Managing "Invisibles"

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, author David Zweig made the case that companies may be missing the boat on retaining some of their most valuable employees by not recognizing what he calls the "Invisibles." Invisibles are those employees who are extremely capable, talented and committed, but who avoid the spotlight and aren't looking for fame and recognition. The contributions they make tend to improve the work of those around them and elevate the output of entire departments and companies. Often, though, they only get noticed when something goes wrong. And losing them can do real damage to a company.

The challenge for managers is to first figure out who their Invisibles are, and then find ways to keep them happy.

What is an Invisible?

Zweig characterizes Invisibles as sharing three common traits:

  1. They are ambivalent about recognition
  2. They are meticulous about their craft
  3. They relish responsibility

You can often tell an Invisible by their language, he writes. They use "we" not "I" and strongly identify with being part of a team.

This aligns with the research we have done, at the McQuaig Institute, over the years with our surveys. Invisibles are those individuals we would call "Specialists" in terms of their personality profile. They're characterized by being very thorough, steady and reliable. They tend to be more oriented towards ideas and methods than people, very team oriented and not competitive.

Based on our studies, this group makes up about 14% of the workforce.

Keeping this group happy and preventing turnover can be challenging for managers. Because of their behavioural profile, they don't respond to more standard types of recognition like praise and promotions.

Zweig provides two key pieces of advice for managing these quiet performers:

  1. Reward them fairly. The article warns not to mistake their lack of self-promotion with a lack of understanding of what they're worth. And they aren't looking for recognition, think compensation.
  2. Make their work intrinsically interesting. They care about the work and developing their craft. Finding ways to encourage them in their pursuits and encourage others to emulate them can go a long way

In our work with clients at the McQuaig Institute, we have also noted that one of the most important concepts for motivating and coaching these—or any—individuals is to understand what makes them tick. What gets them out of bed; what makes them wish they'd stayed there? Many managers want to treat employees the way they themselves want to be treated. You can see the logic there: it works for them so it should work for others. That's the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But in coaching we believe a more successful strategy is what we call the Platinum Rule: Do unto others as they would have you do unto them. In other words, understand how they want to be treated and treat them that way.

Some other tips we recommend for managing these types of people:

  • Leverage their ability to analyze
  • Give specific, detailed directions, rules and regulations, letting them concentrate on their own work.
  • Concentrate on the facts and explain things rationally, making sure they see that you are serious and keeping your emotions and feelings to yourself
  • Give them training that allows them to add to their specific expertise
  • Keep things moving at a steady, consistent pace, providing advance warning of upcoming changes

You can learn more about how to manage and coach an Invisible or Specialist, and other personality types in our webinar Applying the Platinum Rule: A tool to improve any coaching program