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Motivating People
Managing the “Invisibles”
by David Zweig
From the Magazine (May 2014)
Reprint: R1405G Even in an age of relentless self-promotion, some extremely capable professionals prefer to avoid the spotlight. “Invisibles” work in fields ranging from engineering to...
In October 2004 a skunkworks project called Lab126, staffed by brilliant and accomplished engineers, began a three-year venture developing a device that would revolutionize an industry. Just a year into the endeavor, the huge tech company behind it brought in an outside firm to create a key component of the product: its name.
Michael Cronan, the head of the firm, ultimately chose a word that means “to start a fire, to arouse.” The company that brought in Cronan is Amazon. The product is, of course, the Kindle. We might see product names as a mere afterthought to more serious concerns in an R&D process, but Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, felt differently. “Jeff wanted to talk about the future of reading, but in a small, not braggadocio, way,” Karin Hibma, Cronan’s former business partner and now widow, said in an interview with the design journalist Steven Heller. The name had to strike just the right tone and provide a solid root for numerous expected spin-offs. “We didn’t want it to be ‘techie’ or trite.” Hibma went on to quote Voltaire: “The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbors, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all.”
Michael Cronan’s thoughtful approach has produced numerous brand names that are embedded in our culture. Untold millions read, speak, and think about them every day. (One of Cronan’s earlier projects, TiVo—a device that few people today actually own—is still used as a verb for recording television shows.) Yet the name Michael Cronan itself is all but unknown. When I spoke with Hibma, who now runs the firm, I kept pressing her on the remarkability of her trade. After all, there are very few people in the world who can introduce words that penetrate a culture with near ubiquity. She admitted to occasions when she and Cronan would be on an airplane and notice Kindles in use around them. “I would mention to the person next to me that I’d had something to do with the name,” she said. But invariably, she would be met with “a confused look.” No one thinks about where names come from.
Michael Cronan is a member of a class I’ve come to call “Invisibles”: extremely capable and committed professionals who could easily succeed in high-profile careers but instead gravitate to work that is outside the spotlight. Invisibles work in a wide range of fields. They include people such as Dennis Poon, the lead structural engineer on some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers. When we see a grand building, if we think of its structure at all we think of the architect. But without engineers like Poon, those towers wouldn’t stand. Other Invisibles I’ve met include an elite interpreter at the UN; a piano technician for a world-renowned symphony orchestra; a perfumer who’s created blockbuster fragrances for the likes of Calvin Klein, Hugo Boss, and Tom Ford; and magazine fact-checkers. (When is the last time you read a great article and thought to yourself, Man, that was fact-checked beautifully!)
I have traveled around the U.S., to Europe, and to Asia to meet with Invisibles. My discoveries about what makes them tick are the subject of my forthcoming book. But along the way I came to realize something else about Invisibles: They are a management challenge. Because they don’t crave recognition, they don’t spend time on self-promotion, so it’s easy to take them for granted. But fail to understand and give them what they do crave, and you will lose them, along with the tremendous value they deliver.
What Does It Mean to Be an Invisible?
Many of the Invisibles I met with are at the top of their fields; some are in charge of complex operations and of scores, even hundreds, of workers; many are well remunerated. I wanted to know: How is it, in an age when seemingly everyone is aggressively self-promoting, when we’re told that in order to get ahead we must have a brand or a “platform,” that these people—consummate professionals all—are satisfied with anonymity? How can they have the confidence to do their demanding jobs and yet not the ego to want to be widely known for their work? Despite the diversity of their careers, I found that all Invisibles share certain traits, with three in particular at the core.
Ambivalence toward recognition.
We all do work that is anonymous to some extent, but most of us strive for recognition. That is how we feed our sense of self-worth. Invisibles take a different approach. For them, any time spent courting praise or fame is time taken away from the important and interesting work at hand. In fact, their relationship with recognition is often the inverse of what most of us enjoy: The better they do their jobs, the more they disappear. It may only be when something goes wrong that they’re noticed at all.
I met up with Dennis Poon at the nearly completed Shanghai Tower, the tallest building in China and the second tallest in the world. Poon is involved in three of the five tallest buildings under construction on the planet today. He is a director of a global engineering firm, and over the decades that he has worked in this sphere he has gained a reputation for excellence. Not surprisingly, he is well regarded and quite visible within his field. Critically, being an Invisible ultimately isn’t about the degree to which someone ends up being seen; it’s about motivation. And Poon, like all the other Invisibles I interviewed, maintains a deep ambivalence toward recognition.
