Is the goal in every job to get the most recognition? In most cases, it does tend to go hand in hand with a bigger paycheck, but not always. In his book Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion, author David Zweig profiles several overachievers, whom he calls Invisibles, and how they didn't bask in the limelight. A lead engineer for a skyscraper, the guitar tech for Radiohead--they don't make headlines or rack up Twitter followers. Yet, they achieved great things.

To find out how the idea of achieving more and doing exceptional work without having to get all of the credit applies to those starting a company, I asked Mr. Zweig to contextualize some of his research and findings for a small business audience. Here's what he said.

1. In a start-up, why is it even more important to hire and nurture the Invisibles?

Invisibles not only are exceptional workers, they elevate the whole work environment around them. If you're seeking to build a company you need people who are invested in the overall project more than they are in aggrandizing themselves.

2. What advice do you have for retaining them and encouraging them?

The reason they got to their level of achievement wasn't by being singularly focused on making more money or gaining a position of prestige. It was because they are motivated by excellence. By being focused on achieving the best end result of the work, and by reveling in the challenges of their work. They show that simply writing a larger check isn't always the best way of retaining talent. Again, they expect to be paid fairly, but if you want to retain Invisibles, or any quality worker for that matter, you need to ensure that their work has meaning and that they are challenged.

One example of how to do this is the 20% time at places like Google and 3M, where employees are given the opportunity to use their skills and talent to work on projects of importance to them but possible outside the frame of their normal duties. Short of that, you need to make sure that their overall job entails challenging work, or that engaging work is at least integrated in some way into their role.

3. How do you know, in business, the difference between a hard-working person who doesn't want recognition and someone who is maybe hiding under the radar and not working that hard?

Being an Invisible isn't about being meek, or hiding in the corner. The people profiled in my book have an amazing hybrid of traits--they are simultaneously self-effacing and humble yet incredibly ambitious and confident. They stand up for themselves when they need to. They just simply don't seek attention the way so many of us feel we need to. Just because someone is quiet doesn't mean they are an "Invisible" as I define them. Look for the people who are master collaborators, or who work best alone but are always focused on the success of the larger enterprise, rather than their own glory.

4. When should the founder of a company go ahead and recognize an Invisible? When is that warranted?

Invisibles should be recognized for a job well done, just as everyone should. But they often don't prefer a lot of fanfare. Acknowledge the job well done and then move on by rewarding them with greater responsibility.

5. Start-ups are often flashy and need attention. What if the founder is an Invisible who just want to create something amazing?

Being an Invisible ultimately isn't even about how much someone is seen or not seen. It's about what motivates you. A founder who has an Invisible mindset need not worry. In fact, the mindset of the people profiled in the book has an unequivocal correlation with success. We think, for example, that all CEOs must be blustery, big personality types, but, in fact, research shows that the companies led by CEOs who embody Invisible traits tend to outperform companies led by a more obvious extroverted attention hog.

6. Do you know of a few famous start-ups created at the hands of an Invisible?

This is a hard one for me to answer. Not because there aren't countless startups created by Invisibles, but because I focused on professionals who were part of ongoing enterprises. But the traits they embody are applicable to anyone in any business context. Again, the evidence shows, which I cite persuasively in the book, I think, that people who are focused on the success of the larger endeavor more than on gaining attention for themselves tend to be very high achieving. It's about a mindset. Even famous, well regarded actors or athletes, for example, can embody Invisible traits.

It's a bit ironic, but it seems if you want attention (at least for being associated with something of quality, not just for being a reality TV star) the way to get it isn't to strive for attention, but to do excellent work and the attention will follow as a byproduct.

7. Did you find that Invisibles at work tend to be mostly introverts? Why or why not?

There definitely is a strong overlap with the type of person who chooses to work behind the scenes and introverts. With that said, some of the people I profiled are very gregarious and personable, what we might call a "people person." So, being an Invisible doesn't necessarily mean that you prefer to work alone. It's about what motivates you. Many of the Invisibles I profiled work on or lead teams, and they are master collaborators, who enjoy the process of working together with others.

8. What other advice do you have for small companies who need "invisible" workers?

Stay away from the braggarts, and the types who are always CCing everyone on every email. Seek the people who clearly are interested in making the larger enterprise succeed, rather than boldly pursuing their own ascension.

Published on: Sep 26, 2014
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