The great workers who get no credit in a self-promotion obsessed world


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Some people like architects, surgeons and CEOs perform great work and the whole world seems to notice. Their names become famous, they're remembered by their patients, they're touted on the covers of magazines. But when people in other types of jobs do well — an anesthesiologist, say, or a structural engineer — few people remember their names or acknowledge their success. It's only when they mess up that they get any attention at all.

In Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion (Portfolio, June 12), writer David Zweig profiles those people whose jobs are critically important but get little public recognition. He examines why they enter such careers, what traits they share, and what makes them tick. In the process, he opens a window onto our culture's obsession with self-promotion and what we can learn from people who toil away simply for the satisfaction of a job well done.

We spoke with Zweig about how workplaces can help such employees, the way our culture puts a premium on attracting attention, and how much "invisibles" have in common with good leaders. The interview that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. How did you get started on the idea?

A. Years ago I worked as a magazine fact checker. I realized there was this strange inverse relationship between the quality of my work and any recognition I would get. Most of us, the better we do our jobs, the more attention we get. Yet if you do your job perfectly as a fact checker, no one thinks of you. 

I began to wonder what other professions might share this same relationship between work and recognition. One of the first that popped into my mind was anesthesiologists. When you get your gallbladder out, you'll never forget the surgeon’s name, but you’ll never remember the anesthesiologist. For most of these "invisibles," as I call them, it’s only if they make a mistake that they’re ever thought of at all.

Today, there’s this real societal norm of everyone wanting more and more attention, whether it’s in a personal or a professional sense. What kind of people in this culture choose to go into careers where they’re really outside of the spotlight? Do they feel satisfied in their jobs, despite the anonymity?  These people are doing the opposite of what most of us are told will bring fulfillment and success. I wanted to see if there are some threads that hold these people together, and in fact there are.

Q. What are they?

A. The first and primary one is that they all are ambivalent to recognition. They just don't seek attention the way so many of us do. The second thing I found is that they all are meticulous. Many of them even use that specific word to describe how they work. The third trait is what I call a savoring of responsibility. These people seem to want to take on responsibility in a way many of us don't. When you think about it, the real measure of taking on responsibility is if you don't care if you're known or not. When you really care about something, you don't need to be recognized for it.

Credit: Lisa Jane Persky
Author David Zweig. Credit: Lisa Jane Persky

Q. The book is full of profiles of highly skilled people who also have relatively glamorous careers, like cinematographers and guitar technicians for rock bands. Did you speak to any humdrum office workers who may have less interesting jobs but are still critical to keeping things on track?

A. There are plenty of books about anonymous factory workers, and a lot of writers have done terrific work about the jobs of the downtrodden. When I say "invisibles," I’m being very specific about how I’ve defined them. These are skilled professionals. Unlike some people with a limited education or citizenship status where they don’t have options and are forced into invisible roles, these people have options.

An office worker, like the star executive assistant who’s been working for some CEO for 35 years, was one of the people I wanted to profile but ultimately didn’t.

Q. What insights did you come across about managing these invisible workers and making sure they don't get lost in the shuffle?

A. The message we’re told from marketing gurus is that you need to raise your profile, you need to have a platform. Our tendency, if we do a great job, is to copy our boss on an email so they can hear about it. We want to tell our clients and customers about our accomplishments. There’s a really strong cultural tendency to do that, and sometimes that’s essential. But the evidence seems to show that if you want to be successful, your time is best spent focusing on your work, and ultimately that will be recognized. 

It’s not that we should spend zero time promoting ourselves or our work. I’m on the phone with you now. But we’re allocating way too much time trying to get our work seen. The balance has become out of balance.

I spoke with a number of consultants and scholars who are familiar with the business culture in other regions. In Russia, for instance, it’s pretty atypical for an employee to just pop into their boss’s office and ask to do a review or get a status update. In the U.S., that’s considered totally normal. Maybe managers should have defined times for employees to talk about what they’ve done, and limit congratulatory emails. Don't eliminate them, but limit them — letting people focus on their work. 

That helps everyone, but it will particularly help invisible-type workers, the people for whom it's really against their own grain to have to toot their own horn. They’re put in this uncomfortable position where they feel in order to get ahead they have to promote themselves. They’re uncomfortable with gaining too much praise. They don’t need someone slapping them on the back and saying "great job." They just want to do their work. We don’t realize this because our culture is one that really prizes extroversion and prizes this norm of desiring attention.

Q. You mention Susan Cain's book Quiet, about the importance of introverts in society. What's the difference between an introvert and an "invisible"? And can an "invisible" be an extrovert?

Via Portfolio
Via Portfolio

Some of the people I met with were very personable and outgoing and gregarious, others weren't. You can be very extroverted and be an "invisible," and many of these people really work well with others. There's a difference between not wanting to hog a spotlight for yourself and being an introvert.

But there's definitely some crossover between the two. Susan Cain's book was terrific. One of the things I talk about in my book, and something she referenced, is Warren Susman's theory about the culture of personality versus a culture of character. Over time in America, the norm became a culture of personality, where you switched from how you behave privately to how you are perceived publicly.

I take it a step further. I think there's a third phase now, which I call the a "culture of profile." Now so much time is spent on social media that the public persona that Susman talked about is taken to the next level, where who you are as a person is so crafted. There's this reduction in who we are. Today the metric of value in many regards is just attention, whereas years ago it may have been just money or good looks. That sort of mentality stretches into the culture at large, including the workplace.

Q. You describe a kind of ideal leader: someone who is not in it for himself or herself, but wants to do something for the common good. Are many "invisibles" leaders, or do they have a hard time reaching those positions because they're not good self-promoters?

There are a number of "invisibles" who maybe aren't CEO, but they ended up being in charge of enormous projects and large numbers of people. Consider a man like Dennis Poon. He's the lead structural engineer on many of the tallest buildings in the world. His calculations effect whether or not these buildings are going to stand, and he’s in charge of vast teams of workers. His buildings cost billions of dollars. They’re matters of both physical and even national pride. These buildings alter skylines. So he's got a lot of weight on his shoulders.

Yet this is someone who’s incredibly self-effacing and humble. One of the things that’s fascinating about him — and this was true for a number of invisibles — whenever I asked him about himself, he would answer with a "we" rather than an "I". It was almost invariable, like a tick. It was a beautiful semantic metaphor for how he views himself. He’s on the board of directors of a global engineering firm. He's in a position of leadership and power within a multi-billion-dollar industry. But he's a guy who reflexively views himself as a member of a team.

Read also:

Office design for introverts, by an introvert

How to act, sound and look like a leader

An animated leadership talk with Pixar's president

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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