One of the more telling manifestations of this was his tendency, when talking about his work, to use “we,” not “I.” Although he is in charge of large numbers of people and is responsible for the safety and soundness of complex multibillion-dollar buildings, he reflexively views himself as part of a team. As we stood on an unfinished floor of the Tower some thousand feet up, surveying the hive of activity around us and the majestic view of the cityscape beyond, I rattled off his accomplishments on this grand structure. I asked: Since engineers at his level often have a profound effect on the overall design of a skyscraper, isn’t it odd that only the “starchitects” gain notice? He seemed almost put off by the question, responding, “We are just structural engineers,” and listing all the other tradespeople involved in the Tower. Not only does he view himself as just one person among many within his specialty, he views his specialty as just one among many specialties integral to a skyscraper’s design and construction.
Think again of Michael Cronan. I asked his wife: Didn’t he feel disappointed, perhaps even indignant, that he and his craft were essentially invisible despite the omnipresence of his personal work? She said that, on the contrary, he embraced anonymity. If the work wasn’t ridiculed or rejected by the public, if it could slip into the vernacular as almost an inevitability, effortlessly tied to a product or a brand, then he knew he had done well. What gratified him, Hibma told me, was the work itself.
It’s easy to take Invisibles for granted. But fail to understand what they crave, and you will lose them—along with the value they deliver.
Even the most visible among us—movie stars, top athletes, captains of industry, and the like—often share this ambivalence toward recognition. A ghostwriter I interviewed (an archetypal Invisible if there ever was one), who has worked with scores of well-known people and is intimately familiar with their aspirations and life stories, claims that most of them aren’t motivated by fame; they are motivated by excellence. (This isn’t to say, of course, that there aren’t celebrities whose primary motive appears to be attention—only that for the truly accomplished and respected stars, not the reality TV ones, fame is a byproduct of their work, not the goal itself.)
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Sitting in the elegant Manhattan office of David Apel, the perfumer (or “nose,” as they’re called in the industry) behind some of the best-selling fine fragrances in the world, one could be forgiven for thinking it was the office of any accomplished big-city professional. It has the obligatory skyline view, the late-model computer perched on a glass desk, the modernist ergonomic chair. One might think so, that is, if not for this anomaly: dozens of sepia-tinted glass vials arranged on the desk like a stash of medicines from an 18th-century doctor or the trial potions of a mad scientist. The latter actually isn’t far from reality, as Apel, if not technically a scientist, is an artist with a scientist’s knowledge and fastidious methodology. Before he reached his vaunted position, he spent years in the lab compounding raw ingredients and accumulating a vast store of knowledge about chemistry. Words like “limonene,” “gamma-terpinene,” and “ambroxan” roll off his tongue as easily as a spritz of Ralph Lauren Blue (one of his creations) mists your neck. To create a new fragrance, Apel spends months of trial and error refining the formula for the “juice.” With some fragrances stretching into hundreds of ingredients, each one measured to within hundredths or even thousandths of a gram, a meticulous log of each permutation is essential. Apel showed me some of the handwritten spreadsheets he relied on before the era of computers—documents worthy of the most punctilious accountant, with microscopic penciled-in decimal numbers filling the grids for arcane materials such as vetiver bourbon and heliotropin.
We might think that the person at 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.
“Meticulousness” was so widespread and so deeply embedded in the work ethic of the Invisibles that during all my interviews with them, I knew it was just a matter of time before they would utter the word. Witnessing them at their work, though, made the trait far more apparent and resonant.
Savoring of responsibility.
Some of the first Invisibles I spoke with were anesthesiologists. Unlike some Invisible professions, anesthesiology is something we’re all aware of. Yet, as one doctor told me, “If you want to get fruit baskets from patients, don’t go into anesthesiology.” A patient never forgets the name of the surgeon who removed his gallbladder, but the anesthesiologist is remembered only if something goes horribly wrong. When these doctors do their jobs perfectly, they’re never thought of. Yet they literally have patients’ lives in their hands. “It’s funny how on TV, the surgeon is the leader of the OR—but in reality, during an emergency surgeons are often the ones freaking out, looking to me for assurance. It’s my job to be the leader,” Albert Scarmato, an anesthesiologist at CentraState Medical Center, in Freehold, New Jersey, told me. “But I love the responsibility,” he added.
Dennis Poon, who is ultimately accountable for the integrity of buildings that thousands will use every day and that serve as iconic beacons of civic and even national pride, bears an almost unbearable amount of responsibility. If his calculations and designs are off, the results can be catastrophic. But when I asked him how he copes with the pressure, he said simply, “It’s an honor.” Similarly (although the stakes weren’t as serious), Michael Cronan took on enormous responsibility for companies with millions of dollars riding on new products or rebrandings. How do you handle the stress when a billion-dollar company like Amazon entrusts you with naming what it hopes will be its next blockbuster product? “We are curious,” Karin Hibma told me. “If you transform fear into curiosity, you operate from a position of fascination and wonder.”
