You could be someone who’s just started out in the workforce. You could be someone who’s been working a long time. It doesn’t matter, because here’s the undeniable truth about climbing the ladder:
To get ahead, you must be visible. It is more important to be perceived to be good at what you do, than whether you are actually good at what you do. Form over essence. Fake it till you make it.
It’s a hard truth, but it’s the truth nonetheless. You need to sell yourself to get anywhere in life. The funny thing is, if you were to use this term “selling yourself” perhaps a century ago, people would think that you were trying to prostitute yourself. But look at the bestsellers of the self-help section in any bookstore, or browse the most popular course taught by motivational trainers, and the most important skill you will see being touted is how to sell yourself. Of course, they make it sound better: How to Present Yourself at Your Very Best!
See what I mean about how important perception is? The same thing, said in two different ways, can lead to vastly different impressions.
So far, you’re probably thinking that I haven’t said anything that you don’t already know. The above is a reality of life: Those who know how to do the right things will do better than those who only know how to do things right. In Singaporean terms, those who “wayang” will get ahead.
But what I want to ask you readers to consider is: Is this kind of mindset really what’s best for the organisation as a whole?
An organisation is created with a goal in mind. Members of this organisation are expected to work hand-in-hand towards this common goal. Whether the goal is to turn a profit for its shareholders, or if it is to serve the public, the fact remains that this goal is bigger than any single person or group of people within the organisation. Everyone in the organisation should lay aside their own interests and prioritize the organisation’s interests first, in order to be a good employee. Right?
Well, yes, this is generally the case. Except if you are part of a very select group within the organisation: Its management.
When you are a manager, you are literally a demigod in the workplace. Everyone knows the rules of the game: If they manage to do something astounding enough that catches your attention in a good way, you may see fit to bestow unimaginable blessings ranging from being paid a good performance bonus to snagging that elusive promotion. Those unlucky enough to earn your ire are condemned to slaving away in mediocrity for the rest of their miserable careers. But a considerable number of your underlings fall into neither category – they are simply beneath your notice.
In other words, they are not visible. They may be very good at what they do. They may be performing really important work that supports the entire organisation in terms of its infrastructure. They may possess knowledge that is absolutely essential to the continued success of the organisation. But because they did not do it in front of you in order to impress you, because the work done was not as news-worthy as the project that someone that wants to garner visibility just presented to you earlier this morning, you do not know of them or what they are doing or have done for the organisation. And therefore, when it comes time to decide who should get that promotion or raise, the choice is clear.
The difference is: The suck ups focus all their efforts on ensuring the boss has a good impression of them. The invisible do what they do for the sake of the organisation, not the current management.
So the question is: When the time comes for ranking and deciding who gets that raise, bonus or promotion, who is more deserving?
Managers who are reading this, I say to you: If you truly care about what is best for the organisation, then it’s time to get off your high horse and walk amongst the mere mortals once more. It is time to stop forcing your subordinates to play the game of “Who can impress me the best?”.
If you really believe in the organisation’s goals, then it is time to get to know your subordinates. All of them. Not just those who strut like peacocks in your presence, who do their very best only when you are watching. Instead, you should be looking for those who do not seek attention for its own sake, but are willing to get their hands dirty to do the unglamorous, boring work that noone wants to do, but that needs to be done anyway to keep the organisation running smoothly. These individuals are the real human talent that the organisation should try its absolute hardest to retain more than anyone else.
I love analogies and I am going to use one here: Managers are like prospectors looking for gold in a mine. But just like how actual gold in its raw form appears dull and lusterless, so too do the real gems of an organisation’s workforce appear invisible, preferring to stay out of the limelight and to get on with their work. Instead, pyerite, or fool’s gold, shines brightly and is very eye-catching to novice prospectors. This, of course, represents those who suck up to management. All that glitters is not gold, often have you heard that told.
Too many times have I seen managers chuck the true talent of their organisation aside, choosing instead the brightly shining but ultimately worthless fool’s gold, and then try to make jewelry out of the latter (read: promote them into positions of power). Do this often enough, and eventually a more experienced prospector in the form of another organisation who knows truly good talent when they see it, is going to come along to snatch up these chunks of true gold from these novices. What will happen, I wonder, when an organisation realizes one day that it no longer has any real gold to make jewelry out of, and only has rows and rows of fake gold jewelry?
If you are a manager or in a position of power within your organisation, then I beseech you: Do not let this happen to your organisation. Don’t run your organisation like a palace of sycophantic concubines with yourself as the emperor. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Will you be a true collector of talent, or a purveyor of employees with no real substance?
If you are instead that guy who’s standing at the bottom rung of the career ladder and looking up, it’s time to evaluate what is more important: Doing work to impress someone else, or doing work that you believe in. You only live once – will you spend your career selling yourself?
The choice is yours – and the fate of your organisation will depend upon it.