Do you find that your efforts at work, home or elsewhere are not always recognised? Are you maddened that some people are constantly in the limelight, taking all the credit? Do you sometimes feel as though you're wearing Harry Potter's cloak of invisibility but don't know what to do about it?
I was brought up to be modest, says Sally, 'it was considered very rude in my family to grab attention for yourself. It was pretty frowned upon at school too. I remember a boy called Jason, he was constantly talking, asking questions, fooling around. The rest of us would roll our eyes and sit there waiting for the lesson to resume.'
Much of our behaviour is learnt - we weren't born that way. Go out to a restaurant and there will often be a table where one person is talking more loudly than anyone else. 'Foghorn' was a word my mother used to describe these voices. The person may be sitting several tables away and yet you can hear every word he or she says, rather better than you can hear your own or that of your companion. This person is not shouting, they just learnt to talk with a voice that carries, a voice that is heard. The Sallys of this world get very irritated with people like this - drawing attention to herself was something she'd given up when very young, it is intrusive and selfish, so seeing someone blatantly breaking this rule is hard to stomach. She believes that she's irritated because this person's conversation is preventing her from focussing properly on her own, but it goes deeper than that.
The thing is that we all want attention. We all want to be listened to, approved of, admired. Most of all we want to be seen. If you think you don't I'm afraid you're in denial. Show me a baby that doesn't cry for attention; a toddler that doesn't talk so that people in China could hear; a small child that doesn't want their painting admired. We all want attention but some of us learn to be quiet and self-effacing and to suppress our desire for it. As a result we are furious when other people take all the attention - because they are taking the attention from us.
The trouble is that being quiet and self-effacing doesn't help anyone if it means you're not seen. It is wonderful when people are generous with their attention to others, when the attention they attract doesn't deny the same attention to others. Modesty is an attractive and generous quality. But if it means that you deny your potential, that you limit your contribution to the world, that you underestimate your value and importance, then everybody loses. Where would Britain have been during the war if Churchill had been a shrinking violet? Where would India be if Gandhi hadn't overcome his phobia of public speaking? Where would the deprived children of south London be if Camila Batmanghelidjhdidn't draw attention to their plight with her passion and her eye-catching outfits? We help no-one by hiding.
That is not to say that we're all born leaders, they are just the more obvious examples - there are as many talents and contributions as there are people. But we all have one thing in common: we cannot become and contribute the fullness of ourselves if we hide.
It is inevitable, while both sexes are affected, that women are more prone to this 'hanging back' syndrome than men. Girls are taught, whether overtly or implicitly, that their job is to take care of the people who do things, not to do them themselves. Even the more forward-thinking households are prone to this influence because no family lives in a vacuum. We live in societies where leadership roles are predominantly taken by men from higher social classes. If you go to Eton, followed by Oxford or Cambridge, instead of having to draw yourself up to your full height in order to take a prominent role you would actually be going against the grain if you didn't.
It is very different for women and people of both sexes from lower social class backgrounds, and also for people who have migrated from their country of birth. Those who do advance themselves beyond the expectations of their gender or class or ethnicity often appear more arrogant, more abrasive, more aggressive than their laid back colleagues who breezed through to the top, because they have had to push to be noticed.
For the ones that find it easy, confidence is key, of course, but there is something less obvious going on. A game is being played and these people naturally know how to play it. The rest of us are still playing the game, we just don't realise, and we don't know the rules.
I went to a talk by Germaine Greer many years ago and she talked about this game. She was an English fellow and lecturer at Cambridge university at the time and said how she'd noticed that the women loved teaching and did most of it, while the men knew that prestige and advancement lay in research and so did very little teaching. She talked of a sabbatical she had spent as visiting professor in Miami. She was invited to join the tennis club, which she turned down as she didn't play tennis. She later realised that all the men belonged to the club and that most important decisions about the department were made there. She observed how women thought that if they worked hard they would be rewarded, but men knew that what was important was being visible in the right quarters. She noticed how women tended to focus on taking care of and developing those junior to them, while men tended to focus on networking with those more senior.
I have had a number of clients who have come up against this problem, both men and women. They work hard, develop their staff, give credit to others and are generally good eggs, but they come to me because all is not going well. They are finding themselves not getting the credit they deserve, being passed over for positions they think they should have got, not being taken seriously, and having other people take credit for their ideas and their work. What has gone wrong, they say?
What has gone wrong is that their beliefs about what will make them valued at work are at variance with the rules of the game. I ask them to think of a colleague who seems to be better at getting credibility and influence for themselves, and start to get curious about their behaviours. In no time at all they come up with a list:
- they always speak at meetings, if necessary interrupting others
- they put their name conspicuously on their work
- they get their name on other people's work
- they take credit for work they haven't done and ideas they haven't had
- they choose areas of work that are more visible and have more kudos
- they behave as if they are a little more senior than they are
- they mix with influential and powerful people and put those people's names on their papers
- they go to conferences and speak whenever possible
My clients, on the other hand, make sure other people get credit for their work and ideas, but not themselves. They say yes to jobs that no-one wants to do because they are afraid that saying no will make them look bad. They let other people talk at meetings. They notice other people taking credit for their ideas and don't know what to do about it. They work extremely hard and have little time for networking. They are working their socks off and yet they are invisible.
This syndrome doesn't just happen at work. It happens in communities, in families, in groups of friends.
Time to wise up!!!
1. Choose an area of your life - it may be work, or it may be your friendship group, community, club or your family.
On a scale of 0 - 100, where 0 is completely invisible and 100 is in a blaze of publicity, put a cross where you would place yourself right now.
On the same scale, put a cross where you would like to be, either now or by some time in the future.
If you would like to be more visible than you are:
2. Think of someone you admire who has that level of visibility and get curious about how they got there and how they maintain that visibility. What do they do exactly that is different from what you do?
3. Think about making yourself more visible and notice the feelings that come up. Is it fear, excitement, inertia? And what thoughts come - are there any that start 'I'm not the sort of person who....' Or 'but it's not nice to.....' ? Consider the possibility that you're mistaken. Feel the fear and do it anyway.
4. Make a list of new behaviours that you could do without seriously offending your values, and start.
5. Remember it's a game, and enjoy - that's what the experts do!
Wishing you a week of well-deserved attention...