Working out loud when you don’t want to be visible

Are you visible?When I talk about working out loud, some people will give voice to an objection I suspect is quite common:

“Thanks, but I just don’t want to be visible.”

They’re surprised when I tell them they can still work in a way that’s open, generous, and connected – and realize many of the benefits resulting from that – without ever posting a blog or tweet.

Here’s how.

What 9 year olds do that’s worth billions to corporations

Making your work visible is just one of the five elements of working out loud. The others – relationships, generosity, a focus on getting better, and purpose – can often be more important depending on your goal.

A few months ago, I wrote about how my 9 year daughter approaches problems. She doesn’t post anything online related to what she’s doing, but she expects that others have done so already. So her first step in achieving a goal – solving a Rubik’s cube, perfecting her golf swing, improving at cello – is to look online for information that can help her. Then she’ll make note of who published that content and look for other things they contributed.

In that process, she’s building a network and getting better without ever posting anything herself. Then, in person, she exchanges information with classmates and teachers interested in her goal so she can improve even more, discovering things she hadn’t found herself. If my daughter did post things online, if she was more visible, she would further increase her chances of finding useful people and knowledge. But she gets plenty of benefits even without doing so.

Celebrating the “Invisibles”

InvisiblesThere’s an entire book written on Invisibles. (HT to Omar Reece for pointing this out.) It makes the point that people in certain jobs such as anesthesiology and structural engineering are invisible when they do their jobs perfectly and “they’re fine with remaining anonymous.” Here’s an excerpt from the book’s website:

“What has been lost amid the noise of self-promotion today is that not everyone can, or should, or even wants to be in the spotlight. This inspiring and illuminating book shows that recognition isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and invisibility can be viewed as a mark of honor and a source of a truly rich life.”

The book makes an important point that “hidden professionals can reap deep fulfillment by relishing the challenges their work presents.” You’t needn’t seek recognition to like your job.

How even a private person can work out loud

Yet while it’s natural that everyone won’t seek the spotlight, being anonymous and invisible is an unhealthy extreme. There is another alternative.

When you work out loud, your goal isn’t to promote yourself or to be visible to as many people as possible. It’s to be visible to the right people so you can become more effective and discover other possibilities.

The anesthesiologists and structural engineers don’t need to be popular or engage a big audience. But I certainly hope they’re not anonymous. I hope they work out loud at least as much as 9 year olds do, seeking to become better at what they do and actively looking for other experts in their field to learn from them.

A woman in one of our early working out loud circles considered herself a “lurker.” She didn’t want to be visible. Yet after a few weeks she said, “thinking about people and networks and just simple possibilities in a different way is already making me more open at and about work.”

She may still limit her use of the Internet to just looking for information. She may limit her exchange of ideas to in-person talks over coffee. But now she’ll be “open at and about work.” She’s realized that private and open needn’t be opposites, and that mental shift alone will greatly increase her chances of reaching her goals.

Help wanted: making this book cover better

Working Out LoudI shared the latest draft version of the book cover with friends on Facebook and they had no problem telling me what they thought about it.

“Don’t like the red.”

“I like the connections between the Os.”

“Feels gimmicky.”

“Very clean.”

My 14 year old son, after reviewing a cover variation that included photos of people, sent me a particularly blunt text message:

“Okay, wow. The pics are scary.”

People felt differently about the color, font, even whether to include my middle initial. Despite the sometimes conflicting opinions though, the feedback was helpful in further shaping the design as well as my thinking. So now I’m sharing the complete book jacket with all of you. After all, when it comes to working out loud, who better to tell me what works and doesn’t work than the readers of this blog?

The best comment you could make

The book will be available as both a paperback and ebook via Amazon and perhaps some other online channels. Since I’m self-publishing, the book won’t appear in stores unless I bring copies there, so people will only see the cover online. I’m still investigating distribution possibilities and the best way to get a good hardcover version printed.

For more information about the book, click here. If you’d like to read the latest draft and provide feedback, just ask for a copy and I will gladly send you one.

If you want to keep it simple, you could list just two things in a comment below:

  1. The thing you liked most.
  2. The thing you’d want me to change.

Please feel free to post more ideas. Ask yourself: Would I feel good handing this book to a friend? I appreciate any and all suggestions on the color, font, text, subtitle, my photo. Anything. The best comment you could make is anything you think will make the book better.

I appreciate you taking the time to post your suggestions. Thank you.

Two possible front covers

Working Out Loud

Book cover (white)

Inside front and back flaps

Book - inside flaps

Back cover text

 

Book - rear cover

 

The worst performance review I ever had

The bad egg detector: How do they know?

