Managing The Invisibles – Book Review
In an age where self-promotion is encouraged, some very talented professionals do not like to be in the spotlight. These “Invisibles” work in a wide range of fields and are recognized as follows: they do not crave recognition, they do not spend time on self-promotion, and they savor responsibility. Successful managers need to find out who they are, recognize them, make their work intrinsically interesting, and reward them fairly. If not, you will lose them and their excellence. Invisibles are a management challenge.
Managing the Invisibles
What does it mean to be an invisible?
David Zweig wanted to know how it is possible that in a world where everyone is aggressively self-promoting, some professionals are satisfied with anonymity. Consequently, he met with a number of Invisibles who, mostly, were at the top of their field. He interviewed them and discovered that Invisibles share certain traits – three in particular.
The Invisibles are ambivalent toward recognition. They put their focus on interesting and important work. Time spent on striving and looking for recognition is not their priority. Being an Invisible is about motivation, about the work itself, about excellence. They embrace anonymity. A second trait shared by Invisibles is meticulousness. Working with high precision is embedded in their work ethic. Thirdly, they savor responsibility in everything they do. Having responsibility is an honor for them. It shows us that power and invisibility are not always aligned. Often, someone unknown to the public bears a huge amount of responsibility.
A Culture of Noise
Invisibles are essential to organizations but the keys to keeping them and enabling them to do their best work are not the ones that motivate others. Invisibles are not a new feature of organizations. Invisibles have always existed but have tended to be underserved by management. Visible metrics and cues are to a large degree our traditional ways of evaluating workers. Nowadays, Invisibles are a new challenge because they have become more the exception and are more valuable than ever. We have created a culture of self-promotion. A lot of people desire attention and the means to attract it. That is why, currently, it is more likely to overlook the Invisibles. With advancing technologies, like social media, a person is able to act on self-promotion. Visible metrics of accomplishment such as ‘likes’ and ‘followers’ are easy to detect. The quality of what is posted is less important than the quantified reaction it receives. “The most important brand is you.” This is not a trend for Invisibles. They have a sense of self, and an overriding commitment to their work.
Managing and Fostering Invisible Stars
Invisibles are highly respected members of organizations. To retain them, to ensure their satisfaction and lift performance across the board, you need to acknowledge them – for example as team players. Managers need to recognize who their Invisibles are and assume that there are more of them than it might appear. Invisibles do not like self-branding. The ones who have gone down this path are uncomfortable with having done so. They prefer to concentrate on their work and are frustrated if they feel compelled to go against their nature.
A degree of stigma is associated with self-promotion. Invisibles consider that self-promotion is necessary, but simultaneously avoid appearing to do so. As manager you can temper this by advancing Invisible values. It is also important to know that not every professional should be an Invisible. You need to decide how many Invisibles you want in a team. Some positions really do call for recognition. But how do you get the Invisibles’ ethic and excellence in your team?
An executable solution is to establish new cultural norms where you need to put forward what you want to see, to make clear that self-promotion won’t accomplish much. This can pull more people in the direction of Invisibles.
Rewarding Invisibles fairly is essential. Their lack of self-promotion is not a lack of what they are worth. To be fully aware of your employees’ accomplishments, you can set strictly defined deadlines for people to report them. This gives structure and formality, which can be liberating for employees who do great work but aren’t comfortable drawing attention to how essential they are. For others it can help foster a more team-oriented environment because the focus is put on the energy of employees to contribute, rather than to manage their images. It opens the door for Invisibles to rise and to make the work more intrinsically rewarding. To exactly know what works for Invisibles, you should talk with them.
Invisibles are crucial for an organization. They have distinctive traits that are strongly correlated with exceptional levels of achievement and life satisfaction.
David Zweig is a writer and lecturer who lives in New York. His forthcoming book, on which this article is based, is Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion (Portfolio, June 2014).