The Invisibles: Workplace Success in Anonymity

Posted in: PSA Partnership

PSA’s recent Partnership program speaker David Zweig drew inspiration for his book Invisibles from an early job he held as a fact-checker at Vogue magazine. He liked the job, meticulously verifying the details in each article, catching errors before they went to print. But Zweig also noticed something interesting about his work that seemed to run counter to our prevailing culture of attention-getting as a means to success.

“By design,” he said, “the better I did my job, the more I disappeared.”

The surprising equation for his success at work, turned out to be this:

Perfection = Invisibility

Zweig started to realize there were lots of other jobs for which this might hold true. Anesthesiologists, cinematographers, audio engineers, interpreters, concert piano tuners—all are highly skilled people who thrive when their work stays out of the limelight. The thought spurred an article in The Atlantic, then the book Invisibles. Zweig travelled the world to collect material for his book looking for highly successful professionals at the very top of their game that, due to the nature of their work and personalities, often flew under the radar. These people, Zweig’s Invisibles, all turned out to share the following three traits:

  1. Ambivalence toward recognition
  2. Meticulousness
  3. Savoring of responsibility

Zweig argues that valuing these invisible employees, especially in our modern, social media-influenced world where everyone seems to be competing for attention with posts and latest updates, can actually be a boon for business.

“We are in this age of relentless self-promotion,” Zweig said. “But what if that is a vast myth? What if being really successful and satisfied has nothing to do with getting attention?”

Highly successful Invisibles you’ve never heard of

In a lively and entertaining talk, Zweig recounted stories of Invisibles from his book. They included the following:

  • How the engineers working on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater met secretly, behind the famously irascible architect’s back, to fix the designs that prevented the house from falling into the water. Later analysis proved the engineers’ concerns were correct, though they never took credit publicly for the fix. Had they not shored up the designs, the iconic landmark would never have lasted.
  • How most people can name five movie directors, but no one can name a single cinematographer. Robert Elswit, whose credits include There Will Be Blood along with Mission Impossible and Bourne movies, told Zweig he sees his job as being about recording light, not about cool camera angles or flashy lighting tricks: “If you’re doing something that calls attention to itself in a way that doesn’t make sense, you’re probably doing something wrong,” Elswit said.
  • How Andy Johns, a recording engineer who worked on major albums by Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Van Halen, and Eric Clapton, was once offered a job as bass player for The Stones—inarguably a dream job for anyone—and turned it down because he was happiest working anonymously in the studio.

How to hire, retain, and reward Invisibles

Zweig’s book is a paean to the notion that these types of workers—highly competent individuals who want to take on responsibility, to focus meticulously on a task, to eschew the limelight—can be invaluable to an organization. There is a strong business case, he argues, for hiring and retaining Invisibles. To do that, business leaders should consider the following:

  1. Identify the Invisibles. Keep an eye out for professionals who, either by design of their role or by their temperament, qualify as Invisibles. “These people are going to be some of your best workers. They care about the overall result more than they care about promoting themselves,” Zweig said.
  2. Figure out how to value and retain them. These workers, won’t likely want a party thrown for them every time they do something well. One of the best ways to reward an Invisible is to award more responsibility.
  3. Change your corporate culture. The famous “open door policy” that many executives extol might not be the best practice for Invisibles. Such a policy can foster an atmosphere of competition for the boss’s attention. A more formalized process for checking in with individual employees can work better to help Invisibles thrive.
  4. Look to other cultures. Collectivism—putting “we” and “us” before “I” and “me” is engrained in Asian, Australian, and Scandinavian cultures; Americans can take a lesson from them.
  5. Employ and promote more women. Women tend to have more skill than men with what Zweig terms “soft power,” which tends to lead more from a place of consensus, creating a good environment for Invisibles.

Click here for more information on David Zweig

The next PSA Partnership seminar, “Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Better Life,” with Wharton School business professor, best-selling author, and SiriusXM radio host Stew Friedman will be held Wednesday, June 28, at the PSA Learning Center.

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