Invisibility is a Workplace Superpower

Invisibility is a Workplace Superpower

August 8, 2014

Oliver Burkeman recently wrote about workplace “invisibles” in his Guardian column “This Column Will Change Your Life.”  So-called invisibles are those colleagues whose work – when done well – smooths the way for others in such a way that they and their work do not stand out. Unless something goes wrong, and then they can be very noticeable.

Think of the housekeeper at a hotel. When everything is immaculate, we don’t think “Wow! What a great housekeeper!” Instead we see a lovely room.

But the next day, if our towels aren’t changed and our beds aren’t made, we think, “What a terrible housekeeper!” When the housekeeper is great at the job, he or she is invisible.

In fact, this invisibility-as-goal is characteristic of incentive travel planners. When everything has gone extraordinarily right, everyone enjoys the event to the fullest, but they cannot possibly see the myriad people behind the effort. I was a planner for many years and was focused entirely on a seamless experience for the guests, as if everything just happened by magic. It was definitely not the time for self-promotion. In fact, invisibly creating these kinds of experiences for people sometimes seems like a superpower and a great deal of pride and satisfaction comes from the work and the results.

Burkeman, citing David Zweig’s recent book called, Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion, states that, “It’s been widely reported that too much focus on ‘extrinsic’ motivators such as money or recognition can sometimes damage creativity and productivity. Invisibles are the ultimate intrinsically motivated workers, and may be ‘more prosperous, healthier and grounded’ as a result.” (You can read more about Zweig’s thinking on this subject here.)

Perhaps . . .  but we must be very careful not to make too many assumptions about this critical part of the workforce.

Intrinsic motivation is certainly a characteristic of many of the best employees in every workplace. But are we so sure that those who choose – or drift into – anonymous work are actually averse to being noticed? There are many workers who simply go about their jobs, doing their best, knowing that the limelight is not on them. They didn’t make a choice to stay in the shadows. And it doesn’t mean that organizations don’t need to find ways to motivate this group and to support it. It is easy to fall into assumptions about groups of people and what engages them with their work.

Admittedly, not everyone likes to be called up on stage and not everyone is self-promoting. Sometimes one-on-one acknowledgement of a job well done is more appropriate and that’s why recognition should always be personal and reflect the values of the recipient. But it is important that even the most private employees have the feedback that a solid recognition program can provide. It helps the organization to guide employee priorities and behaviors. That’s a necessary part of ensuring that everyone is on track – even the invisibles.

Burkeman uses Robin Sloan’s concepts of “Flow” and “Stock” to explain the attention-getters and invisibles in the workplace, saying “Flow is day-to-day, high-visibility stuff: putting yourself out there, networking at conferences . . . Stock is substantive, long-term work that lasts.” Both are critical to success. Perhaps rather than assume that those engaged in “Stock” work do not need or want recognition, we should ensure that they aren’t so invisible to us after all.

Invisibles, after all, are often the superheros of the hidden work of the organization…   It is essential to engage them and provide them with the direction, tools, and support they need to quietly achieve within the organization. Real engagement isn’t about self-promotion or standing on a stage.  Real engagement is about connecting the needs and interests of the individual to the needs and goals of the organization.