How being indispensable can harm your career

Jun 21, 2021

4 mins

How being indispensable can harm your career
Marlène Moreira

Journaliste indépendante.

Here’s a piece of advice you have probably heard from some well-intentioned people: “Make yourself indispensable.” And yet some who have made the mistake of doing that have ended up stuck in the same job for years on end. Even though they would like to change roles or even careers, they are repeatedly shut down by their manager. If this is you, how can you get yourself out of this Catch-22 situation?

Why do we need to feel indispensable?

“I believe the most important basic need is our need to be needed,” writes sociologist Steve Rose. “We want to feel like we play an important role, whether in an organization, a family, or the life of another.” And that makes sense: making yourself indispensable offers certain security, flatters your ego, and makes your existence feel less futile. Feeling valued at work leads to better physical and mental health, as well as higher levels of engagement and motivation, according to a study by the American Psychological Association. When you are going through a period of self-doubt, doesn’t hear your manager and colleagues sing your praises give you a burst of energy? But if it is perfectly normal to want to feel needed, how far are you prepared to go to get this recognition, and at what price?

When being indispensable keeps you from growing professionally

Knowing your job inside out has made you a key person within the team. While most companies will take advantage of this and promote you, others find it easier to leave you where you are. That has been the experience of Loic, an aeronautical engineer, who has been in the same job for seven years. “I applied several times for internal posts,” he said. “I had several interviews that went well but it always ended after the last stage [and] with no explanation. It made me wonder what was happening and I went to HR to insist they tell me . . . they finally admitted that one of my managers was blocking my requests. It didn’t ‘suit them’ to replace me.”

A lack of professional development is not the only risk to your career. Making yourself indispensable also means that you may end up doing the same things over and over again often staying in your comfort zone. Fabrice, an IT project manager for a bank, realized too late that as his colleagues had all gradually left, he was the only one who knew how to use software that was vital to the company. “I was very happy to have this knowledge and to not have to answer to anyone. That is, until I saw friends in IT learning new languages, new ways of working,” he said. “I’ve fallen behind in a way that isn’t impossible to catch up on, but my manager clearly prefers to hire young people for new projects.” He has found himself to be “unfireable”, but also unemployable, and that’s the curse of those who have become indispensable at their job, whether willingly or not.

The problem is that limiting the scope of your activity also means limiting your network and the opportunities that go with it. If you’re at the same job for years, you end up communicating with the same contacts and lose the opportunity to meet new people inside and outside your company. Fewer meetings lead to fewer professional opportunities. Can you see how it can become a vicious circle?

How can you regain control of your career?

Fortunately, being stuck in a job is rarely irreversible. So how do you avoid the trap of being indispensable in your current role? And how do you break free?

  1. Change the way your manager sees you
    Can you trust your boss? “When dealing with what I call an ‘unethical’ manager who doesn’t want to see you grow, I recommend taking it back a notch with your work. If your performance is less than stellar, you’ll be less useful to them and you’ll increase the chances that they’ll let you go,” said Isabelle Deprez, an executive coach and management expert.

  2. Find allies
    If your manager tells you that they can’t do without you, train someone to replace you. Or gradually delegate your tasks to other people. Deprez also recommends making a list of the employees in the company who could help you. “Find the people whose goals are similar to yours. Anyone who could benefit from your growth can be an ally in your negotiation, or open doors for you,” she said. This might be a young colleague on your team who would like your job and would gladly accept any work that you delegate to them. Or it might be a manager from another business unit who has a vested interest in seeing you join their team.

  3. Ask, insist, negotiate
    Too many employees won’t ask for change, or they stop asking when they are refused. Being frank and firm with your manager about your needs may improve the situation. But sometimes, a manager simply doesn’t have an opportunity to offer you. In which case, Deprez recommends negotiating: “Make a deal with them: targets, in exchange for a new opportunity. And get it in writing! Reorganization happens quickly and a manager––even a well-intentioned one––could easily end up leaving.”

  4. If your efforts are in vain, go up the chain
    The HR department rarely makes decisions about promotions and does not always have the power to intervene with a manager––even if they’re toxic. However, if you are a good employee, there are other solutions. “As a last resort, get in touch with your boss’s superior, or someone higher up,” said Deprez. “But be careful, this should be seen as a last resort, as it will not be appreciated by your manager.”

  5. Leave before it gets worse
    When you’ve tried everything, the last option is to look for a job elsewhere. That was Loïc’s solution. “The crisis has made the situation more delicate, but I have ambitions,” he said. “I don’t want to be stuck in this situation forever. I will no doubt change companies, even if it’s a shame as I could’ve stayed and thrived here.” Just don’t wait until you hit rock bottom. “Keep enough energy and talent to look elsewhere,” said Deprez. “Because the greatest risk in this situation is to lose confidence in your abilities or even your self-esteem.”

So rather than becoming “indispensable”, try to make yourself simply “essential”. What’s the difference? Those who are “indispensable” know how to make themselves useful, they are the face of that position but they are often the only one capable of carrying out their tasks. On the other hand, those who are “essential” try to make themselves unnecessary by sharing their know-how and knowledge with others without expecting anything in return. They will also be appreciated for the value they bring to others. In short, those who know how to make themselves essential generally succeed in shaping their career the way they wish.

Translated by Kalin Linsberg

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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