The Trouble With Being Invisible


Before I became a wife and mother I was told that if I did my job really well, no one would even know that I was doing it. By sensing the imbalances and needs of my family, I would smooth out the tensions and serve as the glue that would hold everyone together. To be happy, I would have to find satisfaction in the knowledge that I was effective, and not rely on external appreciation or accolades that were unreliable, at best.

As a young woman I accepted this advice as truth and began my silent and largely invisible service as a steward of family harmony. And after leaving an assistant professor position for something more family friendly, my contributions as a professional staff member quickly began to feel shadowy and unseen. And once again while I knew I was highly effective, I quickly became invisible to the (largely male) leadership surrounding me.

Between the worlds of vision and coordination are layers of process and implementation that serve as the life blood of organizations and programs. They are fed by teams of competent and talented professionals who are able to flex and pivot, applying their skills to constantly changing contexts and environments often with little direction or support. These individuals -often women- serve as the proverbial glue, ensuring stability and balance even in the face of uncertainty and dysfunction.

As a seasoned veteran I have learned to survive – and perhaps even thrive- in this environment. Despite a constantly changing landscape and cast of players, I am able to reframe my goals and leverage my relationships, weathering uncertainty and providing myself with the clarity that I need.

But when I look at the young professionals around me I have a growing concern about their invisible status and the implications for both their growth and well being. Because leadership is often unaware of staff’s talents, contributions, and the critical role that they play within the larger context, they are left virtually unprotected and vulnerable. And as institutions struggle to remain competitive and viable, strategic goals and targets begin to substitute for mission and vision, with all individuals becoming disposable- especially those who are unseen.

As someone who is watching this scenario unfold I can tell you that it’s alarming on a number of levels. For the individual it can be devastating- threatening one’s self-esteem and sense of identity and self. But for the institutions that they silently serve, the implications are even more profound. When these individuals become dejected, or even worse eliminated, the culture and outputs of the organization are weakened and lessened with little chance of redress or remediation.

Clearly, it is time to bring these invisible professionals and their work- our work- into the light. For those of us lucky enough to have security and perspective, our responsibility is even more pronounced. We must find our voices and the skills to demonstrate our value and the roles that we can play, creating new spaces and new opportunities for professionals to make their contributions and help us achieve harmony and impacts as well as success.

When I look back at the advice given to me so long ago, I now know that it was both dated and incomplete, attached to old-fashioned models that have proven neither sustainable nor fulfilling. It is time for us to finally emerge from the shadows, owning our impact and supporting one another as a true community of professionals.

Reinvention and The Narratives We Weave

 Perhaps our lives are like tapestries that weave themselves both forward and back.  Our experiences are the threads that add color and texture but only gain meaning once their patterns have emerged.

If our lives are like tapestries, then narratives feature prominently in their designs.  Narratives are the stories that reveal themselves as truths, framing the way we view ourselves and others, shaping our decisions and conclusions and how we engage with the world.

We see ourselves as heroes, underdogs or warriors and others as friends, lovers, or enemies, along with myriad variations of stories and themes that emerge and reemerge throughout our lives.

Our narratives come from many sources. We infer them from our families, the media, and our own experiences as we extract principles and patterns that seem to hold true.  Some have suggested that our narratives are rooted in our distant past through a collective unconscious or sacred contracts that proceed our births.

But regardless of their origins, our narratives become quite powerful once they are established, acting as lenses through which we interpret experiences and determine our actions.

Although many of our narratives are positive we are often most aware of those that are restrictive or negatively charged.  Stories about being a failure, a victim, or a fool can take on such a heightened level of prominence that they become perpetually primed, tainting all experiences that they touch.

It’s not surprising that when we finally decide to reinvent ourselves, we often focus on creating entirely new narratives independent of those that have previously dragged us down.  And while the work of starting anew can feel both invigorating and transformative, we quickly feel the familiar tug of our old narratives as they begin to undermine our growth and threaten to pull us back down.

For in our haste to distance ourselves from the past, we fail to sufficiently anchor our new narratives in our life tapestries, believing that they will weave themselves forward creating new designs that are both beautiful and strong.  In doing so we underestimate the depth of our existing patterns and the myriad threads that both nourish and sustain them.

In moments of weakness or self-doubt our old patterns become reinvigorated and quickly infiltrate our new designs, blurring their boundaries and threatening their significance.

Ironically, our best opportunities for reinvention are those that allow us to reweave our existing details and experiences into new designs.  By adding nuances, subtleties, and complexities atop existing patterns, we can create additional layers of richness that build on our past designs rather than competing with them.

Within the context of our careers this can mean cultivating new areas of expertise, audiences, or perspectives or perhaps a completely different approach to what we have done or seen.

Although growth is always profound in its effects, it often emerges from subtle variations and tones.

