Have you ever caught yourself thinking “I should become indispensable at work to ensure my job security”?
You’re not alone. It is a human self-preservation reflex. We all want to be recognized as someone who brings a unique and unmatched value to the company. However being indispensable differs from being essential not only in definition but also in how to reach this state. Let’s explore those differences.
Making yourself indispensable is dangerous
I’ve been working in web software development since 2001, and I met plenty of people who became indispensable, sometimes on purpose, sometimes involuntarily.
A classic example is a developer who worked for a long time on a system that is progressively phasing out but is still in use. The rest of the company migrates towards new technology, but you need someone to maintain that legacy system since some clients are still using it.
The indispensable often volunteers nicely
There is always a volunteer who is comfortable with the legacy technology and that sees this context as an opportunity to bring unique value to the organization. This person concentrates on this work, taking care of all the demands and tasks coming his way as he becomes the sole master of the archaic system.
One day, this developer wants to go on vacation, but we realize that no one else can cover for him. That’s usually the first red flag. But some companies are still comfortable taking this risk. From that moment, things will depend on the decisions that will be taken. If the developer does nothing, he becomes a danger to the company. If the company does nothing, it becomes a danger to itself.
If the developer quits, the company can’t provide services to its clients anymore. If he stays, taking vacations will become more and more a nightmare, always preceded by very painful and urgent knowledge transfer. I’d say that this kind of situation can equally be created by both employees and companies. On purpose, or not.
The indispensable sometimes plans his act
From time to time, someone will specifically desire to become indispensable. By withholding and monopolizing information, refusing to work with others, and being very territorial with his work, his project or his product. He is a self-proclaimed expert in the matter. He will sometimes go to the point of working in very complex ways on purpose and avoid documenting anything so that others can’t do his job.
It goes without saying that it is a very unhealthy practice that will cause an impact proportional to the employee’s ego. The danger doesn’t only reside in the know-how, but also overflows in the mindset. I could absolutely not blame a company for lancing the boil and letting this person go, and then heal the wound with something else than an adhesive bandage.
The indispensable forces the company to take a decision
A company that becomes aware of the situation has a few options: coaching the employees to train one another on the archaic technology, create a rotation of employees to take care of maintenance, or simply get rid of the obsolete technology.
That last option can hurt. The employee who dedicated his last experiences to an outdated system suddenly brings much less value, and there’s no guarantee that the organization holds its employees very dear. It could very well get rid of its expert along with the old technology. It is certainly questionable, especially if the company heavily contributed to painting the employee into a corner. Be that as it may, most companies will at least consider this easy and unfortunate solution.
The indispensable brings negative value
Those who make themselves indispensable on purpose are an imminent danger to their own job and to the company they work for. Be it voluntarily or not, it is not a behavior that is viable in the long term and needs to be corrected since nobody will gain anything by waiting for the situation to go from bad to worse. The value of the indispensable is determined by how much it would cost if they leave.
Making yourself essential is desirable
The fundamental difference with the portrait drawn above is that while the indispensable wants to become useful to an extreme, the person trying to become essential aims at being useless. The essential person believes they should share their know-how and social skills with as many people as possible.
The essential person is altruistic
One must understand that essential people are fundamentally altruistic: they do what they do because it is the right thing to do. They generally expect nothing in return. Helping others, for them, is not an effort but a habit that’s encoded in their DNA. They share their knowledge because they consider that if it’s useful to them, it will be useful to everyone.
The essential person is a leader
There are lots of style of leadership. But the essential person is what we call an everyman leader. Someone who makes the extra effort to help whoever needs it. You know, this person who walks the extra mile to make someone else’s life easier? The essential person is an agent of change, no matter the place, the role and does it every day. Very often, an employee will immediately ask for help from the essential person rather than his manager when facing a problem. This leader makes sure to stay available for the good of everyone.
And, most of all, essential people know that whatever needs to be done, nothing they do is about themselves.
The essential person aims at being useless
It is usually the hardest part to understand for some. The essential person always aims for being completely useless. The goal is to help others help themselves. The essential person wishes to be who others grow beyond. Knowledge and skills are transferred to others so that they won’t need help anymore. The essential person creates other leaders. Once others are autonomous, they will still go towards the essential person when facing new problems.
The essential person brings positive value
The essential person, far from being a danger to the organization, inspires others to become better and surpass themselves and eases the daily pains by helping whoever needs it. To the point of creating new opportunities to help their surroundings with things, they had no idea they needed help with. The essential person is last on the list of “people to let go in time of crisis”. The value of the essential person is determined by what they bring to others.
Update (May 21st, 2018)
This article was the topic of a podcast by Hacking Your Leadership on May 21st, 2018
(Episode 74: Do you know the difference between essential employees and indispensable employees?)
Access Hacking Your Leadership podcast sur iTunes.
Access Hacking Your Leadership podcast sur PodBeans.
Owner of Primos Populi, partner and coach at Moabi. As a former manager, I prefer to use a “people first, the rest will follow” kind of approach. My favorite topics are organizational culture, safe work environments, and lowering the center of gravity of the decision making process. I cultivate people’s awesomeness.