I read Dwayne Phillips’ One of the Ultimate Compliments at Work and started thinking about being indispensable.
I wonder if people want to be indispensable or if they want to be missed.
I’m not a fan of indispensable people. They create bottlenecks in projects and cause delays. (See Change the Indispensable Employee Mindset.) And, even while I know that, we are all indispensable at times. Indispensability is not a crime.
I’m indispensable when I offer something specific and deliver it. I’m indispensable for the duration of that service.
And, we all leave these situations at some point.
We leave jobs. We quit, retire, or get laid off. I know of very few people who remain in the same job their entire life.
With any luck, we have been transparent about our work. In a sense, we’ve been keeping balls in the air, and we inform people about them.
I’ve certainly tried that. I succeeded in these situations:
- Someone else was ready to take my responsibilities. (Think of tossing a ball where someone will catch it.)
- No one else needed to take my responsibilities. (No one needs those balls anymore.)
- I wrote enough down about my responsibilities. That way, even if no one was there, the company didn’t need to call me later. (If someone needs the balls later, there’s enough data for them to proceed.
I have not always been successful about managing my indispensability. I have not succeeded in these situations:
- In volunteer organizations, where there was not enough turnover. The same people did the same jobs year after year. People forgot to be transparent about what they do and do not do.
- When the work itself needed to change, and people got stuck, thinking the work didn’t change.
- When the situation depended on me. The work was something that, literally, only I could do. Only I can be a parent to my children. Only I can write my books.
Almost everything else I do is a choice of some sort—to stay or to go.
That’s why I wonder if the real question is not about being indispensable, but “Will they miss me when I’m gone?”
The answer is always yes. Someone will miss you.
They will miss your sense of humor. Especially if you make puns and they claim they don’t like puns.
They will miss your drive or facilitation or whatever it is you bring to work.
They might not miss your challenges. My family joked that when I went away to college, the dinner table was much quieter. They were right. While they enjoyed the calm, they did miss some of my outrageous discussions. (Only some of it.)
You don’t have to be indispensable for people to miss you. You are unique. You don’t have to try to be indispensable at work. As Dwayne says in his essay, you might be a bad employee if they think you’re indispensable.
But, missing you when you’re gone? Oh, yes. They will. Even if they don’t like everything you do.
That is the question this week: Will they miss you when you’re gone?
- Where Do You Want Friction in Your Life?
- Are You Responsible To or For?