I have learned something simple but profound about human behavior from working with literally thousands of people both individually and in groups over the past 20 years.  And while I have learned this first-hand from my own experience, there is much psychological research that would support my assertion.

People want and need to feel valued.

Feeling valued is a fundamental human emotional need.  Humans want to feel seen, heard, appreciated, and as if they are making a meaningful contribution.  Much of the human conflict, churn, and strife that happens in organizations, relationships, and in the world, has its root in the neglect of this basic human need.

Here’s the important thing to see in this statement.  The word “feel”.

Notice I didn’t say “be” valued.

There is a difference between being valued and feeling valued—and that’s where I think we often get it wrong.  I have spent years working inside organizations creating talent management systems, diversity initiatives, employee engagement actions, and leadership development programs.  Many of these initiatives have the right intention—which is to show employees that they are “being” valued.  Organizations certainly recognize that without the contribution of employees, there is no business.  What many leaders become intensely afraid of and ask people to park at the door is how they “feel”.  Feelings are squishy and hard to measure.  They are like a Pandora’s box—open it up and all kinds of stuff we can’t control comes out.  How do we deal in the world of feelings?  Many leaders I work with are uncomfortable with anything that has to do with the feeling side of humans.  So, we rationalize to ourselves that feelings have no place in the world of work and business—please park your feelings at the door.  Yet we do know how important it is for humans to feel valued, as we have that experience ourselves.  The logic we often unconsciously use is this:

“If I can check off a box telling you that you are being valued and my intention is to have you be valued—then you are valued.”

Think about this for a moment in a personal context.  It’s your spouse or partner’s birthday.  You buy a beautiful new Cuisinart mixer and bring it home for her birthday.  You tell her happy birthday.  Your intention is to show her she is being valued by your gift and expression of conventional wishes.  In your mind, you have demonstrated that she is being valued.  Your intentions are in the right place.  Put in terms of the valuing piece, you may have missed the mark you intended to make.

You are assuming that your wife feels valued in this scenario, by the mere fact that you intend her to feel so.  If she does not feel valued by your intention—then she should.  You have gone out of your way to show her she is being valued and she doesn’t appreciate that effort.  She is ungrateful in your mind—and nothing will make her happy, you conclude.

Now just step out of that same scenario and take yourself out of the center for a moment.  What if you asked your wife what makes her feel appreciated and valued by you?  What if you took some time and really listened and saw her contributions and strengths?  What if you paid attention from her perspective of what it means to feel valued, rather than trying to demonstrate that she is being valued by you?

Perhaps something totally different would emerge.  Perhaps feeling valued would mean something totally different to her.  And your actions and even your gift might be totally different.

Now go back to being a leader in an organization.  What if instead of trying to fit people into appreciation programs and engagement actions to show them they are being valued, you asked them what makes them feel valued? What if you also asked what makes them feel less valued?

Yes,  feel, not be.

And what if you really listened to the answers, without judgment or trying to defend your own intentions?  What if you sat with those feelings that emerge may feel uncomfortable to you or difficult to hear, and just let them be the truth from the other person’s perspective?

And finally, what if you started showing people you value them by demonstrating what makes them feel valued—rather than trying to prove that they are being valued?