“Be indispensable.” This commonly given career advice is hard to argue with. No doubt it sounds appealing these days, with a softening economy and layoffs once again dominating the business news. It is advice I have tried to follow for much of my own working life.
However, the idea is deeply flawed.
Being indispensable ought to be insurance against getting fired, and getting fired is horrible. Anyone who has been through even a single round of layoffs knows the anxiety it causes, the Hunger Games feeling of needing to out-compete one’s friends and colleagues. Indispensability seems like the best armor, but that armor can become a cage.
Illustration: Mountain People
Sometimes an effort to be indispensable turns an employee into a one-person bottleneck. If they are the single point of failure for a project, or the only person who knows how the system works, or the one employee the client is willing to talk to, it can be near impossible for them to leave — whether that is taking time off for vacation or advancing to a bigger job.
A boss might reluctantly think: “Janice has really earned a promotion, but we would need to hire two people to replace her,” or “It is not fair to keep sending Paul to deal with the angriest customers, but he is the only one who can talk them down.”
These employees are so valuable in their current jobs that promoting them would create an immediate problem for their managers. In a 2020 survey by LinkedIn, talent professionals said the biggest barrier to internal recruiting was bosses wanting to hold on to their best people. This might not be a problem if those employees are happy, but because so many organizations require a promotion in order to get a raise, indispensable people can quickly become underpaid.
If Janice had the opportunity to move into management, she could teach more employees to be as productive as she is, and maybe she would create 12 mini-Janices. With Paul’s hard-won knowledge of customer needs, perhaps he would be better off in a new role, helping to redesign the product so that it does not make people so angry.
However, their indispensability — and management’s shortsightedness — keeps them and the whole organization on the hamster wheel. The failure to promote people out of individual roles to the first rung of management is sometimes called a “sticky floor.” It especially hurts women and people of color, stunting their careers before they ever have a chance to run into a “glass ceiling.”
In organizations that lean too heavily on indispensability, valuable people become incentivized to leave to get recognition. A McKinsey study conducted this year found that more than 80 percent of role moves involved someone switching employers. Internal promotions remain rare. Most job changes they studied also involved people taking on substantially new skills, indicating that they had abilities their old employer had overlooked.
When these crucial employees eventually depart, sometimes it is the first time bosses and colleagues realize the true extent of all the work they handled. It can take months for the team to recover. A paper by Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Simon Jager and Interactive Advertising Bureau economist Jorg Heining (called “How substitutable are workers? Evidence from worker deaths”) concluded that when departed workers can be readily replaced, wages rise as their colleagues quickly pick up the slack. When workers are harder to replace, it has a negative effect that hurts wages for those left behind.
Instead of aspiring to be indispensable, workers and companies should recognize that it is better for everyone if employees are skilled and valuable, but interchangeable. This would mean an employee could leave for vacation with minimal fuss, knowing that their colleagues could handle anything that came up while they were absent. When workers can easily substitute for each other, their hours can be more predictable and more flexible.
Interchangeability can even help close the wage gap between men and women. A study of pharmacists by Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz found that increased substitutability among pharmacists — thanks to uniform training, computerized customer data and the rise of national chains — has brought the profession some of the highest hourly pay and one of the lowest gender pay gaps.
In an organization with skilled, substitutable employees, managers can redistribute work seamlessly when they realize that one person has taken on too much, or that another does not have enough to do. It is not a disaster if someone retires or quits. Customers are not upset if they do not get to talk to a particular person. Finally, when employees fill in for each other, fraud has fewer places to hide, which is why some big banks make vacations mandatory.
If indispensability is so costly, why is it valorized? Emotionally, it feels gratifying to be needed, and being indispensable could seem like good insurance against getting laid off.
However, that career insurance comes at a high premium. It is also not foolproof — consider the layoffs rippling through top US consulting and law firms in the past few weeks. Did any of those recently-fired professionals consider themselves substitutable when they were working yet another 80-hour week? More likely, they thought their efforts were uniquely essential.
Fungibility gets a bad rap. It is associated with being lower-value, or a cog in a larger machine.
However, there are a lot of highly skilled, highly paid jobs where workers can step into one another’s shoes. For example, pilots, tax accountants and software developers. Healthcare is also full of examples. If you need surgery, do you forgo pain medication until your preferred anesthesiologist is available?
In most sectors, indispensability is a habit, not a law of physics. Take editing, a profession I have been in for almost 20 years. I have worked at places where editors substitute for one another, filling in when one is away on vacation, and at places where editors do not. Although it somewhat hurts my ego to admit it, the copy turns out just as well when we stand in for each other.
Indispensability is not only costly, it is unnecessary. There are many other ways to impress one’s boss. Be diligent, meticulous, efficient, respectful, cheerful. Exceed expectations. Minimize errors. Take initiative. Figure out what your boss’s priorities are and make them your own. Let that be enough.
Sarah Green Carmichael is a Bloomberg Opinion editor. Previously, she was managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted “HBR IdeaCast.” This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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