Are you hiding your efforts? (video transcript)

Have you ever felt that you were putting in a huge amount of effort on doing your work and that it’s just not being noticed or rewarded? I call that unseen work. And when we are doing a lot of unseen work it can create resentment in us and be a huge problem for our teams.

What is unseen work?

Unseen work is the physical, cognitive, and emotional efforts that we put into accomplishing our jobs that isn’t obvious or seen transparent to other people.

Let’s take a few examples of unseen work. Maybe it’s your job to pull together a presentation for the board of directors, or some other really important task. And in the end, it’s only six or seven slides but it took you hours and hours of doing research to make sure that you’d covered all the territory. But when you hand in the six or seven page presentation, the reaction is just, “Oh thanks.” They have no idea how much went into it.

Another example of unseen work would be all the time you spend coaching the new employees and being the one who they call after every meeting to check in. Or maybe you’re the person who everyone goes to with their drama and gossip and you’re putting huge emotional labor into the team in order to keep everybody on track.

Maybe it’s cognitive labor, where you are having to work through huge amounts of ideas and iterations and drafts to come up with one really short piece of copy but to get that really, really really great wording, boy you went through so many drafts and yet somehow nobody appreciates that one sentence or that great paragraph took two whole days.

That is unseen work.

Why is unseen work a problem?

Unseen work creates problems on teams because our expectations don’t match our reality. We know how much we put into doing something but when our teammates or our boss see that work they just kind of shrug and don’t get how much went into it. We’re hoping and expecting to get five gold stars and all we get is a check mark.

It just doesn’t feel good.

Now, imagine what happens if everyone on the team is in the same circumstance, everyone’s doing huge amounts of unseen work. Well, then everyone feels like they’re harder done by, they’re more accountable. They’re putting in a lot of effort, or they’re getting the short end of the stick.

Everyone feels hard done by and that can create not only frustration, but a lot of resentment. That resentment can spill over into mistrust and really have a negative effect on a team.

What can we do about unseen work?

If this idea resonates with you, it’s a really important thing to get the handle on as soon as possible. The good news is that’s pretty easy.

Here’s an exercise you can do with your team to try and solve this issue.

The first thing is to raise the issue with your teammates. Maybe just share this post with them and say, “Hey, what do you think?” Get them talking about whether they have unseen work. You could even just say, “I feel like I have lots of unseen work, which makes me think you probably do too. Would love to talk with you about it.”

Then what you’re going to do is ask everybody to spend a couple of weeks making a list of the things that are on their unseen work list. Don’t try to have the complete list (then it just looks like you’re complaining), but instead pick out a few different types of things.

One type of unseen work you might want to add to your list is anything that you think your teammates would be very surprised to learn how much work it takes.

Imagine the weekly sales report and people think you just like knock it off in an hour and all good. But you know that it actually takes going into to get some data, and then into your SAP system to get other data, and then there’s this crazy Excel spreadsheet that Gary maintains for his team. Maybe they have no idea that it’s a full day every week just building that sales report. So if there’s something particularly surprising that’s a great thing to include on your list.

Another type of unseen work to to include on your list would be something that you think is particularly dumb or useless, where you suspect that when people find out how much effort it takes, they’re going to say, “Why bother?’

A third type of unseen work to include on your list would be anything that is particularly unpleasant, aversive or taxing. It’s really important to have an opportunity to say, “This is killing me.” So that’s another good category.

So that’s things that are particularly surprising, things that are just silly and inefficient, and things that are hard on you.

Create your list, and at the end of the couple of weeks share it with your teammates. You’re gonna try and categorize everybody’s lists into two different categories.

Category 1: Things that do still need to still be done

Some of the things on the list are going to be things that you say, “Unfortunately we can’t get away without doing the sales report. It’s needed, it goes right up to the top of the organization, and it’s a bit cluegy for sure how you have to build it. But unfortunately for now we can’t make it any better”.

The good news is, that it’s not going to be unseen work anymore. It goes from being unseen to being acknowledged and recognized and hopefully rewarded.

You can remind yourself, “There’s some things I’m still going to need to do but I’m going to feel better because I feel like my colleagues and my boss have a sense of how much it takes in terms of investment in psychological, physical, emotional, cognitive effort to do it.”

It goes the other way too: if your colleague has things like that on their list make sure you find ways to acknowledge it.

So if it’s Thursday and you know that means they’re doing the sales report you might want to include on your own emails something like, “this is not something that I want you to handle till after the sales report is done”. Just say it right there in the email.

Alternatively, maybe just send them a funny video or something that says, “When you need a break from the sales report.”

Just little tiny things that say, “I know you’re doing your unseen work and it’s recognized and appreciated and I’m seeing it.”

Category 2: Things that don’t still need to be done

The second category – and hopefully this makes up half of the things on your lists – is things where you say “we need to stop” or “we need to make that a lot smaller” or “we need to get somebody more appropriate to do that”.

Your unseen labor report probably has some things on it where people say, “You’re still making that report? Oh yeah, I don’t need that anymore”. Or “Why are you doing that? Isn’t that what we hired Sammy to do?”

So the second category is things where you can come up with a plan to change and remove a lot of the unseen work. Not just tolerate it and bear it, but actually change it for the better.

Don’t let unseen work keep your team from being more effective

So that’s a simple exercise you can do. First of all, to make yourself more aware of your unseen work, and how it’s creating resentment for you, then to make your colleagues aware and to increase the empathy you have for one another and to find some good problem solving to move things off the list.

I think you’ll find when you go through this that you’ll feel a lot better, and not only will the trust and the communication among your team increase, but maybe even the workforce planning and sharing of the workload will as well.

More on this

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