 

Even before I opened the email, I knew it was bad news. Subject: year-end review.

“He needs to speak with you,” his assistant wrote. Though the deadline for reviews had passed months before, she seemed almost frantic, trying to schedule a call before the end of the week. He was in another city, and it was after 10pm there when he spoke to me on my mobile.

This is a true story. I write it not to solicit sympathy or embarrass anyone. Instead, my purpose is to show how management processes, however well-intended, have devolved into lotteries of a kind. Some win, most lose.

It was only years later that I learned I could change the game.

The set-up

In every firm I’ve worked in, there’s a similar process. You agree on objectives with your manager, review progress in the middle of the year, and get a formal review at the end of the year. To ensure the firm pays top performers and gets rid of low performers, the year-end ratings have to fit a curve. On the surface, it all seems reasonable, systematic, and fair.

In practice, though, behind all the spreadsheets and numbers, there’s an intensely human calculus. I’ve had years where I performed poorly but had powerful sponsors and got good reviews. It’s when your connection to your manager is weak, or the network you have isn’t powerful, that you’re at risk.

A friend compared this style of management to a wolf-pack, with leaders picking on the weak, allowing the other wolves to keep going, happy it wasn’t them who was sacrificed.

The conversation

I happened to be the weak one that year. The person I had been reporting to had left earlier in the year and our team’s fate was now uncertain. We used the word “exposed.” One colleague resigned right away. Referring to rats leaving a sinking ship, he told me “This rat can swim.” Others, like me, stayed on board.

The reason for the late-night review via telephone was that the next day was when our compensation would be announced. I presume someone needed to tick a box, perhaps afraid of a lawsuit. I imagine a person in HR exhorting managers “Did you communicate to all your poor performers?” I imagine she kept a list.

The conversation didn’t last long. He was earnest, saying he wanted me to succeed. But what was success? Was he even aware of what I did? How did my work compare to others? Why single me out this year and not others?

I never asked those questions. I never asked him about the objectives I was ostensibly being rated against. I knew it was pointless.

It was years ago, but I still remember hating the firm and the system. I remember feeling ashamed.

The lesson

Ironically, not many years after my bad review, it was my boss’ turn to be the weak one after he got a new manager. I wonder if he had a similar conversation, if he felt it was unfair.

It’s only now that I see the futility of taking it all so personally. My boss, my colleagues, and I were all trapped by processes that promoted internal competition, politicized the environment, and systematically propagated mediocrity and unfairness. It’s why PwC, a major consultancy regarding HR practices in large organizations wrote:

“There’s a growing school of thought that our traditional tools for managing employee performance are outdated and in need of a radical reboot.”

You could wait for firms to change their practices. Or you could work in such a way that you build a better network now, one that gives you access to people and possibilities without having to ask for permission from your boss.

If I get a poor review in the future, I won’t be angry and I certainly won’t be ashamed. I’ll acknowledge the setback, reach out to my network, and keep going. Never again will I cede the power over my career and my happiness to someone else. You don’t have to either.

“Holy ****. That is awesome.”

Working Out Loud CirclesThat’s a reaction from someone in one of our working out loud circles. It’s an unconventional testimonial, perhaps, but captures both the surprise and joy people feel when a circle member is successful in building a network, taking control of their career and their life.

Here’s the short story behind that reaction that demonstrates how circles work in practice.

We were in week 6

Circles usually form for 12 weeks and this was our sixth meeting. At the beginning of each meeting, before talking about a set of slightly more advanced techniques and exercises, we quickly recap the progress each person made with their plan from the week before. One woman described an event she attended and some of the influential people there who could help her grow her business. Our circle helped her choose the specific people she should add to her relationship list.

“What should I say?” she asked us, and we spent a few minutes suggesting ways to frame an email about the event as a contribution. We wanted her to start with appreciation but to also reference her own work in a way that would be helpful to the person receiving the note. It was a short practice in email empathy that Dale Carnegie would have approved of.

At the end of the circle meeting, we all described the steps we would take before the next session and encouraged each other to reach out if we needed help. Our friend said she would send that email.

“Oh my god. What now?”

Two days later, we all got forwarded an email with a short question from our friend: “Oh my god. What now?” The influential person she was nervous about reaching out to had already responded – thanking her for such a nice note, showing an interest in her work, and alluding to possible collaborations.

The people in our circle quickly offered suggestions for a reply, and the rest of the mail thread was a virtual high-fiving, celebrating our friend’s new connection. She sent the reply that day.

The really important thing that happened

Our friend has been working her lists for a few weeks now and has read a draft of the book. So she knows how to make her work visible, how to frame it as a contribution, how to build a network and be empathetic in her communications. But she still doesn’t have the habit of doing all of it.

