During a recent trip to company headquarters, I arrived much more aware of the surfaces I might encounter than before COVID-19: the turnstile at reception, door and faucet handles, elevator buttons, lunch trays, my keyboard and desk. Given the invisibility of viruses, I was anxious about what I couldn’t see. Still, I was confident that safety protocols had been taken extremely seriously, because a good many other people had worked to make all these surfaces shiny, clean, and fresh.
These essential workers continued to perform these important and oftentimes risky jobs throughout the pandemic, even as “knowledge workers” generally did their jobs from the comfort of home. These shadow workers do the important stuff behind the scenes that many of us who have been working remotely throughout the pandemic take for granted in our relatively frictionless social worlds — until the system breaks down. We expect that the items we’ve ordered online will arrive on time because by and large they do; when they don’t, we become irritated. We wonder in frustration why the school bus routes have suddenly changed. We lose our way when our Wi-Fi signal is weak.
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Back-ordered items and understocked shelves make visible the complex global supply chains — operated by people worldwide — that keep commerce moving. For many of us in the Global North who have long assumed the abundance and availability of most products, these disruptions force us to engage in a new way of seeing. We recognize the surfaces as no longer smooth and frictionless; the seams have begun to show. But friction is a creative force, an energy that opens up the possibilities for innovation and positive change.
The past two years have taught many of us that what’s visible isn’t a straightforward proxy for truth or fact. Just because someone looks well doesn’t mean they are; people with COVID-19 can be asymptomatic, and people who appear happy may be burned out. Likewise, unequal access to health care remained largely out of the public eye before COVID-19. Statistics on disease-related mortality rates have made visible the failings inherent in many of our “unseen” systems — political, economic, and social. When the invisible comes into view, it should become more difficult to ignore the ways in which inequity has been normalized by those who benefit most from it.
While we tend to assume that everyone is in the same boat, we may have many more choices than the people around us: the single mom who is required to go to a physical place of work while trying to manage remote learning for her young children; the home health aide who also cares for an elderly parent; the retail worker reliant on public transportation; and the many front-line workers whose jobs put them at risk daily and who find it difficult to cover their basic costs of living.
The disruptive forces of the current historical moment have moved many people to look anew at the invisible and unequally distributed power flows reproduced in our health care and educational systems, public policies, financial institutions, technologies, and, of course, workplaces. Seeking visibility into systems, practices, and policies is one way to begin to start seeing more clearly.
Leading With Intention and Attention
In some sense, “seeing what you want to see” means seeing what you already believe. That’s fine if you seek consensus, but it’s not a good formula for innovative thinking. Pressure is necessary to effect real change. This often involves challenging the status quo and stepping out of what has not been recognized as a fixed perspective.
Surrounding yourself with people with similar experiences, beliefs, and perceptions about the world can foreclose on the possibility of thinking differently. On teams, shared assumptions can result in people coming up with the same or similar solutions to a set of challenges. While these solutions may help people like you, they may fail to address the needs of others who are not. Take, for example, the failure to optimize early smartphone cameras for darker skin tones, or how facial recognition technologies identify White faces with a higher degree of accuracy compared with those of people of color. Technological biases of this kind ensure that some people are seen, while others remain unseen or perhaps seen in a very unfavorable light. This lack of recognition has wide-ranging social, economic, and political ramifications.1
Leading with intention and attention means embracing a questioning mindset and accounting for the ideas and individuals we are listening to as well as those we are not. Good leaders understand that the most imaginative teams are made up of individuals from different backgrounds. These leaders seek to orchestrate opportunities within the team for respectful debate and deeper inquiry and, in the process, invite the possibility of new ways of thinking and doing.
It takes proactivity and a sustained commitment to engage in conversations with people with experiences different from your own. Leaders can create significant change by embracing friction, modeling new values, and listening with genuine curiosity. Here, adopting the mindset of an anthropologist is of great value: being open to diversity, asking questions respectfully, listening with care, and developing an awareness of the systems that shape and are shaped by the social realities of individuals and communities.
As cultural anthropologist Gillian Tett wrote, “Trying to navigate the 21st-century world only using the tools developed in the 20th century, such as rigid economic models, is like walking through a dark wood with a compass at night and only looking down on the dial. Your compass may be technically brilliant and tell you where to aim. But if you only focus on the dial, you may walk into a tree. Tunnel vision is deadly. We need lateral vision.”2
One part of this lateral vision is an appreciation for context and a genuine curiosity to learn about the pulls, pressures, and resulting practices — seen and unseen — that shape how individuals go about their daily lives. For instance, companies that have created policies around flexible work arrangements are responding to what they have learned about the unique contexts of working parents (especially women) and caretakers who would otherwise be forced to leave their jobs. Formalizing back-to-work policies that allow for remote and hybrid arrangements can reinforce the message, “Just because we don’t see you here, that doesn’t mean you’re not seen.”
Likewise, organizations that are taking action to help employees who may be struggling with mental health issues — some of which have been compounded by overwork, underappreciation, and the increased stress of the past two years — are acknowledging that even if someone’s suffering isn’t visible, that doesn’t make it any less real. Similarly, company leaders who have made concrete and measurable commitments to building a more diverse and equitable workforce are in some sense saying, “I see you, you belong, and you matter.”
The past two years have made more visible what many of us otherwise overlooked. The frictionless experiences many of us enjoy hide a range of social realities and ways of working; while the terminal at the grocery checkout is contactless for customers, a worker behind the scenes still cleans it manually. In today’s workplace, it’s essential to recognize that there’s always more than meets the eye.
1. “Coded Bias,” directed by Shalini Kantayya (New York: 7th Empire Media, 2020), is a documentary film on the discovery of racial bias in facial recognition algorithms that features the research Joy Buolamwini conducted during her time at the MIT Media Lab.
2. G. Tett, “Anthro-Vision: A New Way to See in Business and Life” (New York: Avid Reader Press, 2021).