When Being "Invisible" At Work Pays Off

It may seem counterintuitive, but skilled professionals working behind the scenes may actually be more fulfilled than the rest of us.

Those who toot their own horn, by nature get the most attention. But maybe those working hard at their jobs rather than working hard to raise their own profiles are the people who will get ahead.

When Brooklyn-based author David Zweig first wrote about “invisibles”--successful, behind-the-scenes professionals who play critical roles in their respective industries--for the Atlantic in 2012, he’d been thinking about these people for quite some time.

As a former fact checker for Vogue and Radar magazines, Zweig noticed, “the better I do my job, the more I disappear.” In a world where people spend far too much time trying to raise their profiles, Zweig says, invisibles take quiet satisfaction from working behind the scenes.

You never hear about the anesthesiologist, for example, if everything goes well in surgery. Only when something goes wrong do you think of this person, Zweig notes.

Zweig was fascinated by experienced, highly trained individuals who deliberately chose to stay out of the limelight, and wanted to find out what made them tick.

In his new book, The Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion, out this week, Zweig spoke with a number of them, including Jim Harding, a wayfinding expert from Tennessee. Wayfinding, or environmental graphic design, helps people navigate complex spaces such as airports and hospitals. “No one thinks about [Harding’s] work unless they’re lost,” Zweig says. It’s Harding’s job, and others like him, to make sure that doesn’t happen.

“The book is not about debating self-promotion,” Zweig says. “These people are very ambivalent about recognition, they don’t promote themselves a lot,” Zweig says. Instead, Zweig suggests, doing great work gets recognized, and it’s heartening. Invisibles are able to bypass the mentality we’ve fallen into, he notes, instead finding satisfaction behind the scenes. “We equate power with visibility,” Zweig notes. But the invisibles he profiles make a compelling case one can be successful and fulfilled without being front-and-center.

So, who are these people? Chances are, you know some of them. Zweig believes there are millions of invisibles out there. And while invisibles don’t necessarily have to be at the top of their field, they are often highly experienced and trained, and likely have many choices for their careers and employment. Common traits of invisibles Zweig’s identified include humility, confidence, ambition, responsibility, and motivation.

The book, Zweig says, will help readers reverse engineer success stories of invisibles, learning how they got to where they are, and give people permission to get off the [hamster] wheel of self-promotion. “The proof is in the pudding.”

[Image: Flickr user Alexandre Duret-Lutz]

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  • It's great to see people who work behind the scenes acknowledged; I only hope it continues. I have spent my career in strategic communications -- helping executives and elected officials be seen as thought leaders and helping organizations advance public policy or internal changes to support strategy. The challenge I am seeing with my work is the rise in people who don't understand what goes into making these things look effortless and don't believe they need help. Too many people are believing their own hype or writing off preventable failure as "just part of the process."

  • I am the virtual manager of consultancy focused on gender. The consulting firm is based in the Bay Area and I now live in Prague, Czech Republic. Unless its on SKYPE no one ever sees me. I feel inspired to make sure I am adding value because I am invisible to my team. And, I love the freedom of focusing on being productive and creative without having to worry about office politics or if I'm having a bad hair day. I enjoy my behind the scenes role. My job is to make sure my partners look good and have everything they need for success. I think my colleagues would agree that although it took some getting used to my invisibility has not stopped me from being a invaluable part of the business.