Podcast: The Science of Mattering with Prof. Isaac Prilleltensky

February 03, 2023
  • Brent Stewart
  • Brent Stewart
    Digital Strategy & Content Leader at Barry-Wehmiller

Our CEO, Bob Chapman’s book, Everybody Matters, is a documentation of the lessons Bob and Barry-Wehmiller have learned along our leadership journey.

Among the most important insights we gained: Everybody wants to know that who they are and what they do matters.

That baseline understanding informs everything we do at Barry-Wehmiller. It is at the heart of what we call Truly Human Leadership. It is through that lens that we shape how we treat our people, how we lead our people and how we conduct our business. It is the cornerstone of how we are trying to create a better world through our business.

Someone else that came to that same insight in a scholarly manner, through his experiences and his research, is Professor Isaac Prilleltensky. He, along with his wife, Ora, wrote a book on the science and importance of mattering: How People Matter: Why it Affects Health, Happiness, Love, Work and Society.

You can find our more about the Professor, his work and his book on his website: professorisaac.com

We at Barry-Wehmiller were recently connected with Professor Prilleltensky and found a kindred spirit. On this podcast, you’ll hear a lot of alignment with what we believe. We talk about the science of mattering. We talk about the poverty of dignity in the world. We talk about the importance of listening. We talk about moving from a me-centric culture to a we-centric culture. And we also talk about how all this relates to the work place and how leaders can apply the science of mattering to those within their span of care.




Prof. Issac Prilleltensky:

Well, quite quickly, you can tell from my accent that I wasn't born in the us. I grew up in Argentina. I moved to Israel when I was 16 years old. I finished in two degrees in Israel lab and a master's in clinical child psychology. And then I moved to Canada, lived in Canada for 15 years, moved to Australia, lived in Australia for three years, and then moved to the us.

First I was a professor at Vanderbilt University, and then I came to Miami to become the dean of the School of Education and Human Development. I served in that capacity for 11 and a half years. I was also Vice Provost for institutional Culture. And in all these jobs, being the professor, a school psychologist, the dean, the Vice Provost for Institutional Culture, working with communities and the community psychologist. In all these places where I worked and with whom I worked, I realized that there is something universal that all of us share, and that's the need to matter.

The way I define mattering is a very simple, actually. Mattering consists of feeling valued and adding value. So, feeling valued is about being recognized, appreciated, accepted, seen. Children need that. Parents need that. Teachers, students, employees, workers, leaders, parents, siblings, everybody needs to feel like they matter. They want to feel valued, which is a fundamental human need. It's as important as food and shelter, but that's only half of the equation.

A lot of people have spoken before have talked about the mattering as being acknowledged or regarded as somebody who counts, who's important in your life. But I think that that's only really a part of the story because people don't just want to feel valued.

People want to add value. People want to make a contribution. You see this in children when they learn to be autonomous human beings, when they want to feed themselves, when they want to do things by themselves, when they want to exercise choice. And later in life, when all of us want to make a contribution, not just to ourselves, but to those who (we) love, to work and the community. So it turns out that adding value, making a difference to yourself and others is also a very fundamental quality of human beings. And to feel like you matter, you really have to experience both feeling valued and adding value.

Brent Stewart:

In some of the things that I've heard and read from you, you make a distinction between the need to matter and the need to belong. Could you talk a little bit about that and kind of clarify and define the two?

Prof Prilleltensky:

I think you can belong to a group, but not necessarily feel like you matter to the group. You may belong, but you may not feel that your contributions are really appreciated or that your uniqueness is valued or that your dignity is upheld. So for me, mattering is a notch up from belonging.

Obviously, they're related, and I don't mean to be very Talmudic in parsing interpretations exactly, but I think mattering is stronger than belonging. You can belong to a family, but maybe you don't necessarily feel like you matter so much to your group or the team at work or the community or your family. I mean, don't have a problem with belonging. Belonging is very important. I just think that we need to go a little beyond that.


You know, you said something in there that I was going to ask you about a little bit later. I think it probably applies pretty well here, but you talked about dignity. Could you define what you think dignity is and how that relates to mattering?

Prof Prilleltensky:

So, I think dignity is basically being treated with respect, honoring who you are, what you know, what you do without preconceptions, without stereotypes, without prejudgment, needless to say, without discrimination. So, dignity is acknowledging you’re a human being with unique contributions to make with voice and choice. Dignity is about acknowledging what you can contribute to the community. And dignity is experienced play by play moment by moment in relationships in micro instances, but also in macro instances.

