“Managing the Invisibles”

“Managing The Invisibles”

The Article:

Zweig, David (2014, May) Managing the “Invisibles”.  Harvard

                 Business Review, 96-103

Based on the book:  Zweig, David (2014, 2015) Invisibles: Celebrating the

          Unsung Heroes of the Workplace.  New York: Portfolio/Penguin

There’s something about this concept that resonates with me quickly and strongly.  Perhaps it’s because I think I may be one of them—the “Invisibles.” Or at least I tilt heavily in that direction as a worker, as a person.

“Invisibles” have gained that label because they are viewed as “extremely capable and committed professionals who could easily succeed in high-profile careers but instead gravitate to work that is outside the spotlight.”   Invisibles are all over the place and in every field of endeavor.  Included in their traits is disdaining personal attention and refusing to spend any time or effort on self-promotion.

Invisibles are perfectly content to be anonymous, to live and work without recognition, which flies in the face of our culture known for its aggressive self-absorption and its self-seeking credit and recognition.  If our age is known for anything, it is about seeking the limelight, making sure we are known and appreciated, and that our interests are served,  preferably first.

This presents a real challenge for those of us in leadership and management.  The “Invisibles” in our organization, so critical to innovation and professional excellence, are likely to go unnoticed altogether.  The irony is that this anonymity is what Invisibles prefer as their personal default position.   But “Invisibles” are still people, and our failure to recognize that they, too, have real needs is the fatal first step to taking them completely for granted, thus running the high risk of losing them altogether and the extraordinary value they can bring to our organization.

Zweig cites three traits that describe an “Invisible.”  They are:

  1. Ambivalence toward recognition.   Herein lies one of the greatest paradoxes of an Invisible:  the better you are at what you do, the more you tend to just go “poof” and disappear off organizational radar.  Anything that is self-aggrandizing, that requires courting personal praise, fame, and recognition, is a grievous, colossal waste of time that could have been spent doing significant work.

The better and happier an Invisible becomes at what they do is inversely proportional to the recognition and attention they want, the kind most people crave with sometimes sickening zeal.  What seems to gratify the Invisible most is the work itself.

  1. Meticulousness.  Deeply embedded in the work ethic of the Invisible is an extraordinary attention to detail, an unyielding commitment to the highest level of excellence, and being methodical, meticulous, and punctilious sometimes to the extreme of seeming petulant and “fussy.”  The Invisible is committed to nothing less than the best—an unbending, non-negotiable, unyielding resolve that holds him and his work to the highest possible standard of quality and excellence, yet without becoming a “perfectionist” in an unhealthy or destructive sense.
  2. Savoring of responsibility.   Another paradox (or is it irony?) about the Invisible:  when they do their jobs perfectly, they are rarely or never thought of.  It’s only in the rare case when something goes wrong is attention ever directed toward them.  Zweig observes, “Invisibles show us that power and visibility are not always aligned.  We might think that the person at the top of the pyramid, the front of the stage, or the head of the boardroom table is the one with all the responsibility, but it’s often someone unknown to the public who bears much of the weight.”

Leaders and managers today are more likely than ever to overlook the “Invisibles” in their organization as well as neglect their needs.   This is because we have created a culture of personal horn tooting that leaves us drowning in what the author calls “A Culture of Noise.”   We struggle to discern any quiet signals of actual quality and achievement, to separate the hype, the “buzz,” or the “spin” something is given from what may be authentic.

Our amped up era of self-promotion and self-advancement makes the Invisible even more difficult to see and hear, and, almost ironically, increasingly more valuable to us.   This is true whether one’s organization is a church, civic organization, government agency, educational institution, a high profile business, or a non-profit doing noble work.   The advent of social media has only enabled and amplified the growing, and sometimes seemingly desperate, attempts to attract attention to self, to one’s causes, to one’s special interests.   Some observers draw the comparison between addictions and personal use of social media.  The desire for more and more ever increases, yet is never satisfying or capable of making one happy or content.  The cure offered for the problems noise creates is simply to turn up the volume and create more channels to gain personal recognition.

The quiet sense of self and overriding commitment to one’s work found in the Invisible, and the happiness produced by it, is what makes him or her so antithetical to our present work culture.   The work ethic and style of many Invisibles could not be at greater odds, or run more “cross-grain” with that of our work climate.  Yet, for many organizations, the quiet Invisible simply going about his or her work in a spirit of professionalism and excellence is the very antidote needed to cure some of the noise.

Though Invisibles will assert that they do not want attention and praise, wise leaders and managers will still appropriately acknowledge them as leaders, role models, as the best of what it means to be a member of a team.  This is to ensure their satisfaction on the job, to assign value to their important work, and raise the overall engagement and performance of all other employees across the board.

Zweig has three specific suggestions for leaders and managers at the point of Invisibles: (1) simply recognize who their Invisibles are within the organization, (2) decide if you want more Invisibles on your team to provide a “bigger dose of their enviable work ethic and quest for excellence,” and (3) appropriately and fairly reward them for their work, despite how hard they may attempt to keep you from doing exactly that.

According to Invisibles, what does more than anything else to motivate them or “light their fire,” is (1) an opportunity to develop their craft, (2) to work in an environment that enables them to focus on what they do best, and (3) to see that their work matters, that they are making a difference.

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Personal Reflections:   This insightful article was not written from a Christian perspective, nor was it written for a Christian audience.  I get tremendous benefit from this article just the way it was designed and written, and deeply appreciate it for what it is.

Yet it strikes me that the word “Invisible” speaks volumes about how the maturing Christian ought to live, work, and serve.  To selfishly call attention to one’s work for the purpose of self-promotion or to seek the praise of others is to work at cross-grain with everything it means to live and work in the style of a “servant.”   Jesus spoke about this:  “Let him who would be great among you, be your servant.”  Again, “I came not to be served, but to serve.”

The Old Testament prophet, Jeremiah, warned:  “Seekest thou great things for thyself?  Seek them not. . . .” (45:4)

The phrase “do good and disappear” has taken on new meaning for me as a result of reading this article.