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.
A Culture of Noise
Perhaps it is beginning to be clear why Invisibles represent a management challenge. They are essential to organizations—they stealthily improve the work of those around them and elevate the overall tone—but the keys to keeping them and enabling them to do their best work are not the ones that motivate others. Are they a new challenge? Yes and no.
On the one hand, Invisibles have always existed, often performing crucial services for institutions and group endeavors and enabling organizations to thrive. And they have tended to be underserved by management, because, understandably, our traditional ways of evaluating workers rely to a large degree on visible metrics and cues.
On the other hand, Invisibles are a new challenge, worth putting a name to and thinking about as a class, because in our current era of amped-up self-promotion, they have become more the exceptions—and are more valuable than ever. If managers tended to neglect them and their needs in the past, they are even likelier to overlook them today, amid the glare of their colleagues’ high-beam self-aggrandizement. We’ve created a culture of personal horn tooting that leaves us immersed in noise, struggling to discern any quiet signals of actual quality and achievement.
People have always varied in their desire for attention, but now far more of us have the means to attract it. A peasant living a thousand years ago might have wished for fame, but he would have been largely paralyzed in his relative obscurity. With advancing technologies over the years, a person’s ability to act on this desire has improved. Every communication tool since the printing press has provided a megaphone bigger and cheaper. Now the internet, especially social media, both enables and amplifies our cries for notice.
And the conventions of social media intensify our desire. Embedded in their structures are visible metrics of accomplishment—“likes” and followers. The quality of what is posted is second to the quantified reaction it receives. Google “How to make a meme go viral” and you’ll find yourself lost in a million-plus-results galaxy of sites like memecrusher.com; news clips from media like Business Insider citing research from “data scientists”; and books like Jonah Berger’s Contagious: Why Things Catch On, all claiming to have cracked the code. Although much of the interest in this space has to do with promoting commercial brands and products, there’s often an underlying message: The most important brand is you. This is an unsettling trend for Invisibles. In one of the meetings I had with prospective publishers while my book was in the proposal stage, an editor confided to me her anxiousness and indignation that her boss was pushing her to start a blog and a Twitter account in order to “raise her profile.” “I’m an editor!” she fumed. “Our job, explicitly, is to be behind the scenes.”
The concept of a hyperaware branded self makes many of us anxious, less happy, and more lonely, argues Sherry Turkle, the director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self and the author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. From her research, Turkle told me, she has found that we’ve come to “define ourselves by sharing our thoughts and feelings even as we’re having them. The trouble with this is we don’t develop the capacity for solitude, the ability to gather ourselves.” And without that capacity, she added, “you turn to other people because you need them in order to feel alive.” For years our corporate and educational cultures have celebrated the extroverted, share-all mentality. But as countless researchers and writers (including Susan Cain, in her watershed best seller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking) have noted, many people perform their best work alone. The brainstorming sessions and bull pen seating so widely venerated often don’t bring the best results—they just steer us toward whoever makes their point most loudly.
Managers should start simply by recognizing who their Invisibles are—and by assuming that there are more of them than it might appear.
The Invisibles’ quiet sense of self and overriding commitment to their work is the antithesis—and in some organizations, the antidote—to all the noise.
Managing and Fostering Invisible Stars
That self-promotion is often cloaked in faux modesty (witness the rise of the term “humblebrag”) is testament to both its pervasiveness and its inherent distastefulness. It’s not surprising, then, that Invisibles are among the most highly respected members of organizations. If you want to retain them, the usual carrots probably won’t work. But although recognition is never their motivation, acknowledging them—as models, as leaders, as the proverbial team players—is exactly what you should do to ensure their satisfaction and lift performance across the board.
Managers should start simply by recognizing who their Invisibles are—and by assuming that there are more of them than it might appear. Sherry Turkle’s research, along with abundant evidence cited in my book, suggests that many of the people who have caved to the demands for self-branding are uncomfortable with having done so. Innumerable examples, from Invisibles I’ve met to anecdotal accounts in articles and their adjacent comment sections to academic studies, reveal that many professionals desperately would like to “step off the wheel” and just concentrate on their work; they are frustrated, anxious, and even resentful because they feel compelled to go against their nature and compete with all the squawking around them. (A caveat: Don’t expect that every low-profile worker is performing at the level I’m attributing to Invisibles, or that a lack of self-promotion necessarily implies more commitment to the work.)