You can have your dignity upheld in a relationship with your partner, with your parents, coworkers, but also as a citizen, your dignity as a citizen. Is the state treating you well? Is the government, are the regional authorities treating you well? Is the police treating you well?

So, I believe that dignity exists at multiple levels of our lives. As I say that the interpersonal, occupational, communal, one might say even political and social. And dignity is crucial because when you feel that your dignity is not upheld, people resort to all kinds of means, including violent means to restore their dignity. When dignity is violated, it's very dangerous because people will go to great length to reclaim their dignity. And some of those ways are not necessarily pro-social.


You’re at least reasonably familiar with our CEO, Bob. And one of the things that he talks about often is that he feels like we have a poverty of dignity in the world right now. Have you thought about that concept?

Prof Prilleltensky:

Oh yes. It resonates strongly with my work because the poverty of dignity is a perpetuating cycle. It's a vicious cycle. So, some people are treated -- because of pernicious ubiquitous competition in schools, in kindergarten, in music bands, in sports, in tv, just about everywhere you look there is status anxiety. You are forever preoccupied about your status in the world. Like, do I measure up? Am I lesser than other people?

And today, this is hyperinflated by the presence of social media where especially young people are forever comparing themselves to other people who seem always more beautiful, more popular, smarter, wealthier than they can ever become. So, what happens is that you feel that you are under threat all the time because dignity can be trampled upon by the slightest occurrences. Somebody doesn't look at you or you feel treated unfairly. And then you are going to go, as I said before, to great length to recover that dignity. And the way to do that, unfortunately, for many people is to put other people down.

So you think that you have the illusion that you're going to regain your dignity by inflating your ego at somebody's expense. So I really resonate with the idea of a poverty of dignity. So, we are all walking with wounded dignity, blemishes, and what we do, whatever we can to restore it. And as I said, in some cases, when you have skills, you can restore that in healthy ways.

If somebody offends you at work or in your family, and if you have enough skills and the work with all you know can make a nice statement, you can assert yourself, you can have an honest conversation. But actually, was reading in Bob Chapman's book, Everybody Matters that in the Air Force, he once visited the Air Force and they had this practice of being brutally honest, so brutally honest, that people were really shamed almost for their mistakes. And when Bob asked them, what do you do to recognize people? They say, well, we don't have time. We don't have time to recognize good work.

So, I think you can be honest in a dignified way. Because I'm a professor, when I have to give feedback to students, it's always very important to take into account the power differentials, the privilege that I have. So, it's incumbent upon me to give feedback in a dignified and dignifying way. It has to do with both your privilege, your opportunities, and your skills to regain your dignity and bestow dignity upon the people you come into contact with.


Do you believe that we are born with dignity or do we earn dignity?

Prof Prilleltensky:

Both. So there is this concept of basic respect or basic dignity. We all deserve that just by the virtue of the fact that we're human beings, right? I deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and not to be minimized or ignored or neglected. Now to the extent that dignity is tied to respect, some people earn more respect than others by the contributions they make to a community. And when that earned respect is neglected, it's a form of exclusion almost.

So I, I'll just give you an example. Let just say that I am the world authority on X, Y, or Z, and my company wishes to develop a product related to my expertise. And I have proven time and again that I really know a lot and have a lot of experience in X, Y, or Z. But instead, the company decides to outsource, to bring a consultant or to basically ignore what I have learned, the reputation I have gained with sweat and tears. So, then my earned respect is being violated.

I think it's important to acknowledge what people bring to the table and not just ignore them because then your earned respect is being minimized. So I believe there is the two kinds. Everybody deserves to be treated with a basic dignity, with basic respect. We should never put people down because they don't know something or because they made a mistake. But by the same token, I don't think we should ignore what people bring to the table. So that's what I, regardless earned respect,


How does the need to matter affect our work, our work lives, and vice versa? How does our work and work lives affect mattering?

Prof Prilleltensky:

A very popular concept in the workplace is engagement. We all worry about we and our employees and colleagues feeling engaged. And when you look at the surveys of engagement or at the famous Gallup Q 12 engagement survey, Q 12 questions... When you look carefully at all the items of these surveys, they're basically asking two questions: Do you feel valued? Are you adding value? It's all by variations of the same thing. Okay?

If you look question by question is like, are you respected by your boss? Are you treated with dignity by your coworkers? These are feeling valued. There are also questions about do you have the tools you need to do your job? This is about adding value. Is your role in your workplace clear? Adding value. Is your voice taken into account? Adding value. So long story short, I think you can summarize the whole scholarship on engagement by feeling valued and adding value.

