Jitendra Madhav Ramchandani

December 26, 2013

Our Dangerous Obsession with External Recognition

Came across a lovely post by Daniel Gulati on HBR which discusses the problem of 'Visibility vs Vision'. This applies to all aspects of our lives - the work, home and society.

Here is the full article.

Rebecca, a tech entrepreneur, would love you to equate her company’s expansive press coverage with real value creation. “Yesterday, we got written up in TechCrunch and LA Magazine, and we all had dinner at Nobu to celebrate!” She will, however, conveniently forget to mention that her startup has yet to settle on a viable business model and has zero paying customers.

John, a middle manager at a Fortune 500, attended no less than 21 industry conferences this year in an effort to increase his overall visibility. “It’s all about optics,” he says, “and you need to be everywhere.” While John was schmoozing on the company’s dime, his team members were starved of the leadership and hands-on coaching they desperately needed.

Steven, a consulting partner, tweets about 40 times per day and has his own Facebook page with 50 fans. “I do it primarily because it makes me feel good.” He spends over 20 hours a week massaging his social media profiles and trawling online for new business, inevitably compromising the quality of work provided to current paying clients.

Although our fundamental desire to be noticed is not a new phenomenon, our unending use of social media has radically elevated the level of ego in our personal lives. Famed psychologist Jean Twenge recently showed that self-importance personality traits among 37,000 college students rose as quickly as obesity from the 1980s to present. Two Western Illinois University researchers found a high correlation between Narcissistic Personality Inventory scores and Facebook activity. Countless other study sample groups, from pop musicians to Millennials, prove that we are in the middle of a “narcissism epidemic.”

This obsession with external recognition is now entering our professional lives. Every day, even the most disciplined entrepreneurs, executives, and consultants are becoming addicted to the powerful endorphins associated with heightened visibility. They invest disproportionate time and effort into advancing their own personal fame bubbles at the expense of broader goals and potentially threaten their careers as a result. Teens posting selfies on Instagram is one thing. But when visibility trumps vision in the working world, there are several dangerous consequences that can arise.

First, we distance ourselves from the fundamental growth engine of our careers. In other words, we lose sight of what really matters. Admitted Rebecca: “It feels great to get press, but that’s not an indication of success at all. We haven’t figured that part out yet.” Our LinkedIn connections, speaking engagements, and press profiles should be seen as rewards for the value we create, not the actual process by which value is created. If you’re too focused on these “vanity metrics,” you risk painting an all-too optimistic picture of yourself without accurately identifying, measuring, and improving the underlying drivers of your performance. How can you improve what you don’t measure?

Second, we misallocate our time and attention. Going for visibility is not only exhausting, it’s distracting. Steve said, “It takes real effort [to manage my online profile]. But it’s also the additional time I spend thinking about it when I’m supposed to be doing other work.” Research shows how everyday social media multitasking reduces our cognitive depth. But take it a little further, and you might actually be destroying significant value. Lamented Steve: “Maybe if I reallocated the time it took me to gain 1,000 followers into mentoring a star analyst, she might still be at the firm.”

Third, we alienate critical nodes in our professional networks. If you let your quest for visibility drive your behaviors, your bosses, colleagues, partners, and investors may quickly scurry offside. Anita Vangelisti, a University of Texas psychologist, found that visibility-oriented individuals aim to keep conversations centered on themselves, putting off those around them. In true “taker“ fashion, they place their own needs before others and feel little remorse about the colleagues they hurt along the way. John reflected on his unfortunate conference showboating habit: “I get the sense people are waiting for me to slip up, and honestly, I’ve brought it on myself.”

As Albert Einstein once said, “Strive not be a success, but rather to be of value.” As the social media echo chamber descends on our professional lives, never before has this message been more relevant. Instead of measuring your progress using the yardstick of external recognition, optimize around achieving your unique vision. At the end of the day, people who tap into their deep intrinsic motivations are much more (PDF) likely to succeed on long-term projects and hit loftier goals than those who are powered by the praise of others. Focus on achieving your vision first, and you’ll be more visible than you can imagine.

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