Business and Operations
6 things you do (or don’t do) to your employees
By Christine Comaford
By Christine Comaford
June 12, 2013, New York, NY – Few leaders set out to make their employees feel like they don’t matter.
But Christine Comaford says even the most well meaning among us may be
doing it accidentally—and the repercussions can be severe.
June 12, 2013, New York, NY – Of course your employees matter. If they
didn’t, you wouldn’t hire them, trust them to do important work, or keep
paying them week after week.
And if you think about it at all (which you probably don’t), you assume
they realize that. It’s only logical. But according to Christine
Comaford, you may inadvertently do and say things that make them feel
otherwise—and it has little to do with logic.
“Mattering is one of the three most primal human needs, along with
safety and belonging,” asserts Comaford, author of the New York Times
best seller SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together. “When
employees are made to feel that they don’t matter, it happens on an
emotional level, not an intellectual one. And we now know that emotions,
not intellect, drive 90 percent of human behavior.
“The really bad news for leaders is that when employees feel they don’t
matter, they simply cannot function at their highest level of
performance,” she adds.
When leaders say or do something that makes employees feel insignificant
(and/or frightened or isolated; the three tend to work together), they
revert to the fight/flight/freeze part of the brain—falling into what
Comaford calls the “Critter State.”
Once in this state, all innovation and collaboration skills fall by the
wayside, and every decision boils down to a single question: What will
keep me safe right now?
Comaford trains and coaches leaders at midsized and Fortune 1000
companies in neuroscience techniques that get people out of their
Critter State and into their Smart State, where they have full access to
their creativity, problem-solving ability, collaboration, and emotional
engagement. Under her guidance, clients often see their revenues and
profits increase by up to 21 per cent annually.
Furthermore, 33 to 42 per cent of the entire employee base takes on
increased levels of responsibility—without asking for more pay.
So what might you be doing that makes employees feel they don’t matter? Comaford reveals six of the top offenders:
• You don’t respond to their emails. Sure, you’re busy, and sure, your
employees know that—but the Critter State doesn’t spring from the
rational part of the brain. Instead of thinking, Oh, the boss will get
back to me when she has a moment, they think, She doesn’t like my idea.
She doesn’t like me. I feel rejected. I don’t matter.
“When an employee emails the boss, especially when that email asks for
your approval or contains sensitive content, she’s putting herself out
there,” says Comaford. “Always respond—even if it’s just to say, ‘I need
a little time to think about that but I’ll get back to you in a day or
• You don’t give them feedback—positive or negative. When people matter
to us, we want them to know they’ve done a good job. If they haven’t
done a good job, we want them to know that too, so they can improve. To
the employee’s Critter Brain, silence means we don’t care enough to let
them know either way.
“Hopefully you’re giving feedback in performance evaluations, but give
it informally as well,” advises Comaford. “A simple ‘Good job writing
that proposal’ means a lot. And while it’s less fun to hear ‘You need to
work on the close to your sales pitch,’ when your employee starts
getting better results, he’ll know you cared enough to speak up.
“It feels un-PC to make this comparison, but consider how well children
respond to being consistently held accountable,” she adds. “Rules and
boundaries make people feel loved. It’s true for employees and leaders
too. In the Critter Brain, we’re all two-year-olds.”
• You acknowledge people ONLY when they make mistakes. This makes them
feel like a faulty cog that must be repaired to keep the company machine
running smoothly. To let them know they matter, make a positive
personal connection with employees as often as possible.
Be specific about what you like and let them know their unique
contribution makes a real difference to the company.
“Better yet, make a point of praising them publicly,” says Comaford.
“Social rewards are extremely powerful—far more powerful than cash
rewards, in fact.”
• You don’t celebrate victories. No, just getting paid isn’t reward
enough for doing a great job. (Again, a paycheck can feel like oil for
the cog—necessary, but not meaningful.) When your team has an especially
significant win, make a point to order in a special lunch and celebrate
the team company-wide.
“Team victory celebrations foster a sense of belonging and camaraderie—which go hand in hand with mattering,” notes Comaford.
• You inadvertently show favoritism. In many companies, there are
certain team members who are perceived as “above the law” or in the “in
crowd.” These people tend not to be held accountable for their lack of
performance, and they often get the lion’s share of raises, promotions,
or perks, even if they don’t deserve them. And yes, says Comaford, other
“People think lovability isn’t an issue in business, but I’m here to
tell you it is,” she says. “Feeling that others are more ‘loved’
triggers safety, belonging, and mattering issues in those on the
outside. Absolute equality may not be possible in an imperfect world,
but it’s critical to aim for it.”
• You burn them out. Do your employees slog away like slaves, working
looong hours and completing one high-stress task after another, day
after day after day? Not only will they feel that you don’t care about
their well being, they’ll burn out. Yes, from time to time we all have
to exert extra effort…but no one can sustain such a pace forever.
Comaford points out that this dynamic starts when leaders
“self-sacrifice.” Even if you don’t tell employees they have to work
until 8 p.m. every night, they see you do it and feel that they’re
expected to do so as well. This isn’t good for you or for them.
“Sustainability is about creating win-win agreements with ourselves and
others,” she asserts. “We all need a good blend of people, activities,
and things that excite and energize us in order to balance out those
(inevitable) things that drain us. If your employees matter to you,
you’ll help them strike that balance.”
To many leaders, paying so much attention to what goes on inside
employees’ heads is a foreign notion. But Comaford says that when her
clients see the astonishing results, they are more than willing to
change the way they lead.
“When we’re able to break the mental patterns that hold us—and those
around us—back, we can reach heights of performance we never thought
possible,” she says. “And the best part is, it’s more rewarding for
everyone. It can take work from being drudgery to being fun and exciting
Christine Comaford is a global thought leader who helps mid-sized and
Fortune 1000 companies navigate growth and change, an expert in human
behavior and applied neuroscience, and the bestselling author of Rules
for Renegades. Her latest book, New York Times best seller SmartTribes:
How Teams Become Brilliant Together, was released in June 2013. She is
best known for helping CEOs, boards, and investors create predictable
revenue, deeply engaged and passionate teams, and highly profitable