And when you do feel valued and when you have opportunities to add value, either by getting a promotion or being acknowledged for your good work or assuming leadership positions, whatever it is, then you feel like you matter at work. And the more you matter at work, the happier you become.

So, we conducted a couple of studies at the individual level, but also at the national level, compared countries on the levels of mattering, wellness and fairness. So, our studies show that the more you're treated with respect, the higher the level of fairness that you experience at home, at work, in the community, the more you feel like you matter. Talking about dignity, right? Dignity is about fairness too. Being treated with respect, giving you what you deserve. What do I deserve as a human being? Being treated with dignity.

So, the higher the level of fairness, the higher the level of mattering. I'm being given their respect, I am owed by the police, by my teachers, by my rabbi, by my priest, by my neighbors. The higher the level of fairness, the higher the level of mattering and the higher the level of mattering, the higher the level of wellness. The same at work.

So, what happens when your wellness is enhanced? Usually wellness leads to pro-social behaviors. So, it becomes almost a virtuous cycle. We talked about a vicious cycle before with the poverty of dignity, but you can talk about the virtuous cycle of mattering. I am made to feel that I matter. My colleagues appreciate me and respect me, so I want to do the same for them unless you're a narcissistic psychopath, which happens and our culture promotes those types. But in most cases, most human beings under the right conditions, they do want to reciprocate kindness as opposed to power and privilege and behave like a jerk.

And there is no question, there is so much research that the more you matter at work, your overall happiness goes up. Your overall health and wellbeing go up. This is how crucial mattering at work is. Work takes up such an important part of your overall wellbeing that mattering as a consequence is also a huge part of wellbeing. Mattering at work leads to happiness at work. And happiness at work is highly correlated with overall happiness.

There is research showing that the worst type of boss is not the boss that puts you down, but the boss that ignores you. Even if they don't treat you with a lot of respect, at least they're paying attention to you. There is lots of anecdotal and empirical evidence that people quit jobs when they feel that nobody pays attention to me. And then what happens is that the less you feel you matter at work, that creates a tunneling effect. Meaning that you hyper focus on what you don't have. I don't have mattering, I don't have dignity, I don't have a sense of respect. So, you are tunneling, you're thinking just of that.

And eventually either you quit your job or you do what's now called quiet, quitting, right? You stay in your job but you don't really do much. And Gallup has amassed a great deal of data regarding the fact that around the world, approximately 70% of the workforce is disengaged. Of that 70%, about 20, 30% are actively disengaged, meaning they can even sabotage a workplace. And usually about 30% of the people are engaged. And that engagement has a lot to do with what we said -- feeling valued and having opportunities to add value at work.


One of the things I've seen that you've written about too is the relationship between control and mattering. Could you talk a little bit about that and that relationship?

Prof Prilleltensky:

There is a lot of psychological evidence that exercising control over your life increases your wellbeing. So let's go back to adding value. One of the key elements of mattering. So one way to add value is to have control, autonomy, freedom, self-determination to make choices about what you think is right. And there is a very famous study that was conducted by Sir Michael Marmot in the UK. He followed that the health and wellbeing of about 30,000 British civil servants. It's called the Whitehall Studies because that's the building where a lot of civil servants work in the London. And a major discovery that Michael Marmot made by following these people, thousands and thousands of employees for about 30 years, is that the higher the level of control that you exert over your job, the healthier you are psychologically and physically. And the lower you go on the totem pole or the hierarchy of work, the lower your classification -- you know, can go from executive all the way to clerical or janitorial services -- the lower your work grade, so to speak, the lower the level of control that you have. And the lower the level of control, the (worse) your health.

So, one way to add value is to make sure that you have opportunities to have a voice at work. And this is one of the most often repeated and heard complaints of employees in their workplaces that nobody bothers to ask them what's wrong with their department or how things can be fixed or improved. But higher ups make decisions without consulting with them. And then they feel like, I've been here for 8, 9, 10, sometimes 20 years. I know a lot about production, about services, customer satisfaction, but nobody asks my opinion. Instead they just tell me what I need to do. That's very demoralizing because you have earned respect. You should have earned respect of your bosses, your managers. You've been there, you've been doing something for so many, many years, but nobody cares to ask you. So, then you feel like you don't have control.

