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.

Deepening relationships through contribution

A friend of mine is thinking of relocating to another city and was talking with me about finding a job there.

“Do you think my boss would let me do my job from the new location? Or maybe there’s an opening there?”

What struck me right away was that, despite the huge array of jobs in the new place, my smart, capable friend had no idea how to find one. Her instincts were to rely on the people she was already connected with – her firm, her boss, her friends and family. And that was grossly limiting the opportunities available to her.

So, almost as an experiment, we started a 12-week Working Out Loud program. Her goal was to build a purposeful network that might help her find fulfilling work. And in less than a month, to our mutual surprise, she’s created possibilities she’d never even imagined were possible.

Here’s how she’s doing it.

Two lists

Throughout the 12-week program, we keep working on two lists: a relationship list and a contribution list. The first is simply a list of people she’d like to have in her network. She’s not out to get something from these people. She’s just listing individuals relevant to her goal (or kinds of people, if she can’t find a name). The second list is a set of contributions she could offer to people in her network.

In her first week, she started by exploring, scouring Twitter and the rest of the Internet for people and companies and communities in the new location. Who’s doing things she likes? Who could she learn from? What companies she could imagine working with? Most people find this exercise easy once they get started. And, soon, my friend had her first relationship list with about 10 people on it.

Then we talked about how leading with generosity is the best way to develop relationships. But understanding all you have to offer proves to be difficult for most people. So we talked about universal assets like recognition and appreciation. And about more substantive gifts like writing up profiles of work she admired. My friend, like most people, struggled with this part.

Then we started working the lists.

Levels of intimacy

In our coaching session each week, we go through each person on the relationship list and think “What can you offer this person?” It might feel difficult at first, but it helps to think of your relationships on an intimacy scale of 0 to 5.

0 – You know them but they don’t know you exist.

1 – You’re linked in some way but without any meaningful interaction.

2 – You’ve had at least one conversation.

3 – You’ve had multiple conversations & they remember your name.

4 –  You regularly call on each other for advice or help or because you enjoy each other’s company.

5 – You’re good friends, sharing all the good & all the bad.

Deepening relationships through contribution

Deepening relationships through contribution

You’re not trying to go from 0 to 5 in one attempt. You’re simply trying, over time, to move some of your relationships along that scale. For the most part, my friend didn’t know any of the people on her list, so she started with the universal assets. If they were on Twitter, she followed them. If they wrote something online that she appreciated, she Liked it, shared it, or posted a comment.

Small things, perhaps, but she moved the relationship from 0 to 1. Then, the more she read and explored, the more reasons she had to interact or to share things she liked with different people on her list. She soon started to have a few back-and-forth sessions on Twitter.

My friend was very pleased. Some of her new connections held important positions or had big networks. It felt like she was about to open up new doors she wasn’t aware of before.

“Now what?” she said.

Working the lists

The next thing was to work more purposefully on her contributions. All the people I coach experience an interplay between their two lists. That is, the people they meet shape their contributions and their contributions shape their network. And so their contribution list, which is usually quite short at first, starts to grow.

My friend started to write more. Instead of just following or Like-ing, for example, she’d write up an experience she had (a lesson, a project) that she thought might be helpful to people on her network. Or she’d write a profile explaining why she liked the work of someone or their company. Or she’d connect different people in her growing network to each other.

The further she developed certain relationships, the more she started to develop substantive contributions she could offer others. Though she’s just started, she’s already made a wide range of connections at level 1 and 2. And one of her new relationship with an influential person at a firm she really likes is already approaching level 4. After two weeks of occasional conversations on Twitter, he’d asked her opinion on something he was struggling with and she’d sent him an in-depth answer. Now they’re Skype-ing.

“It’s like magic,” she said.

Anyone can do it

I’m excited for my friend. Every week she’s getting better at connecting people and contributions. She’s seeing more possibilities. And, by the end of the program, she’ll have developed a sustainable system for building a purposeful network and improving her chances of realizing any of her goals.

But it’s not magic.

She’s simply exhibiting the 5 elements of Working Out Loud: she’s visible, connected, generous, curious, and purposeful. And these are all ways of working that anyone can learn.

The 5 elements of Working Out Loud

Working Out Loud

Working Out Loud

Update: This post ultimately became a book, published in June 2015. Working Out Loud is now available on Amazon.

Recently, I was talking with my wife about Working Out Loud and the book that I’m publishing later this year. After a few minutes, she bluntly asked me:

“So, is it just blogging?”

Now, that’s one of those questions that could either lead to an argument or could lead to deeper reflection and new insights. I chose the deeper reflection and new insights.

My wife’s question made made me think that, despite writing about Working Out Loud for a few years, maybe I haven’t been clear enough about what it really is.

So here’s a broader definition that I hope you’ll find useful.

