Here’s why you don’t need to be irreplaceable at work

Sep 07, 2022

6 mins

Here’s why you don’t need to be irreplaceable at work
Laetitia VitaudLab expert

Future of work author and speaker

Cliches are common in business, but some can be hurtful or downright confusing. “Everyone is replaceable” is one of those. There is a world of a difference between telling someone their work can be covered if necessary and implying that they’re free to leave whenever they want. So, even with the best of intentions, should this phrase ever be used in the workplace? Isn’t it untrue – and possibly dangerous – for individuals and for companies alike? To answer these questions and others, our Lab expert Laetitia Vitaud takes a closer look.

Does hearing they are “replaceable” make anyone happy? In Western culture, we’ve been spoon-fed individualism since we could talk, brought up on the idea that finding and expressing our uniqueness is key. We’re reluctant to submit to the constraints of an organization. We aspire to be free from the shackles of outmoded working practices and to follow our own unique paths. We want to leave our mark on the world and be as irreplaceable at work as we are at home.

If a manager says, “Everyone is replaceable,” they’re probably trying to get someone to do something they don’t want to do, such as even more work. They may say: “If you aren’t happy, ten others are waiting to take your place.” It’s a way of reminding you that they have the power, not you. So it’s hardly surprising that it feels like a threat; it devalues your unique contribution and the quality of your work, suggesting that somebody more cooperative can be found if you won’t do what’s being asked of you.

It’s all part of the balance of power inherent in a relationship of subordination. Your salary, workload and level of compliance are being renegotiated daily – without you even realizing what’s going on. Workers put a lot of pressure on themselves to give more, work harder or do better, all while striving to stand out. Trying to be irreplaceable can be dangerous, however. It’s a direct path to burnout or even an early grave. When being “always on” and working hard become the norm, then “Everyone is replaceable” takes on more weight.

Taylorism, or the history of ‘replaceability’

Frederick Taylor, an American mechanical engineer, left a lasting impression on the world of work by designing a system to organize industrial operations. It was based on the horizontal and vertical division of tasks: each person has their own task and the decision-makers aren’t the ones performing the tasks. He wanted to create an organization that could make production completely reliable. Standardized, fragmented tasks are **the founding principles of this “scientific” work organization method that makes workers replaceable**.

He was obsessed with codifying the perfect gestures or actions of each moment of industrial production. For each type of worker in a factory, Taylor’s one best way described the quickest, most efficient series of gestures that could be classified and replicated – much like a computer program that runs indefinitely. This meant that any task could be done by anyone, as long as they had a few hours of training. Individuals have nothing to add. They simply recreate a series of defined actions, which have been given to them by someone who knows better.

Taylorism makes workers replaceable because industrial machines need to run regularly and for as long as possible if a business is to maximize profits. Much like a war needs cannon fodder, these machines need human controllers. Individuals with their own ideas are too much of a risk when it comes to reliable production.

Taylor openly criticized the way work was organized to rely on professions, meaning the specific skills of autonomous, responsible, and creative workers. Instead of professions, Taylor preferred to invent “posts,” in other words, a series of tasks or gestures that could be carried out in the same way by whoever was in position at the time. “You’re not here to think” was commonly heard by workers in “posts.”

Neither the workers nor the unions were happy about this, they knew it made workers replaceable and lessened their negotiating power. Workers on strike were told, “Everybody is replaceable” or “There are thousands of less-demanding, poorer workers who are ready to do this job for less.” This put an end to many strikes, as there were so many unemployed ready to work for less. Marx called this the reserve army of nature.

Replaceable worker models over time

Nobody dreams of being nothing more than an interchangeable cog in a system that crushes you. The Taylor model has never been an attractive proposition for workers, as professional accomplishments are ignored. Working at a frenetic pace, repeating the same mechanical gestures over and over, doing nothing original – all while having the threat of being replaced by someone else hanging over you? Thanks, but no thanks.

