I had an epiphany last week about the source of much resentment in teams. I’m calling it “unseen work.” I define unseen work as the physical, cognitive, and emotional efforts required to complete one’s job that are not visible to others.
Unseen work might include the 17 hours you spend researching to write a three-page brief. It could be the energy you expend quietly reassuring or coaching your colleagues because you are the de facto office spiritual leader. It might be the six rewrites and the preceding angst that go into crafting a compelling Board presentation. Unseen work is the effort you don’t get credit for because no one knows it exists.
Unseen Work Creates Resentment
Unseen work is the source of resentment, and is therefore toxic to teams, because it creates a gap between how you perceive your contribution and how others do. Put more simply, you feel like you get one checkmark for work you feel deserves five gold stars. Now, multiply that over a whole team. If you each do unseen work, many of you likely feel like you’re working harder than everyone and boom…in creeps frustration, maybe a little self-pity, and ultimately, resentment. Not good.
Brining Unseen Work into the Light
What can you do to reduce the negative impact of unseen work? Let it be seen. For the next two weeks, keep a running tab of some of the most important (or difficult, or time-consuming) unseen work that you do as part of your job. Don’t try to make the list exhaustive. Instead, make it representative by:
- capturing different categories of unseen work
- documenting tasks where the required effort is particularly out of line with the output—hint—reporting often requires a Herculean effort for a relatively low value product
- including the unseen work that feels particularly emotionally taxing because it’s aversive, or unfair, or exhausting.
Once you’ve got your lists, share. As you talk with your colleagues about it, sort the lists into two categories.
Continue (with Empathy)
Many of the items on the list will be tasks that need to be done. For example, it might be a kluge-y process, but you will still need to dip into two different online systems and one database to produce the weekly sales report for headquarters. The difference will be that it’s no longer unseen effort. You’ll continue, but with your teammates (or your boss’) empathy. And you’ll be surprised how much lighter the load is when someone else knows you’re carrying it.
When your teammates share their unseen work, find small spots to acknowledge it. If you know that your colleague builds the sales report on Thursdays, avoid sending other tasks that day, or add “after the sales report” in the subject line of your email. Or send a funny video with the message, “to help you through the report-from-hell.” Small signs that you understand and appreciate the efforts will go a long way.
The other list you’ll want to compile is the list of unseen work that could and should be handled differently. These are the tasks that you or your colleagues have been doing that are detracting from your productivity or engagement without offering enough value in return. There are many reasons a task might be on this list. It could be an activity that should be done by someone more junior, or more proficient. It might be a task that used to be helpful, but has become less useful. It could be a process that is inefficient that needs to be replaced by a better approach or new tools. Aim to remove at least a third of the unseen work effort from each person’s list.
It can be easy to get into a rut of doing tasks that you feel you need to do (or doing them a certain way). It takes a little positive peer pressure from your colleagues to say, “You do WHAT?!?” or “It takes you HOW long?!?” to snap you out of it. Periodically review your unseen work list, on the lookout for opportunities to remove some of the activities that have been draining your batteries.
Unseen Work at Home
Perhaps as you’ve been reading this you thought a of few examples of your unseen work at home. This is a common issue and a source of considerable friction in marriages, among siblings caring for an elderly parent, or between parents and their teenagers. Maybe it’s time to share your unseen work at home as well.
I would love you to add to the list of unseen work. What is the unseen work that evokes the greatest sense of unfairness or resentment for you?