The original definition

When Bryce Williams first coined the term more than 3 years ago, he described it with a simple formula:

Working Out Loud = Observable Work + Narrating Your Work

Understandably, he focuses on publishing. And, looking back, I’ve also placed most of the emphasis on publishing. (My most popular post on working out loud uses “Your personal content strategy” as a subtitle.)

So I can understand my wife’s question. Simply using social platforms might be considered working out loud but it could completely miss the point. Working out loud is meant to be purposeful – to help you get things done and make work better. To be effective, you have to do more than just blog or tweet about what you’re working on.

A broader definition

So now, when someone asks me “What’s Working Out Loud”?, here’s what I say:

“Working Out Loud starts with making your work visible in such a way that it might help others. When you do that – when you work in a more open, connected way – you can build a purposeful network that makes you more effective and provides access to more opportunities.”

It’s not as pithy as I’d like but it’s usually good enough to get people’s attention so I can follow up with examples or stories of people who do it well. There are 5 elements in this description I’d like to highlight.

Making your work visible: As Bryce described, this is indeed the fundamental starting point for working out loud.

Making work better: One of the main reasons for openly narrating your work is to find ways to improve it. You’re publishing so other people will see it, including some who can provide useful feedback, connections, or other things that will make your work better.

Leading with generosity: By framing your posts as contributions – as opposed to, say, efforts at self-promotion or personal branding – you’re more likely to engage other people. You’re not just looking for help but offering to help others, too. As Keith Ferrazzi said, “The currency of real networking is not greed but generosity.”

Building a social network: As you work out loud over time, you’ll be interacting with a broader range of people. The further you develop relationships with people in your network, the more likely it will be that you’ll collaborate with them and that they’ll be willing help you in other ways.

Making it all purposeful: Finally, since there’s an infinite amount of  contributing and connecting you can do, you need to make it purposeful in order to be effective. (Goals might be as simple as “I want more recognition in my firm.” or “I’d like to explore opportunities in another industry or location.”) You can still have plenty of room for serendipity, but having a goal in mind focuses your learning, your publishing, and your connections.

What do you think?

Though the most important part of working out loud is actually doing it rather than wrangling over a definition, a part of changing how people work is making them aware there are better ways to begin with. And that includes a useful, easy-to-understand description of working out loud.

Many of you are experts on working out loud and have been doing it for years. How do you describe working out loud to people for the first time? What changes could we make to the description so we can help more people understand it and start practicing it?

Unlocking potential in your organization

Dr. Seuss on labeling

Dr Seuss’ Sneeches learned the hard way

What do you expect from other people? From yourself?

It’s performance review season at many organizations, the time when we hand out labels related to each individual’s performance as well as their potential, reserving the best labels for a small fraction of the workforce.

This systemic labeling of people is a cancer on modern organizations.

We’ve known for almost 50 years that the processes for arriving at these labels are riddled with biases. Worse, the labels related to potential are simply wrong and unnecessarily limiting, actively reducing the potential in the organization.

Now, maybe, we might finally be able to change things.

Labels: Pygmalion & Golem

In 1968, researchers demonstrated a fundamental truth we’re still not applying effectively at work or at home: people tend to live up to expectations.

The Pygmalion effect “is the phenomenon in which the greater the expectation placed upon people, the better they perform…The corollary…is the golem effect, in which low expectations lead to a decrease in performance.”

The early research was done with elementary school students. Experimenters withheld results of IQ tests from teachers and, instead, randomly selected 20% of the pupils and identified them to teachers as students who would outperform their classmates in the coming year. Those students, as a result of what’s known as the “observer-expectancy bias”, did indeed outperform the other students.

Yes, there are differences in skill levels and in measurable performance. And yet study after study after study shows that much of what we deem performance in organizations is actually chance, the differences attributable to predictable variations within a given system. (Think of dart-throwing monkeys performing as well as stock brokers.) And when it comes to potential, we get what we label. Much of our success in school, work, and life, is governed by self-fulfilling prophecies – by the labels applied to us.

Although I was familiar with the studies and even wrote about it before, it wasn’t until a good friend told me about Aimee Mullins that I fully appreciated just how limiting labels can be.

The story of Aimee Mullins

Aimee Mullins had both her legs amputated below the knee when she was just a year old. Despite that, she went on to race track at Georgetown and ultimately became a world-class athlete, author, international speaker, and activist.

The label-defying Aimee Mullins

The label-defying Aimee Mullins

In one of her TED presentations, she talks about looking up “disabled” in the thesaurus. Here’s what she found:

Disabled, a.  crippled, helpless, useless, wrecked, stalled, maimed, wounded, mangled, lame, mutilated, run-down, worn-out, weakened, impotent, castrated, paralyzed, handicapped, senile, decrepit, laid up, done up, done for, done in, cracked up, counted out; see also hurt, useless, weak. Antonym: healthy, strong, capable.”

In her view, “the only true disability is a crushed spirit.” She was fortunate to be surrounded by people who, instead of labeling and limiting her, helped her realize her own rich and unique potential.

