Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Unnoticed Achievers

There are people who are famous for being famous and ones who are noted for not being noticed.

You've seen the unnoticed in the workplace:

  • The worker who is regarded as the true expert on a particular topic by all of her co-workers but whose name is consistently overlooked by management when it comes to promotions or special assignments.

  • The manager whose work unit regularly outperforms the others but who is passed over for awards and recognition.

  • The "prophet without honor" in the organization who has a national reputation as an innovator within his profession and yet hardly raises a blip on the employer's radar screen.

The usual analysis of such cases concludes that the individual has not devoted sufficient attention to self-promotion. That does not explain the instances in which two individuals expend equal amount of promotional effort while gaining very different levels of attention in the executive suites..

My suspicion - and I confess to seeing no empirical evidence - is that the difference may be personality. Some personalities may not trigger an electric door when it comes to management's attention while others are almost immediately tagged as "up and comers."

This poses a real challenge to organizations that care about merit. How do you learn of the hidden achievers and avoid being taken in by those who quickly evoke an unjustified assumption of competence? Peer rankings are one of the best tools but they are relatively rare. Skills inventories are another way of surfacing talent. As succession planning becomes more popular in workplaces expecting a wave of retirements, getting the view from ground-level may be more important than ever.


Anonymous said...

How about the interesting paradox a skillful employee can find himself in; that is being too valuable in his current position to be promoted? I suspect quite strongly that one consideration that employers have when considering either promoting or hiring outside is this: Employee X would be a lot harder to replace if we promoted him or her to supervisor, therefore we will promote employee Y or hire from the outside."

The real problem with this thinking is, if employee X is thus more valuable than the supervisor, why isn't that employee paid more than the supervisor?

Anonymous said...

I agree with pawnking. It is a paradox.

And since many of the people we are talking about are not even remotely stupid it means that some people have personalities not conducive to a)self-promotion despite the fact that there's a better-than-even chance that they do know the value of their work to the company, or b) being recognized, appreciated, or “likeable” from the management point of view.

Remember the old Peter Principle and the notion of people being promoted to their level of incompetence? That's often a part of this situation, and it's why some instinctively avoid being promoted into a management slot which would move them out of their comfort zone - despite increased prestige, power, or money.

I don’t mean to imply that it’s all the employee’s fault, I’m simply affirming the idea that there are still personality types whose focus is on task competence, but are otherwise clueless when it comes to navigating an organizational environment.

Ideally, top managers would recognize this situation when it arises, and either help the employee overcome his or her reticence toward rising within the organization, or accept it while still communicating appreciation with appropriate compensation.

I'm honestly not sure how often my ideal scenario happens, but I suspect it’s increasingly rare.