Is the feeling of being less than worse than the feeling of being invisible? This is a question I’ve been considering a lot lately. It’s provoked some really interesting conversations about intent, unconscious bias — complicated stuff.
I’m not sure there is an emotional difference between feeling less than or invisible. I grew up with patches of financial struggles in my family, and I can assure you that I have the same emotional scars from being reminded I was wearing sneakers from the Pathmark Supermarket as I do from my existence not being acknowledged at certain class outings.
I’ve heard from a friend who was in a meeting with some sleazy guy who spoke directly to her chest before she went to another meeting with men who didn’t even acknowledge her presence as she was deemed “unworthy” of their conversation. Less than or invisible — was there an emotional difference for her? I’m not sure the answer will help the emotional scars she bears…
We all have a story I’m sure that puts us in the center of the question of feeling less than or invisible. And as I explore this question deeper as an employer, I believe this question has far reaching implications.
Consider this. Right now — as you’re reading this — there is someone on your team who has something important to say. Something they’ve really thought about because they care about the company. Something you would really want to hear — a new idea that can grow your business, a thought on how to improve a particular process, or maybe even a warning about something that’s happening in the workplace. And right now, for a myriad of reasons, there is a high likelihood (if that person is not in the senior leadership of your organization) that they are not being heard. “I’m too busy right now to talk…”, “I’m not the right person to talk about this with…”, “Bring this up in our next meeting…” We all know these lines, because we all use them.
Now, imagine for a moment that you are this person who has something to share that you feel is important. How do you feel after getting waved away by the “powers-that-be?” Less than or invisible? Either way, you likely feel disrespected, demoralized, undervalued, or some painful cocktail of the three.
The point I’m trying to make is that a failure to acknowledge someone’s thoughtful opinion has the potential for the same sting as delivering a big, fat slap to someone’s face. However, I also see the glass as half full. I believe very few people set out with malicious intent, but due to whatever realities we all face in our day-to-day lives, things sometimes fall through the cracks. We focus on the most pressing issues in front of us or the loudest voices around us; and everything else can feel like noise that we just have to tune out.
Trust me, I get it. I’m bombarded with emails, voicemails, and more on a daily basis. Time is my most precious asset, and I’m constantly making choices about how I use it — and second-guessing if I’ve made the right ones. But no matter my circumstances, my reality is that I’m surrounded by a team who chooses every day to use their precious time and talents for the betterment of my organization. Their energy, their passion, their brains, their knowledge — they are investing in me with the assumption that they can have a positive, meaningful impact on the organization they so proudly represent. So, since I still haven’t figured out how to create more hours in the day (please send me your secrets if you have!), it’s in my best interest to develop a platform or a system that enables all thoughtful opinions to be rightfully heard if I expect people to stick with me through the long haul.
I’m certainly not in a position to provide the answers. All I can offer is perspective based on what we’ve tried here. We’ve made significant investments over the past year to help address this challenge. Four areas that we have intensely focused on are:
1. Developing an organizational structure that ensures every single person — from most senior to most junior — is confident that their voice is heard and fairly represented within the agency.
2. Committing to structured, ongoing performance reviews to encourage dialogue and feedback up and down that organizational structure and across teams.
3. Building a direct path to me for every employee either through an open door to my office or an anonymous online form that delivers a message to me alone.
4. Communicating openly through articles like this one to make it crystal clear to my team that I’m actively seeking ideas.
We’ve had 17 years of practice. And though we still haven’t perfected this, we aspire every day to get it right. We’ve learned that we can’t do it alone, and we are incredibly grateful to a management consulting company who has helped light the way. But, admittedly we are not all the way there yet and I find myself saying the words “I wish I had known sooner” from time to time.
To me, it all comes down to this. Great Talent = Great Ideas. So when great talent walks out the door after feeling less than or invisible, and gets swept off their feet by another organization making (likely) similar promises, a role reversal will inevitably occur. It is the employers then who will be forced to look into the mirror, only to find that they are left feeling both less than and invisible. And, as we can all agree, both experiences won’t leave you feeling good.