After Taylor, three new models emerged.

  • Fordism. Faced with difficulties recruiting reliable workers who would be loyal, Ford had the smarts to understand that Taylorism alone wasn’t enough. He added good pay and a number of benefits and protections to his offer. With job security, rights to retirement, and social protection worthy of its name, the pill of mind-numbing work was easier to swallow. The Taylorism model was still used for work organization. But despite being replaceable in terms of skill, workers were able to create a system that made them irreplaceable. Supported by powerful trade unions, they created barriers to entry by newcomers who might become competitors, a progression system according to seniority, and used the threat of strikes and blocking production to achieve their ends. It was this financial, social, and political opposition that transformed an interchangeable cog into an irreplaceable stakeholder in the economy.
  • The race to the top. The first model worked well during the post-World War 2 economic boom and in the industrial world. In the services industry, variants of Taylorism were also applied so that workers could be replaced more easily without the equivalent opposition policies in place. Then the race to the top took over. The dream of a career with upward movement nourished the desire to be irreplaceable and ascend in the hierarchy. In offices, there’s no collective negotiation because workers dream of promotion and see peers as their competition. By definition, not everyone will get to the top of the hierarchy, but the dream keeps the pursuit of uniqueness alive.
  • A new skilled worker model. In a digital economy where certain professions are seen as “creative,” the standardization and division of tasks is even less important, especially when it comes to innovating, transforming, and interpreting huge amounts of data for constant new versions. Cultivating expertise, knowledge, and creativity is an ideal way for skilled workers to increase their desirability and negotiating power. Being a skilled worker is about autonomy, responsibility, and creativity. It requires personal growth and strong skills that can neither be automated nor easily replicated. Taylor’s “one best way” no longer has the edge: we prefer the idea of leaving a unique mark on our work, just like an artist does. As Fordist counterparts have faded away, security for workers lies in developing their skills.

What are the risks of being irreplaceable?

It might seem obvious that if you want to be paid well and to have opportunities to grow within your role, it’s better to be irreplaceable than interchangeable – but that’s risky too. If you cannot be replaced, that implies you are the only person able to perform certain tasks, and that nothing happens when you’re on vacation, sick or exhausted. Being irreplaceable means you will have a high workload and the stress to go with it.

“We can’t manage without you!“ This might sound like a compliment, but perhaps it is simply the best way to enslave an employee? This is particularly relevant to those preparing for parental leave. It’s hard to tell your company about an upcoming addition to the family when the question of being replaced is problematic. A replacement must be recruited and trained, which represents a cost for your employer. The fear that your boss will complain about the extra expense can make things harder than it should.

But it’s not just about vacation or leave, your whole working life is at stake. If no one can replace you, you have to be reachable at all times, you can’t switch off completely in the evening, at the weekend, or when you’re on vacation. Projects can’t advance without you. This is a fast route to disenchantment and burnout. Flattered by your own importance, you take no note of the hours you’re working and press on without complaint.

For me, this is a bit like Moms being the only ones who can do what they do. Are childcare workers, nannies, and another parent or guardian not up to the job? Is this how poor investment in childcare is justified?

Do we really want to be told we are irreplaceable? It’s important that our work is valued, but also our workload and how it is shared within a team. If every member of the team is irreplaceable, then there’s too much work for the actual people in it, or perhaps the goals being set for the team are unrealistic. In this type of situation, no one can take a vacation without increasing their colleagues’ workloads.

At work, no one should be irreplaceable – but that doesn’t mean that we perform the same actions without any soul or creativity! There isn’t one single way to carry out most tasks. Being replaced in your role or delegating tasks to others means accepting people’s individuality, that there are other ways of doing things and that the world can keep turning without you. All businesses must be open to letting their staff ask for, and take, vacation time or sick leave without having to worry about ending up overloaded with work on their return.

Translated by Debbie Garrick

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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