In one place where this is very prevalent is in schools where teachers are told by the board or state legislatures, you should teach this, you should use this pace guide, this curriculum, curriculum changes every two, three years. And teachers feel that all these things are imposing them without any consultation. That's very disempowering. You feel you don't have control over your classroom. Everything is so regulated, mandated, crafted, trimmed in ways that you have little control. So, the long story is that the lesser the sense of control, the lower your level of happiness and wellbeing and the more control you are able to exercise over your environment and your work, the happier you become.


It seems to me that one of the things that is so important in bridging the gap in the poverty of dignity is listening, giving people ability to feel like they're listened to.

Prof Prilleltensky:

I couldn't agree more in, so first of all, the vast majority of people are very poor listeners. But listening is an acquired skill and the power of listening is immense. I worked with a member of the board of trustees at the University of Miami once on a project, and he told me when something very memorable. He said, “People don't necessarily want their way, but people want their say.” And that for me captures a lot of wisdom about the workplace.

Employees understand that maybe their ideas are not what's going to rule the day. It may not be the most popular or wise or productive recommendation that they can make, but they want to know that they have had the chance to be part of the conversation. Yeah, listening is something seemingly very simple, very powerful, but we don't train people in listening well, and listening is such a great tool to make you feel like you matter because when you pay attention to somebody, basically what your message is: “Being with you here right now is really important to me and I am able to block out the world so that with my two ears and my eyes and all my senses and my thinking and my brain, and I can be just with you and give you this gift of time.”

So I really wish we could train -- I do this with my students almost regardless what classes and what level they are, undergraduate master's students, doctoral students. I spend a lot of time talking about the importance of listening and how to be a good listener. So I really agree with your approach. Absolutely.


Well that's one of the reasons why our company teaches listening as one of our classes in our internal university. In fact, it's one of the, it's the foundation course to move on to any of our other leadership classes is a listening skills course. And just the stories that we get from people who have taken the class. I would say 90% of them have nothing to do with their work life, but mostly have to do with their family life because of what they take home. And it is really a fact that people don't understand a) the value of listening or that we don't really know how to listen. We know how to talk a lot, but we don't either ever learn the skills of listening or forget that somewhere along the way.

Prof Prilleltensky:

Yeah, it's not valued. It's part of the winning mentality that you have to win an argument, that you have to make sure you are heard. All these typically macho attributes of the culture that really don't work. They don't work for you, they don't work for your fellow workers. And so my hat is off to you that you teach listening as part of the foundational skills.


One of the other things that I've heard you say a couple times and is something that is really, really close to something Bob says a lot is to the need to move from a me-centric culture to a we-centric culture. How can our work lives help us to move in that direction? How can our work lives help us get off the ME-centric world and get us on the we-centric world?

Prof Prilleltensky:

I am very specific in my definition of a me culture because I think the more specific you are, the more actionable the changes become. So let's start with the definition. For me, a me culture is characterized by the following precept -- people lead their lives according to this – “I have the right to feel valued so that I can be happy.” Okay, well this is only 50% of the equation because if all I care about is my right to feel valued and be happy, what about my responsibility to add the value so that everyone can experience not just happiness and wellness but also fairness?

So, the way we define we culture, it's a culture in which we all have the right and responsibility to feel valued and add value so that we may all experience not just wellness, but also fairness. So what have I said? What I've said is that it's not enough to have the right to feel value. You also have to instill the responsibility to add value.

And you have a responsibility not just to yourself but others, and not just to promote wellness but also fairness. And why fairness? Because fairness is an antecedent of wellness. It's a precursor. It's a factor. The more you experience fairness, respect, dignity. The more you have resources to do your job to lead a dignified life, the more you have resources, physical, psychological material, the more fairness, the higher your level of wellness.

So, I think… how do we move from a me culture to a we culture? I think first of all, you have to educate people, just like you were talking about educating folks on the art of listening. I think we have to educate folks on the art of the we culture and the risks of the me culture. So what are some of the risks of the me culture? Narcissism, growing inequality and environmental entitlement.

So narcissism, because a me culture just promotes, say me, me. I care about being valued. Please adore me. Please shower me with praise. Eh, please tell me how beautiful and smart I am. That’s a me culture. That's narcissism. But it also has another consequence is that people stop caring about others and inequality and poverty. So isn't just a poverty of dignity, there is a poverty of money, a poverty of resources. And there is also what I call environmental entitlement. People treat the environment as if it has infinite resources and it'll never end… These are the negative consequences of the me culture.

What are the positive consequences of the we culture way? We are balancing paying attention to me with paying attention to others. We're trying to promote equal opportunity for everyone. We're not shirking responsibility, neither for other human beings, nor for the environment.

