Training Employees to Be “Visible”

Many of us have never been more visible—in a literal sense. With open-space offices becoming the norm, it’s hard not to be visible, at least physically speaking. But in a more meaningful sense, it hasn’t gotten easier. Some people are more adept than others at getting noticed by the people who can help them. 

I empathized with this person writing to an advice columnist on her difficulty getting recognized.

In leadership development programs, should there be a segment on how to gain the attention of people in the organization who can support your career, offering recognition and growth opportunities? The question is: What can you teach people about how to do that? It seems like it’s something inborn that makes some people easier to notice than others. They’re usually the people who are bursting with self-confidence and self-love, and who know how to posture—to bulk up their accomplishments and sound self-important even when they haven’t gotten a thing done in months. 

This week, my company is having meetings about how best to make our publications and business units excel in the coming year. I dread these meetings because I believe most meetings are useless. Rather than identifying and finding ways to complete tasks, meetings are a forum for posturing. Maybe it’s that posturing leadership development needs to teach. Older, white men usually don’t need this training, but many of the youngest employees, of both genders and all races, need instruction on posturing. “Posturing” has negative connotations, and it isn’t something I believe in, but I see that it’s often what separates those who get their due from those who labor without reward and recognition. So if we’re nurturing promising employees, it’s a skill that needs to be taught.

Role-play exercises in mock meetings could help. Learners could practice getting the attention of the other attendees, a difficult first step to master, requiring that people speak over the voices of others and then emphasize their own accomplishments and value. It isn’t enough to offer new ideas; the offering of those ideas has to serve as a platform for boasting about past accomplishments and value. For example: [shouting above others] “I just want to say, our department has done countless projects similar to the kind of site update we’re talking about. Last year, we increased traffic 40 percent with a few minor tweaks that allowed us to stay well within budget. What if I lead my group in developing a few cost-effective strategies to update that site while keeping costs down? We could have a demo site for you to review in two weeks.”

That savvy self-talker-upper has not only put forward an idea for improvement, with a completion date that turns it into a substantive deliverable, but has woven in ample self-plaudits. It’s easier for me to put that in writing than to do so in a meeting. Could you do it? How many of your entry-level employees could do it?

Just as more experienced men tend to be the most adept at self-confidently singing their own praises at meetings, young people, women, and minorities may need help in this area. We live up to other people’s expectations, and for centuries, women and minorities have experienced low expectations. Many of us have overcome that to do good work and excel, but it may still be difficult for some of us to exhibit self-confidence and self-promotion in group situations. Not everyone is supportive when a deserving, usually modest person finally speaks up to gain recognition. There can be resentment and hesitance to change the usual power dynamics. That resentment and hesitance is often subconscious, but, nevertheless, is there. It can take the form of argumentative, contrary attitudes for some of the meeting attendees, who just moments before were bursting with positivity and support. How do you prepare employees to manage a situation like that, in which they have to speak up about their accomplishments while getting push-back? It can feel like those wildlife documentaries that show two animals butting heads, at an impasse, both looking for ways to show dominance. 

One time, many years ago, in my first full-time job, I needed to shout over a man who had interrupted me while I was presenting my idea. I was angry, so it was easy for me in that moment to push back. In role-playing exercises, do inexperienced employees need to practice that situation where they trying to put forward their ideas and are getting interrupted by a more domineering fellow meeting attendee?

Power dynamics in meetings are daunting to those of us who are not aggressive by nature. How can you train your promising, yet modest or insecure, employees to draw attention to their own accomplishments and fight for their new ideas to be recognized and taken seriously?