Feeling Ignored at Work: Invisibility as a Not-So-Superpower

Keep your team motivated by showing you see them.

Posted Jan 13, 2021

Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

As a girl, the power to make myself invisible was a magic wish. It seemed so wonderful — to be able to sneak into places and do whatever I wanted without anyone noticing.

Then feeling ignored at work gave me a taste of invisibility, and I learned it actually isn’t so great. 

The first time I remember feeling invisible at work was the winter of 2008-2009. I was working for a consulting firm, and part of my job in that miserable winter was to bring in new business. I did everything I could think of: I made phone calls, wrote newsletters, sent emails, developed marketing materials, and invited people for coffee or lunch or drinks. The response? Bupkes! Not just nothing, but the Yiddish word for “emphatically nothing.” I even found it difficult to elicit a response from my colleagues. It was profoundly demoralizing.

A new wave of feeling ignored at work

Here we are in 2021, and once again a lot of people, including me, are feeling invisible. I recently reached out to a friend on behalf of a prestigious invitation-only professional organization, offering to sponsor her application. Her response? Bupkes. I know I’m not alone. My high-powered clients and respected colleagues are telling me about similar experiences. In this time of heightened isolation and anxiety, people seem to be pulling back from connection just when it might be most helpful to all of us.

There are a number of reasons. Connecting virtually is tiring. Everyone is dealing with complexity and stress, and sometimes it just feels too hard to put out the energy to respond. And if I think someone is trying to sell me something that I can’t or don’t want to buy, it’s easier to just ignore them. We barely have the time for pleasant interactions with friends and family. No one’s prioritizing the less pleasant ones. 

Keep your team motivated by showing you see them

If you are leading a team that is doing outreach of any kind, it’s very likely they’re being ignored more than normal and suffering from “invisibility syndrome” as a result. Your challenge is to help them – and yourself- to maintain the energy to keep trying in the face of silence. Here are some tactics:

  • Be highly responsive yourself. Get back to them quickly and empathically. Don’t contribute to their experience of invisibility.
  • Provide opportunities for them to share their experiences, so they don’t feel that it’s just them. 
  • Coach them on the kinds of outreach that are more likely to elicit a response. For example, I have found that if I offer to send someone a free gift, even a small one, they are much more likely to get back to me. Help your team members find the value they can proactively offer. 
  • Praise their efforts and their resilience
  • Don’t just reward outcomes — reward effort.

When the pandemic subsides and the economy recovers, I predict that the “invisibility syndrome” will also subside, much as it did after the last recession. In the meantime, we can all be a little more sensitive to the people who reach out to us. Even a brief response is better than silence.