If some, how do we do that? We teach the elements of the we culture and we create conditions. We create situations in which people can cooperate and experience a we culture, not just talk about it. There are a lot of psychological studies showing that even when you give opponents or parties in a conflict, you give them a superordinate goal, meaning a common objective. You know what the two parties have in common and you give them a way to work together. So for example, there were studies showing that kids are artificially divided into two camps. You know, summer camp, you have the blue team and you have the red team. And first you want to create a sense of team, we are the blues or we are the reds, and they fight with one another. But then the moment they have to accomplish a task together, let's just say they need to find the wood to stoke the fire or whatever it is, they have a common task for the survival of the two groups. Then people come together and people learn to cooperate.

So there is an arts and science of cooperation, how to work together.  There is also great work done by Donna Hicks from the Harvard Conflict Resolution Center. She's written a lot and done a lot of international work on dignity, how to resolve conflicts through the art of restoring dignity and infusing cooperation in opposing groups such as blacks and whites in South Africa after Apartheid or different opposing Palestinians and Israelis, among different folks in Northern Ireland. So there are ways to create a new culture, a we culture, to move from a me to a we, but it requires a concerted effort and the consultation with the leading social scientists on the topic.


With all of the things we’ve talked about today, what is something that a leader can take away from your research about mattering and how can they use that in their role, in terms of leading the people within their span of care?

Prof Prilleltensky:

So there are in a number of very actionable recommendations from our conversation. So, number one, make sure you pay individual attention to the members of your team and make sure you give them your undivided attention and you seek their input.

When I became Dean of the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Miami, I had individual meetings with all the faculty and staff. We weren’t a huge number, but about 90, 95 people. And a lot of my colleagues, faculty, staff told me, “Nobody sat down with me and asked me, what do I think the school needs? What should be our priority?” So, give your undivided attention and eh, be a good leader.

Number two, give people important roles so that they feel that they're making a contribution, not just to their little corner of the company, the little unique tasks, but also how can they contribute to the overall vision and mission and values of the organization.

So, create participatory means of getting involved. Create opportunities for people at all levels of the organization to have their say. One thing I created when I became Dean of the school was to create a staff council. Universities are very hierarchical places. Professors defend their right to participate fiercely, but they don't always care so much about what staff have to say. It's like they care about their own democracy. Democracy for others, we don't care so much about that. So, it was really important for me to make sure that the staff, the administrative support people, clerical workers, technicians, IT folks, all the folks without whom we couldn't run the university, they would have a say. Something else I did when I became Vice Provost for Institutional Culture, we created a cadre of culture champions and we had about 150 people across the university who wanted to volunteer to create a culture of mattering and a culture of belonging in different units.

So, we trained them on how to improve the climate in their workplace. And something else that leaders can do is to invest not only in tasks, but also in relationships. We talked earlier about how to cooperate, how to be good listeners, and there were studies conducted at… Case Western Reserve at the university, and MIT, where they discovered that the most productive teams are teams where people have an equal opportunity to participate in decision making. That was number one. Number two, when there were good listeners in the teams, and number three, when there were more women in the group. Apparently, women are better listeners than men and they take into account other people's feelings and emotions better. So what happens is that when you have good listeners, when there is equal participation in the team, then you create a sense of mattering for everybody.

And what happens then is when everybody matters, there is more creativity.

And this is, this is an upward cycle of what Barbara Frederickson, the psychologist calls, broaden and build. When you experience mattering and positive emotions in your team, you are more creative. Your horizons expand, you see more connections. Your brainstorm is more productive. Your ingenuity goes up, your inventiveness, your teamwork, you are in flow. So basically you have better solutions. You design better mechanisms and processes to do things when you are having fun, basically.  When you feel like you matter, you think you are included.

So, the vector of productivity goes from good relationships to productivity. It's almost a precondition-- feeling like you matter, feeling like you belong, feeling like you're having fun, feeling like your voice matters, feeling like you are respected, feeling like you participate, that your expertise is valued regardless of your funny accent like mine or wherever you come from.

When you are made to feel that you have something important to say, because each of us has a unique life trajectory, then the group, the team, is more productive and the outputs and the outcomes are greater. That doesn't mean that as a leader you won't have to deal with individuals who torpedo these initiatives, but you are a leader. You can call people's attention to the fact that they are disrupting processes and you can take action to demonstrate to the team that you are not going to put up with destructive individuals. So it's about how to build the good and how to control the bad influences. So these are some ideas for leaders.

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