So as we contemplate our reinvention we should pause to appreciate the richness of our existing tapestries on which we can build.

10 Conversations to Have With Yourself As Soon As Possible

I first discovered the benefits of talking with myself back in college.  To be clear, I’m referring to an actual dialog, not the muttering or rambling that is often associated with talking to oneself.  In my version I actually pose questions, either verbally or in my head, and then formulate a response, which in turn leads to follow-up questions, forcing me to further refine or elaborate my thoughts.  To be truthful, as an interviewer I can be pretty tough on myself, and like Barbara Walters I’ve even been known to elicit some occasional tears.

Although when I first started talking with myself it was limited primarily to gathering my ideas for papers or presentations, the scope of my internal dialog has become quite expansive. Over time, I have found this exercise to be helpful in virtually every aspect of my life, allowing me to reflect on my experiences and observations and clarify my views and philosophies across all domains.  It has also helped me to cope with crises and low points, forcing me to articulate core beliefs, concerns, and disappointments while finding silver linings and truths on which to build.

But beyond helping to guide me through my own personal and professional journey, my internal interview process has proven beneficial for those around me who are seeking growth- both those who are conscious of their quest and those who are less aware, namely, my own children.  Before you raise the ethical question of whether it’s right to inflict my world views and strategies on my own children- a question that has been raised by my particularly precocious and impertinent 12 year old (see post- “Why Rubrics are Maddening” for more on her)- please read the rest of the post before passing judgment.  You will hopefully see that the internal interview process is simply a mirror that forces reflection and clarity, allowing the person- of whatever age- to practice being an expert, owning their experiences and views and having an opportunity to be heard- exactly what most of us (especially my 12 year old) are waiting for.

So here’s how it works, get comfortable with assuming 2 distinct roles- the interviewer who finds you fascinating and is genuinely interested in probing your thoughts and observations; and you as the expert who has a wealth of experiences, gifts, and observations to reflect upon and share.  Find somewhere comfortable to talk with yourself.  My absolute favorite interview location is my car, while on the way to my office, meetings, or wherever.  I admit that I used to be a little embarrassed when people in passing cars would stare at me while I talked with myself, but ever since Bluetooth technology came out, it’s no longer an issue.

You can of course customize your topics and conversations based on your circumstances and areas of focus, but I offer the following questions to get you started.  Don’t forget to follow up with additional probing questions, as the more you force yourself to clarify and elaborate on your responses, the more you will get from the process.  And I should mention an added benefit, when the day comes that you finally do get interviewed by a real professional, not only will you be ready but you will be able to counter with additional- and even better- questions of your own…..

Here are some of my favorites:

  1. What do you know to be true?
  2. If you were born to make one contribution to the world- what is it and why is it needed?
  3. Name the most important people in your life.  What do you most appreciate about each of them and why?
  4. What does being educated mean to you?
  5. What should all people be entitled to?
  6. What do you owe and to whom? (not necessarily in the money sense)
  7. What do you find most disappointing?
  8. What is the best gift you have ever given?  What is the best gift you have ever received?
  9. In what ways have you been shaped by your family/ ancestors?
  10.  What do you stand for?

I wish I could listen in on your conversations… I’m sure they will be fascinating!

The Science of Pigeonholing

Labels are important.  Without them life would be unmanageable- a barrage of specific, personal experiences with little opportunity for reflection or sharing.   But when it comes to growth, labels can be limiting since they come with sets of requirements that create expectations and influence action.

If you identify yourself as a vegetarian, for example, people will expect you, and you will expect yourself, to abstain from eating meat. If you label yourself as an environmentalist you will be expected to make certain choices and engage in activities that are aligned. As long as your desires and choices fit, all is well. But what happens when you act, think, or behave in ways that conflict with your labels?   You may feel constrained, forcing you to inhibit your desires in order to remain in alignment, or conversely, forced to reevaluate your core beliefs and identity. Over time our labels can become increasingly powerful, serving as drivers of our decision making and affecting the opportunities to which we are exposed.

In the workplace labels can be especially powerful. Even though individuals bring a wealth of experience, skills, and abilities to any position or role, they are often viewed through a narrow band of features and competencies most closely associated with their labels. They may only be invited to certain meetings or given assignments associated with these narrow bands, even though their talents and competences extend well beyond. In this way, our titles and labels begin to define us and how others view and respond to us, resulting in pigeonholing which in turn can feel constraining and tight, contributing to feeling stuck and underutilized.

While others tend to reinforce this narrowing of identity, we are largely responsible for doing it to ourselves. Many of us are eager to assume new roles and titles, wanting to be viewed as competent and successful, giving our employers exactly what they want. We may, especially in the beginning, stick with expected skills and activities, hesitant to offer insights or experiences outside the narrow band of expectations. Although this pattern may be more pronounced in lower level roles that are more defined and constrained, we can see it across all levels and domains.

