This is a particularly personal concept for me, which is why I wanted to share it. Back in my Elementary school days, I watched a movie short that has always stuck with me: Cypher in the Snow. In the movie, a young boy walks off the school bus and just passes away. His teacher, who doesn’t remember him, was asked to give the eulogy at his funeral because he was the boy’s favorite teacher. Perplexed, the teacher then spends the rest of the short trying to find out all he could about the boy. He had no friends, a rough home life, and was one of those students who didn’t do well enough to get praise or poor enough to be reprimanded. He was, well, a cipher. The end of the short has the teacher vowing never to allow another boy to become a cipher if he could help it. As children, we were encouraged to follow that example, and never let a peer feel like a cipher. Some kids laughed, many felt sorry, and we went on our merry way.
Since I started my work experiences, I’ve watched those around me. I’ve seen some folks learn and grow, social groups grow, shift, and personalities grow dominant. I’ve also seen several folks that come in, do the job well, and then go home. They are quiet, sit in the corner at lunch or breaks, and are quick to head home. Maybe they had been invited to join a group once or twice and declined, and shortly after invites were no longer forthcoming. These employees cycle through a lot of jobs, often not staying in one place for too long. Many on their team don’t bother to learn their name. They are, essentially, ciphers.
I’ve been a cipher before in a past organization. I know how it feels. It hurts. It hurts to see others promoted or given opportunities because they have more visibility and popularity. To know that often you are overlooked because your input isn’t seen as important is frustrating. Your morale falls to rock bottom, and you spend a lot of time looking for other, better opportunities. Changing organizations appeals as an easier fix rather than trying to improve your current situation.
There are a lot of reasons why folks isolate or are isolated, and move into the cipher role on a team. Here are a couple that have come up in my personal experiences, though I’m sure there are others:
- Homelife: Things are rough at home, and a private person doesn’t feel comfortable talking about it at work or feels that they will not be safe discussing their problems. This creates an additional load on someone at work and leads quickly to burnout.
- Unhappy with circumstances: Particularly during a period of economic distress, often someone is concerned with having a job, rather than having the right job. This means someone may have taken a job they normally wouldn’t want, just so they have some money coming in. They are withdrawn because they intend to leave quickly, even though it may not happen. Eventually, this could lead to a toxic environment.
- Personal mental health: Mental health is very taboo in many work cultures, no one wants to be thought of as “mentally unfit” for their job. The reality is that neurodiversity is a strength in many organizations, yet those who are perceived as different can be treated horribly.
- Depression: Technically, this should be covered in personal mental health, but depression is such a common, and commonly hidden, issue in the workplace that I feel it needs to be pulled out separately. Several factors can contribute to depression, far more than I can put in a simple bullet point, but needless to say, depression will sap someone’s enjoyment of everyday events, leading to withdrawal and isolation.
- Burnout: This is a huge one, particularly in a COVID and post-COVID world. Employees are given more tasks than possible to complete in a reasonable amount of time, measured against unrealistic or uncontrollable metrics, or given unachievable goals. Working toward those goals and trying to succeed takes too much, and eventually, the person shuts down to recover. You go from a high performer to someone thought of as “lazy” within a short amount of time.
- Contribution Dismissal: Engaged employees will often bring up a lot of ideas, concerns, and effort, some good, some bad, some scary, and new. If those ideas, concerns, or effort is often and consistently dismissed as unimportant or wrong, the employee will stop engaging. “Why should I continue to try and engage?” they think, since when they do they are dismissed. And it’s not just leadership dismissing the idea, but also peers. Soon the employee doesn’t feel any intrinsic value in themselves, and those who once were highly engaged become cyphers.
Working your way out of cipher status is difficult, which is why so many employees prefer to just move to the next company, but it can be done. As a leader, the most effective way I’ve found is to build a culture of gratitude. Recognizing someone’s worth and unique value to the team builds someone’s confidence to engage with others. For those who are struggling, it gives them hope that they can work through their issues and have a supportive environment where they feel safe. For those burning out, they know their efforts have been valued, even if some of their work needs to be reassigned. Those who otherwise feel disconnected know that their efforts are appreciated, their ideas are valued, and their perspectives are considered. Gratitude creates a safe environment for someone to reengage with the rest of the team.
As a person who, for whatever reason, has found themselves in the cipher position, it takes a lot of personal reflection to pull out. I can highly recommend a career coach as an outside party to help evaluate one’s strengths and growth opportunities and place your gut reactions into perspective. I can also highly recommend a 360-degree evaluation to get a baseline from your leaders, peers, and directs to know where they see you in your career, and then compare with your estimations. And lastly, reach out and make the effort to be more visible within the team. Find that “superpower” that you have and make use of it on the team. Find ways to contribute at some level. The more visibility you receive, the more recognition you can earn, and the more your reputation as a contributor grows.
It’s easy to allow people to fall into the shadow of being a cipher. There will always be the high flyers that you celebrate and challenging employees who take up a lot of your time. Those that fall along the wayside are easy to neglect while putting efforts elsewhere. All the while excellent employees are deteriorating into numbers, and eventually just headcount on the team. It takes a concerted effort from the entire team to build a culture that expresses gratitude for those who contribute in the only way they can. And if you can’t think of something, perhaps you need to look closer.
I would like to end this article with a challenge for everyone reading: Get to know everyone on your team (employees, peers, and leaders), look for their intrinsic value to the team and express your gratitude to them for that value in a public forum. LinkedIn gives a great opportunity on your connection anniversary to express someone’s value, if your company doesn’t provide another way to share that value. By building this culture of gratitude, your team is more likely to feel like a team and will be more willing to engage.