So the important thing that happened this week wasn’t that our friend sent an email, made a connection with an influential person, or even that she created a possibility for collaboration where none existed before.

The important thing was that she practiced. She exercised the techniques she has learned so far, got positive reinforcement from both her network and our group, and is more prepared – and more likely – to take the next step and practice again. Gradually, she’s developing the habit of working in an open, generous, connected way.

The working out loud circle gives her emotional support, coaching, advice, and a sense of shared accountability that helps her develop her new habits. Over our remaining time together, as that habit grows stronger, she’ll be equipped to work out loud towards any goal.

How working out loud circles could transform your organization

There’s a growing chasm between what executives say they want for their organizations and the experience of their employees.

If you interview management at any large company, for example, they’ll talk about their desire for building an open, collaborative culture, the importance of being a learning organization, and the need to develop talent. Now talk to individuals working in that organization and you’ll discover a competitive environment, an inability to find even basic information, and a vast number of people who simply don’t care enough to get better at what they do.

It’s not that the executives are disingenuous. It’s just that the expensive, top-down change programs they roll out – for cultural change, collaboration, talent management – simply don’t work.

So here’s a different approach, one that’s employee-centered, self-organizing, and free.

How it would work

Working Out Loud CirclesI first described working out loud circles a few months ago. They’re groups of 4-5 people who meet over 12 weeks to help each other accomplish a personal goal by working out loud. Over that time, through actual practice, circle members learn specific ways to make their work visible, frame what they do as contributions, and build a richer, more purposeful social network.

Our experience with the first few circles has been extremely positive and that’s led to the idea of having entire organizations embrace them. To do that, here are the five most important things you would need to know about implementing circles in your organization:

  • Circles are employee-driven. It’s key that employees choose to participate, work on a goal that’s important to them, and trust that what happens inside the circle is confidential. If you impose manager approval or reporting requirements, you won’t realize the benefits.
  • Circles are open to anyone. Since circle members will be practicing basic 21st-century skills, access should not be restricted to only those with a certain title or those deemed to have potential. The most important criterion is the willingness to make an effort to learn.
  • Circles meet 12 times for one hour. These meetings could be outside normal business hours if necessary, depending on the organization. Individuals will also need to do work related to their goal in between meetings.
  • Instructions are provided in Circle Kits. The kits are concise guides for running each of the 12 meetings, including simple exercises complete with worksheets and examples.
  • All support for the circles is online and free. We’re developing a site that will host a rich FAQ and a range of other resources for developing specific skills. The site will also host stories and feedback from individuals and other circles.

How management could help

People could form circles outside of their company, of course. Between the Working Out Loud book due this September and the Circle Kits being released soon, independent groups would have the necessary resources to be successful.

But forming circles inside a company would have a number of advantages. The people there already have much in common, making it easier to form connections and even exchange their circle experiences. Also, if the organization uses an enterprise social network like Jive, Yammer, IBM Connections, Socialcast, Podio or similar offering, people will have a convenient platform to work out loud. Employees who work out loud at work are personally more effective, help the firm capture knowledge, and make it easier for others to access that knowledge.

While the circles are employee-centered and the resources I mentioned are free, there are still things that management could do to help. For example, by endorsing circles as an employee development offering or promoting them at employee networking events, they’d remove any doubts about whether employees are allowed to form them. They could provide time to participate in them, reducing possible interference from middle managers. They could motivate more people to participate by sharing stories of individuals and teams that are working out loud for their own benefit and that of the company.

The benefits: collaboration, learning, and engagement 

Working out loud combines the age-old principles for building meaningful relationships with the modern abilities to share your work, get feedback, and interact with others who share your interests. It wraps all of this in a mindset of generosity. You share and connect not to show off or create a personal brand but to genuinely help other people. If you were to describe someone who worked out loud, you might say she’s visible, connected, generous, curious, and purposeful.

The circles would help your employees to feel like that, to be like that. The practice over time and the peer support would enable people to finally break free of old ways of working and of thinking about work. They could finally develop new habits at work that tap into the intrinsic motivators of autonomy, purpose, mastery, and relatedness. Doing so in a visible way, together with the support of the firm, would accelerate the spread of these positive behaviors across the organization, changing the culture.

At a minimum, some circle members might learn to more readily search for people and content related to their work. Many will build a larger set of more meaningful relationships at work, enabling them to collaborate more effectively. Still others will feel, like Barbara from last week’s story, that “working out loud changed my life.” Combined, all that learning would fundamentally change how people relate to each other and to the organization.