I continue to see this pattern play out in my own career working at a major research university. Although I came to my first administrative role with a PhD and experience as an assistant professor, I was immediately treated like a “typical” staff member. Faculty and university leaders assumed that I didn’t understand research and were shocked when I revealed otherwise. When I tried to explain my academic background, they would quickly dismiss my competencies since they didn’t fit their expectations for my role. Time and time again as my specific titles changed, my perceived identity became closely associated with my new area of focus. When I was in charge of school partnerships, people thought of me as an education person; when I did experiential learning, I was only invited to meetings that involved service or student engagement. And each time I transitioned into a new role I felt the space shrinking around me.

Luckily, because of my background I knew what was happening and was able to resist, stretching, seeding new projects, and refusing to be constrained or pigeonholed. But most of us lack the awareness or specialized skillset, and inadvertently feed into this pattern. Once initial perceptions and expectations become set, our systems tend to reinforce these labels, making them harder to change and modify. This tendency can be so strong that many are willing to completely change jobs or lives in order to acquire new labels that will hopefully allow for more growth and freedom. But the tendency to define ourselves and others in narrow terms will follow us wherever we go.

The good news is that we can change these patterns, both for ourselves and those who view us. This tendency to label, and to do so restrictively, is only a default setting that allows us to make some assumptions and best guesses. We know that secretaries at minimum have administrative skills and expertise, so we can assume that they will be helpful with certain types of tasks. We also know that counselors tend to have good interpersonal skills and are trained to help people with problems, so we might seek them out if we are experiencing a personal crisis. But nowhere does it state that these are the only skills that people possess, or that we can only draw on specific activities or expectations associated with these narrow bands of features.

Chances are that every person with whom you meet or interact possesses skills, experiences, and talents well beyond their traditional duties or responsibilities. Virtually no label fully defines a person’s skill-set or what they have to offer or draw upon in any given situation. At any time we can surprise ourselves and others by bringing forward new skills and ideas, changing the ways that we are perceived and treated by those around us. Clearly, it is only through broadening expectations, asserting and inserting our gifts and talents that we can stretch the space around labels and give ourselves more room to move.

I Believe…I Promise…I Expect

Here’s an exercise that yields huge returns.  It’s much more challenging than you might think, and can be used with virtually any age group, demographic, or area of focus.  I developed it when my children were very young and I was looking to clarify my approach to parenting in an effort to stay focused and maintain my sanity.

The instructions are deceivingly simple.  Pick an area of focus, a role, or aspect of your life.  Once you select your lens, write with a few concise sentences that sum up the essence of your “platform”, starting with I believe,  I promise, and I expect.   Your statements should be general enough to capture your unique culture, mission, or approach, while specific enough to serve as a guide for future actions and decision making.

I have used this exercise in a number of settings and contexts including coaching, strategic planning, group facilitation, and mediation.  Based on my experiences I would offer the following observations for each category of reflection:

I Believe

It’s helpful to anchor this statement to the role on which you are focusing.  In other words, if you are completing this exercise as a parent, you should craft a statement about what you believe to be the core responsibilities of parents or conversely what you believe society needs in terms of its citizens or communities.  If you are completing this through the lens of leadership, consider the final “product” of your efforts in terms of the bigger world or context.  By framing your core beliefs around the highest level of outcomes that are relevant to your frame, you will create the most expansive space for creating movement and maximizing your impact.

I Promise

This is a big one as it speaks to core commitments, which shouldn’t move or shift regardless of changes in context or the twists and turns of life.  I strongly feel that we need more commitments from individuals, organizations, and institutions- commitments that we can count on no matter what.  Your own promises should come directly from your beliefs and should be broad enough to serve as anchors while allowing for varied solutions and goals.  In this way your promises should not limit you, but instead guide you in your decision making while ensuring ongoing alignment at all times.

I Expect

This one is my favorite but it’s often the hardest to adopt.  Here’s the idea:  while it’s great to commit to others through your promises, you also need to define the parameters of your engagement.  Specifically, what are your core expectations for the individuals with whom you interact in your respective role?  Like promises, expectations should also be tied to your core beliefs and should never waver, serving as a vehicle to ensure the stability of your beliefs while also enabling you to fulfill your promise to others – and yourself.

Although this exercise takes time and necessitates deep reflection and soul searching, I find that it is well worth the investment and yields multiple returns.   When I developed it for myself it was based on a very clear notion that I continue to share with my children today,

…..I don’t want you to waste any of your life trying to figure me out.  I want you to know exactly who I am and what I stand for, so that you can use your time and energy to figure yourself out, to recognize and cultivate your gifts, and begin to impact the world. The sooner you are able to do this, the sooner you will experience the magic that comes with fulfilling your promise.

I hope you all find this exercise useful.  Let me know if you have any questions or need any help!