Never underestimate the difference one person can make—and never underestimate the difference you have made and do make in the lives of others.
This is a statement I have used for years in talks given in a whole variety of settings. That’s because it’s a sentiment that can never be said too often. There are certain jobs where it’s difficult for people to see the difference they make (for example, those “behind-the-scenes” jobs that don’t have a lot of visibility). There are other jobs where it’s easier to see that difference. But sadly, in both instances, too often people don’t receive enough positive feedback and hear stories on the difference they make.
If you are in a leadership role, one of your responsibilities is to “connect the dots” for those in your department and organization on the difference they are making—and to remind them never to underestimate that difference. This doesn’t always come easily, as we naturally tend to share what is wrong a lot faster than what is right. But leaders are well positioned to find the “wins” that happen every day and connect them back to employees. And it’s very important.
People crave meaningful work. We all have a deep need to know we make a difference in the lives of others. When people feel their work has meaning and makes a difference, not only will our company’s performance improve, everyone will enjoy their job so much more. In fact, helping people connect to this sense of meaning and purpose solves the number-one problem on a leader’s dashboard: engagement. The effort from engaged employees is what takes a company from good to great.
At times employees are recognized for the difference they make. Good leaders understand that while they may be asked to accept an award, they need to always give credit to the many who made the results happen. In fact, they often make sure others are the ones who accept the award. The trophy or plaque may be what is handed out, but the real “award” is the good feeling that comes from knowing one has made an impact.
But there are many other times when the person making a difference does not even know the impact they made and will never know it. As leaders, we need to often remind people of this truth—it really does make a difference in how they feel about their job.
I often share the impact that three teachers made in my life: Mrs. James, Mr. Fry, and Coach King. Only Coach King ever learned of this difference. But the truth is, the list of people who’ve positively impacted my life is a long one, and it continues to grow. Many know the difference, and many do not. Those who do not may be a person who wrote a book that influenced me, or helped make a movie I liked, or made a comment in a meeting I attended, etc.
Years ago, I was experiencing a difficult time in my life. My goal was to accept the situation (after some failed attempts at changing what I could not change) and like it. My thought was, If I pray enough and get help, I will accept and like the situation. So I was speaking in Arizona, and after my talk I went to a support group. At the meeting a person said, “Accepting and liking are two different things.” Once I heard that statement, life got much easier. The person’s comment helped me realize, Yes, I must accept the situation, but it is okay to not like it. It was very freeing. This person has no idea about the powerful impact they had on my life.
My point is that just because you don’t get direct thanks or a mention about the difference you make, do not underestimate it. Here is another example that comes to mind.
I was speaking in Peoria, Illinois, to employee groups at a hospital. I asked the leaders to provide me with the names of any people they would like me to recognize during my talk. A nurse manager handed me a note about Mary, a worker who was going to be in one of the sessions. This person worked in food services and did not report directly to the nurse manager. Part of her job was to bring food trays to patients. The note said that when Mary came to work that day, she had no idea the difference she would make.
What happened was this: A young lady had delivered a very ill baby who had died shortly after birth. She had no family and no support system. She came from a very difficult background. In a situation like this, the mom and others are provided a time to be with their child before the child is taken to the morgue. (My first grandchild was stillborn, and my oldest son and daughter-in-law were provided this time.)
The nurse, nurse manager, and clergy all offered to be with the young lady. She had declined their help. So, the mom and her child were in a patient care room to have their time together when Mary walked in with a food tray. When she discovered what she walked into, Mary quickly apologized and said, “I am sure you want to be alone.” The young woman responded, “I don’t.” Yes, others had offered, and she had said she was okay, yet she wanted Mary to stay. The others had done nothing wrong; I can only guess that she felt more comfortable with the food service worker.
So Mary sat on the bed with the mother and child. The mother asked Mary, “Why did God let this happen?” Mary gently shared her thoughts on this. The next question was, “What do I tell people?” Mary also gave her take on that. Eventually, she left the mom and baby and returned to her food services duties.
The note I received from the nurse manager stated, “When Mary came to work today, it was to pass out trays. Today, she also passed out love, understanding, help, and compassion. Mary makes a difference.”
I read that note to the hundreds of employees in the room and recognized Mary. I realized I was so fortunate to be there, to receive the note from the nurse manager, and to meet Mary.
Yes, there are times when people make a difference and get recognition. But more often they have no idea of the impact they are making. That’s true for employees like Mary, and it’s also true of leaders who help create the work environments that make actions like Mary’s possible.
As I close this column, I would like to ask readers to do a few things. First, please do not underestimate the difference you make in people’s lives, even when it is not recognized. Second, take time to thank those who make a difference in your life—including employees, coworkers, friends, and family members. Third, say a prayer of thanks for those who are no longer with us, who continue to touch lives, who generation after generation make a difference in our world.
Thank you for letting me be a part of your journey. I am grateful.
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Quint Studer’s new book, The Busy Leader’s Handbook: How to Lead People and Places That Thrive, was released by Wiley on October 1. Filled with tips, tactics, and need-to-know insights, it functions as a desk reference, pocket guide, and training manual for anyone in a leadership position. To learn more, visit www.thebusyleadershandbook.com