So, you think you are indispensable (ha ha, chuckle, chuckle, laugh, laugh)?
As the age-old saying goes, take a bucket of water, stick your finger in the water. The hole that remains when you remove your finger represents how indispensable you are.
Are You or Are You Not Indispensable
Intuitively we know everyone is dispensable, but some employees naturally bring more value to an organization than other employees. All businesses have organizational structures such that it is easier to operate the business without certain employees than it is without other employees.
Problems arise, however, when a business, either intentionally or accidentally, allow one employee a level of expertise, authority, or autonomy to make them virtually indispensable.
Every employee should strive to become so valuable to their employer that the business would struggle without their presence. Many employment consultants offer lists of how to become that type of employee. All of the suggestions are great, and I would advocate employees seek this information and follow it.
From my research, I found these suggestions to include:
- doing the hard work that matters to your company and not just the easy tasks,
- monopolize a skill that the company relies on,
- go the extra mile on each work assignment.
- have your work quality stand out,
- talk to your boss when the opportunity arises, and
- discover ways to develop and grow professionally.
Every employer would love for all their employees to follow these suggestions. There is no doubt that the organization would benefit.
Not Becoming Indispensable
I enjoy watching movies about people who are the only ones to know the combination to a safe full of cash, or the code to open an ancient tomb, or the location of a buried treasure chest. It’s fun to see how the plot thickens as others try to wrestle this information away from the hero so they can use this particular knowledge for their devious purpose.
I think we can all relate how enjoyable it would be to possess this certain knowledge that no one else knows, and everyone else wants to know. It’s human nature.
We also know, both from the movies and in real life, that being the one without the specific knowledge and trying to appease the one with this knowledge is no fun.
I’m reminded of my many auto repair encounters. I am not a mechanic, and I know nothing about cars or engines. When something is wrong with my car, I take it to a car repair shop. And invariably, it is some embarrassingly small thing that the mechanic knows to tweak which fixes my problem. The mechanic has the indispensable knowledge, and I’m the one without the specific knowledge trying not to look dumb.
From a business perspective, this same situation can occur. One employee can amass specific knowledge where everyone else needs this employee’s involvement before they can do their job. For example, only one person knows how to convert a specific set of data inputs, or is the only one trained on operating a specific piece of equipment, or is the only one licensed in a particular jurisdiction where business happens to be booming.
Indispensable and Dispensible At the Same Time
So, employees want to become indispensable, and employers cannot have indispensable employees.
My approach encourages employees to work hard to become indispensable. But I tell them they will never become indispensable, and I tell them why. We cannot have a bottleneck or logjam in our production centered around one person. If explained openly and honestly, most employees will understand.
This problem of keeping employees from becoming indispensable, however, is compounded in a small organization. But it is do-able.
To prevent one employee from becoming indispensable, you need to cross-train all your employees. To properly cross-train, you need to rotate project tasks so everyone gets to experience all the different project functions. Sure, some will be better at certain tasks than others, but that is the price of avoiding any one person from feeling indispensable.
Cross-training had added benefits other than simply keeping one employee from being indispensable. The most significant benefit is by having everyone do each other’s jobs, everyone will feel an equal part of the companies successes. And no one employee will be responsible for any failures.
Cross-training does have its downsides: time, redundancy in used energy, lack of resources, slowing core processes, etc. But the need to overcome the potential of having one indispensable employee easily overshadows any downside.
Mark 9:38-41, is a story where the disciples saw someone who was not part of Jesus’s ministry casting out demons in Jesus’s name. When the disciples brought this to Jesus’s attention, they expected Him to rebuke the offending person. Instead, Jesus says:
“Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward. (Mark 9:39-41)
Jesus was not worried that He and His disciples were the only ones able to do God’s work on earth. In fact, the more, the better; and all will receive their rewards.
Employees need to strive to be the kind of employee that their employer does not want to lose. Employers need to train their employees such that no single employee has mission-critical information.
Employees and employer are not in conflict in the conversation about being indispensable. Striving for and preventing indispensable employees produces a stronger and more competitive company.