleek look or the revving engine, but when has a car been complimented for its brakes or radiator? Maybe the occasional gearhead comment from an individual who appreciates the little things, but those occasions are rare.

Consider this: Without the battery, the car will struggle to start; without the horn, you miss out on expressing urgency or frustration; without the brakes, safety becomes a precarious notion. These parts might not be as flashy as the rest of the vehicle, but they are essential for the smooth operation of the vehicle. Without them, is your vehicle really a vehicle?

What makes a car is the sum of its parts, and similarly, an organization is only as good as the people who make it up. 
But it doesn’t always feel that way, right?

Behavioral Science, Democratized

We make 35,000 decisions each day, often in environments that aren’t conducive to making sound choices. 

At TDL, we work with organizations in the public and private sectors—from new startups, to governments, to established players like the Gates Foundation—to debias decision-making and create better outcomes for everyone.

More about our services

A Quick Analysis of Organizational Behavior 

Not everyone is insulated from feeling like they are just part of the periphery, and this can often impact morale, productivity, and even company culture.

These feelings are intrinsically linked to each individual’s perception of their importance in their respective organizations. When employees start feeling insignificant, it can often dampen the feelings of others, affecting their morale.1

According to a workhuman study, a lot “of employees reported feeling only somewhat valued (46.4%)” and 10.7% reported that they do not feel valued at all. Think about that for a second, almost half of the people around you could be struggling with the same feelings.2

In the same vein, we don’t want to receive positive feedback just for the sake of it, for words to have an impact they need to be meaningful. In an article by Rebecca Knight for Harvard Business Review, one of the first things advised when you don’t feel valued at work is to be realistic about your expectations. 

Even in an ideal setting, people get busy, and there aren’t always opportunities for colleagues or your immediate superior to show appreciation for you. At the same time, even the people who instinctively value you might be in a different department and, even with good intentions, might not always be available to recognize you.3

However, we can’t just chalk everything up to expectation management. Organizations and the people leading them need a concrete framework to deal with feelings of underappreciation, and recognizing your needs is just half the battle.

Psychological Impact of Recognizing Value in All Roles

Intrinsic feelings of insignificance in an organization are not simple to solve. They involve many conflicting emotions that cascade into various attitudes. What I’m saying is, you can’t act like a team player if you feel you’re always on the bench. What might seem like a "negative attitude" could actually stem from a deeper issue: a sense of disengagement and disinterest caused by perceived exclusion.

However, we do have to start somewhere.

Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon where individuals doubt their accomplishments and fear being exposed as a fraud, despite evidence of their competence and success.

While emotionally taxing, imposter syndrome creates many barriers in the workplace. Feelings of insignificance can easily exacerbate this, if you don't feel like you belong or your efforts are lost in the crowd, you won't put yourself forward for new opportunities and advancements.

Around a third of young people experience imposter syndrome, and if that statistic doesn’t shock you – 70% of everyone else you’ll ever meet will experience it at least once.4

Although no one has a cure for imposter syndrome, organizations can double down on their efforts to recognize good performance. Leadership can focus on providing those with lower visibility extra support by sharing their own professional insecurities or offering mentorship programs to boost feelings of psychological safety.5

Another interesting theory is from our pal Abraham Maslow—creator of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—which stresses that for an individual to reach self-actualization, they must first have their needs for belongingness and esteem properly met.

Although companies are not exactly legally obligated to fulfill these needs, it opens up the conversation. Organizations shouldn’t just stop at providing for physiological needs but also aim higher in the pyramid for a happier and more productive workforce. This can be as simple as promoting a work-life balance or building in more opportunities for feedback, aside from a single yearly review.6  

The bottom line here is that organizations must engage with their employees, taking care of the different steps of the pyramid. We must remember that low engagement equals high turnover, so employee engagement must be intentional, and this starts with leadership.

At the same time, this coincides with Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene Theory, which states that employees won’t necessarily work harder if you treat them better, as proper treatment is expected in any organization. This means that making people feel valued is not necessarily a motivator but a hygiene factor.

As we can see, addressing these fundamental psychological needs shouldn’t be a matter of contractual, ethical or legal considerations but rather about fostering and supporting a thriving workplace. 

A workplace that is able to recognize each individual’s abilities without bias, with a systematic manager who is non-dependent on employee visibility, creates an environment of encouragement and support. 

The Ripple Effect and the NASA Custodian

To get the full picture, let’s take a look at spaceships.

During the Apollo space mission, the then-President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, famously asked a custodian what he was doing, to which he replied, "I'm helping put a man on the moon."

The man wasn’t a rocket scientist or an astronaut; without him, they still would have put a man on the moon, but could NASA properly run without all its support staff?

So, is there a behavioral science explanation for all of this? Rest assured, at TDL there always will be

Many academics have used this particular story as it encapsulates Karl Weick’s Theory of Small Wins, where every small contribution—no matter how small—is absolutely critical to achieving larger goals.

The truth is not every organization can, will, or has the means to ensure that each member feels valued. More often than not, intrinsic feelings of insignificance do require some form of culture shift and some organizations don’t prioritize this.

That’s why it’s also critical for individuals to make sure that their feelings of insignificance are also personally addressed.

Being The Decision Lab’s Senior Venture Associate, in charge of supporting a wide variety of roles in our own organization, I’m usually in the background. However, with a robust feedback system, good peer support, an awesome company culture, and of course, my own managed expectations, I can confidently say that I’m proud to be a cog in the machine.

References

  1. Lucaci, I. (2023, July 22). Navigating the struggle: Understanding the impact of feeling undervalued at work. LinkedIn. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/navigating-struggle-understanding-impact-feeling-work-iosif-lucaci/
  2. Bloznalis, S. (2024, March 8). Human Workplace Index: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Efforts in the New Year. Workhuman. https://www.workhuman.com/blog/hwi-diversity-equity-and-inclusion-efforts/
  3. Knight, R. (2017, December 26). What to do when you don't feel valued at work. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2017/12/what-to-do-when-you-dont-feel-valued-at-work
  4. Eruteya, K. (2022, January 3). You’re not an imposter. You’re actually pretty amazing. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2022/01/youre-not-an-imposter-youre-actually-pretty-amazing
  5. Gardner, R., & Bednar, J. (2022, October 18). 4 ways to combat imposter syndrome on your team. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2022/10/4-ways-to-combat-imposter-syndrome-on-your-team
  6. Herrity, J. (2022, October 24). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Applying it in the workplace. Indeed.https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/career-development/maslows-hierarchy-of-needs

About the Author

Monty Tengco

Monty Tengco

Monty Tengco is a Senior Venture Associate at The Decision Lab. He has a degree in Economics and Public Policy, specializing in operations and marketing strategy. Prior to joining The Decision Lab, he’s held various project management roles in digital marketing. He’s also served in business development consultancy roles ranging from co-working spaces to a monastery. In his personal time, he does volunteer work and enjoys cooking.

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