Our hidden impact

Mar 03, 2024

Leadership must communicate work meaning and impact in order to foster employee engagement and understanding of individual contributions.

One of my favorite holiday movies has to be It’s a Wonderful Life. Spoiler alert, the movie focuses on the life of George Bailey and a guardian angel who shows him what the world would be like if he didn’t exist. As the movie progresses, George learns that his life had impact in big and small ways to everyone. As a viewer, you can’t help but get introspective and a bit weepy.

I recently had my own “impact” story. I was at a memorial birthday tribute to a friend. It turned out that one of the close family-friends and I worked at the same firm more than 15 years ago, when I was a part-time marketing consultant. My tenure was short – only a year, as I was a layoff victim in 2008. I didn’t even recognize his face since we barely had any interaction; I worked mostly with the marketing director and managing partner on stand-alone projects. I had such little impact at the place that my stint there is a bit of fun trivia whenever I meet someone from that company.

Imagine my shock when this man remembered me clearly. He then told me how much I helped him on a pursuit and shared that the managing principal was very sad that I was part of the layoff. I had no idea I had any impact on the firm, given my short tenure. I assumed that laying me off was a simple business decision; after all I was only a part-time employee. However, hearing that I made an impact – even with my limited interaction – was moving. Knowing that I had an impact, even just to one person, made me view that job in a new light.

Deep down, do we as humans hope that our work has some meaning? I think after the basic hierarchy of needs is met (food, shelter, clothing), you’re able to reach out and talk about the meaning your work brings.

Turns out that meaning and impact are prime components for engagement. Engagement Magic: Five Keys for Engaging People, Leaders, and Organizations, a book by Tracey Maylette, synthesizes years of research and case studies. I watched a presentation by the author and he talked about the difference between job satisfaction and engagement. In particular, he and his colleagues believe that engagement moves away from a transactional model of perks and dives deeper into MAGIC, or meaning, autonomy, growth, impact, and connection. His definition of impact is “seeing positive and worthwhile outcomes and results of your work.”

In an informal LinkedIn poll, I asked people about their relationship with impact and their work. Do they know they make a positive impact? Do they care? My extremely unscientific poll with a limited data set showed that only 14 percent knew of their positive impact from their manager. Thirty-eight percent could see the impact based on their results. But a whopping 48 percent stated they had no idea of their impact.

During a pivotal scene in It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey learns of a bank shortfall (due to his uncle’s error). As chairman, he tries to fix this, reaching out to the only person in the town who has enough money to help. This interaction leads George to a very dark place. He’s frustrated, fearful, and feels alone. George’s situation, the results of my LinkedIn poll, and my own experiences echo something similar – the human need to create meaning.

Brene Brown coins a phrase “the story I’m telling myself” and in her book Dare to Lead writes, “In the absence of data, we will always make up stories.” She goes on to cite the work of Robert Burton, who explains that our brains love stories – especially ones that have a clear good guy (often us) and a bad guy. When we have limited information, we create an inaccurate story to fill the gaps. In George’s case, his story is that he has to take sole responsibility for the bank shortfall and no one will help him. In my story, it was that as a part-time employee, the managing principal had no qualms with my layoff decision. Turns out, neither of those was true. Knowing your impact actually is data to our story! This is why it’s so meaningful.

At the very end of the movie, the town crowdsources the funds to help. One man says, “I wouldn’t have a roof over my head if it weren’t for you.” This statement is impact, not just thanks or appreciation. This one throwaway line is the only time we hear someone verbalize the impact George has made on their life.

This seems simplistic, but how many of us actually hear about our impact? My coworker Necia Bonner shared a few stories with me. One was when she and a coworker were walking through their cancer treatment facility project. A patient, upon learning that they were the designers, proactively approached them and shared that her chemo treatments were now bearable, thanks to the redesign of the space. Necia also shared that one of her direct reports decorated Necia’s desk for the holidays and left a note, detailing how her mentoring has made an impact this year. Turns out we can share impact stories from top to bottom!

Most of us live our lives like pre-angel-visit George Bailey, telling ourselves the story that no one sees our efforts. George learns that even without grand adventures and a big bank account, his life made a positive change in the world. Leaders may assume that compensation is enough and that their teammates know the impact they have. But in the absence of that information, the story we tell ourselves may be false. Impact is a key element in engagement – beyond ping pong tables or Taco Tuesday. Life isn’t the movies; there is no guardian angel showing us our impact. The onus is on each of us to share the impact. To the principal who I met at the memorial, thank you. You really have no idea how much that small feedback changed how I viewed my time at your firm. 

Janki DePalma, LEED AP, CPSM is director of business development at W.E. O’Neil. Contact her at jdepalma@weoneil.com.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.