It’s particularly striking to watch Amy’s 3 TED talks in sequence. Here she is in her early 20s, here showing off 12 beautiful pairs of legs, and here, in her 30s, she’s talking about the power of labels. Is Amy Mullins “disabled” and “broken”? Or is she “smart, inspiring, funny, articulate, bold, beautiful” and much, much more?

What to do about institutionalized biases?

What labels do you use for other people? For yourself? As Amy describes:

“It’s not just about the words. It’s what we believe about people when we name them with these words…Our language affects our thinking and how we view the world and how we view other people…What reality do we want to call into existence? A person who is limited? Or a person who is empowered? By casually doing something as simple as naming we might be putting lids and casting shadows on their power. Wouldn’t we want to open doors for them instead?”

If you work in HR, your job is to increase the overall effectiveness of the workforce, not to label them and disenfranchise 90% of the people in the process. So some firms, even those like Microsoft that have been reviled for their long-held system of ratings and rankings, are changing their approach. Here’s why:

“What’s happened in the last 15 or 20 years is that HR has started to take a more analytical approach,” [a researcher] said. We started to see the rise of evidence-based human resources, and when they looked at the numbers they weren’t finding success [with stack ranking]. In fact, they were finding negative correlations to employee engagement and especially to innovation.”

Most companies have shifted to systems that are more flexible. Employees may still be rated or ranked, but not along a bell curve or with strict cutoffs. There is also more focus on consistent feedback and how people can improve.”

And even if your company continues with practices that are unfair and dehumanizing, you don’t have to take it any more. Instead of waiting for someone to assign you a label of their choosing, make a habit of working out loud. Start writing your own richer, more complete, more empowering story.

You don’t have to take it any more

When work isn't fair

When work isn’t fair

“It’s just not fair.”

That’s the phrase I hear every time someone gets a performance review that isn’t based on their actual performance. I’ve uttered it myself.

In the vast majority of cases, it’s not just a denial of an unpleasant fact. Sometimes, you simply have a bad boss. Or you have a new boss with very different expectations from your old one. Or perhaps he simply needed to fill a quota for poor performers and you were the easiest one to pick on.

After your unfair review, you may have responded with anger or anxiety or even tears. But you don’t have to be a victim any more. You can do something to take control.

The Lottery

"Performance Management"

“Performance Management”

In 1941, Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short story entitled “The Lottery in Babylon” in which all activities – your occupation, your success, even your death – were dictated by a lottery run by “the Company”:

“…every free man automatically participated in the sacred drawings of lots, which were carried out in the labyrinths of the gods every seventy nights and which determined every man’s fate until the next exercise. The consequences were incalculable. A happy drawing might motivate his elevation to the council of wizards or his condemnation to the custody of an enemy (notorious or intimate)…An adverse drawing might mean mutilation, a varied infamy, death.”

Performance reviews have become a lottery. In order for the reviews to be useful for personal development or for equitable distribution of pay, there must be continuity of both the manager and the objectives. But the pace of reorganizations and changing priorities have quickened, rendering management by objectives useless for all but the simplest jobs. The conceptual underpinnings of most performance management systems have crumbled yet we blindly keep using them rather than confront the effort of fundamentally redesigning them.

It isn’t fair

The patterns are clear and consistent. One of the more common ones, for example, is “The Re-org”. Your firm re-organizes and combines two groups, each with their own manager. One of them is given responsibility for the newly-merged teams. The losing manager seeks a position elsewhere and his former team, now in a disadvantaged state, is subject to the Lottery. 

Will my new boss have different objectives? Different expectations? 

Who will he pick when he has to force rank us?

What will happen to the raise or promotion I was promised?

A handful of other similar patterns all lead to the same kinds of questions. Borges’ “Lottery” is thought to be an allegory, but he could have easily been describing modern management practices:

“Under the beneficent influence of the Company, our customs have become thoroughly impregnated with chance.”

You don’t have to take it any more 

"I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this any more!"

“I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more!”

You should be mad as hell. To think that your success – the assessment of your value to your firm, your compensation, the opportunities available to you – could all be determined by a single person who may barely know you? Whose loyalties – to himself and his close associates – may be in gross conflict with what’s right and fair for you?

What makes it sting even more is that the lottery is cast as an objective system, a righteous necessity for which, as Borges writes, “participation became mandatory for all but the elite”. If the stakes weren’t so high it might be funny. But it’s not funny. Your self-worth and the well-being of you and your family should not be subject to a lottery. You deserve better than that.

To take control you need to work out loud. That means making your work visible and narrating your work in progress. By doing so, you can shape your reputation, build your own purposeful network, and get access to opportunities without depending on your manager to be the middleman.

It’s a lot tougher for a boss to give you an underserved bad review when your work – and the feedback on it throughout the year – is positive and public. Bullies hate the sunlight. When you work out loud your boss will go pick on someone else.

Life may not always be fair, but you can increase the odds. Get started now before it’s too late.