To complicate matters, despite the encouragement, even the expectation, to engage in self-promotion, a degree of stigma is associated with the activity. As Radiohead’s Thom Yorke succinctly sang, “Ambition makes you look pretty ugly.” This contradiction forces people into a double bind: They feel they need to simultaneously promote themselves and avoid appearing to do so (see again: humblebrag). Be aware of this knotty dynamic facing your employees and know that you can temper it, in part, by advancing Invisible values.
Another task for managers is deciding if they want more Invisibles on the team. Not every professional should be an Invisible. (As an author, I’m happy to be out promoting a book with my name on the cover, thank you very much—and I would be doing a disservice to my publisher if I weren’t willing to do this.) Some positions really do call for star power. But in our age of gross attention seeking, it’s likely that your team could use a bigger dose of the Invisibles’ ethic and excellence. How to get it? One seemingly large-scale but executable solution is to alter your corporate culture. Use all the signaling devices in your repertoire, from celebrating what you want to see more of to promoting leaders who are models, to make it clear that tooting one’s horn won’t accomplish much. There is no hard line separating Invisibles from other professionals; they simply appear toward one end of a spectrum we all fall on. Establishing new cultural norms can pull more people in their direction.
Rewarding Invisibles fairly is absolutely essential, despite how hard they might make that for you. Don’t mistake their lack of self-promotion for a lack of understanding of what they are worth. It might even make sense to invert your assumptions about the relative pay your fame seekers and fame shunners need. For people who live for the limelight, recognition is a form of compensation.
To ensure that you are fully aware of your employees’ accomplishments, set strictly defined times and avenues for people to report them—ask for a quick weekly or monthly e-mail, for example. This might go against the grain of managers with “open door” policies, but, paradoxically, more structure and formality can prove liberating for many employees who do great work but aren’t comfortable drawing attention to how essential they are. And for everyone else, such policies can help foster a more team-oriented environment, one in which there is less pressure to keep up with the guy down the hall and more encouragement to work with him. Adam Grant, the famed Wharton professor and best-selling author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, agrees. “If employees were expected to share their accomplishments at regular intervals, the premium on self-promotion might drop, freeing up employees to focus their energy on contributing rather than on managing their images,” he told me. Further, he said, that “might help organizations do a better job stopping the most selfish takers from climbing the corporate ladder—and opening the door for more-generous givers to rise.”
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Perhaps most important, think about making the work more intrinsically rewarding. Invisibles care more than many about developing their craft, working in conditions that allow them to focus on what they do well, and seeing that the work itself matters. In a 2013 New York Times article about the job market, Alex Cecil, a former product manager at Citibank, explained why he left the bank: “I was good at my job, but I didn’t love it. For the first two years, I mistook getting a pat on the back for being satisfied with my job.” Invisibles, like just about everyone, are glad to be well paid. But as numerous studies in business psychology, particularly in the subspecialty of self-determination theory, have shown, extrinsic rewards such as money and praise are of limited effectiveness and can even be counterproductive. If you want to retain Invisible stars and to embolden others to emulate them, intrinsic rewards are critical. Consider the “20% time” popularized by Google (itself having learned from 3M), whereby employees are encouraged to spend part of their working hours on projects of their own devising. The innovation benefits to companies are often obvious—the invention of Post-it Notes is a widely cited example—but a less obvious benefit, the ability to fully engage the best kind of employee, might be even more important.
You’ll also need to consider questions of organizational structure, workplace design, and more. (Should you group Invisibles doing similar work together or distribute them across business units? Should you give them private workspaces or have them work in bull pens?) The specific answers aren’t obvious, but the overarching advice is: You should be talking to Invisibles about what works for them.
Having met with so many of these professionals and immersed myself in the relevant literature of psychology, sociology, and business, among other specialties, I’m convinced that Invisibles are on to something very big. There are strong correlations between their distinctive traits and exceptional levels of achievement and life satisfaction.
So we’d do well to continue studying the work habits and preferences of people like Michael Cronan. It would serve many professionals, and in doing so would serve the organizations they work for. When I interviewed Karin Hibma about Cronan, I couldn’t help noticing something: She, like so many others, was an Invisible behind an Invisible. Cronan’s obituaries cite him as the creator of the names TiVo and so on, as I did in the lede in this article. Yet Cronan collaborated with a team of people, including Hibma. “When I began working with Michael, I decided to market the firm as Cronan, rather than Cronan Design or something like that,” Hibma told me; she had felt that his name alone would be most effective. It didn’t matter to her that the choice might minimize perceptions of the roles she and others had played. She was concerned only with getting the best results and was content to be essentially unseen. “A lot of people assume,” she told me, “that Cronan was just Michael, but it was and is a firm.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 2014 issue of Harvard Business Review.
David Zweig has written for The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Slate, among other publications. His book Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion is forthcoming in June from Penguin Portfolio. Follow him on Twitter @davidzweig.
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