Change the Indispensable Employee Mindset

Years ago, I was the expert for two specific products in a small development organization. When it came time for my manager to divide up the work, I always got those products to add features to, or maintain. That was fine for a while, until I got bored. I went to my boss with a request for different work.

“Who will do the work if you don’t?” My boss was concerned.

“Steve or Dave will. They’re good. They can take over for me.” I knew my colleagues. They could do the work.

“But, they’ll have to learn what you do.”

“I know. I can take a few days to explain, if you want. I don’t think it will take a few days to explain. They’re smart. I’m still available if they have questions.”

“I don’t know. You’re indispensable where you are.”

I faced my boss and stood up. “No one is indispensable. And, if I am, you should replace me on those systems anyway. What are you going to do if I leave?”

My boss paled, and asked, “Are you planning to leave?”

“I don’t know. I’m bored. I want new work. I told you that. I don’t see why I can’t have new work. You need developers on these projects.” I named three of them. “Why do I have to stay doing work on the old stuff when I want to do new things. I don’t see why I should. Just because I’ve been doing it for a year is no reason to pigeon-hole me. No. I want new work. I’m not indispensable. You can hire someone and I can train that person if you want.”

My boss reluctantly agreed to let me stop working on the old systems and work on the new projects. I was no longer indispensable.

The problem with being an indispensable employee is that your options are limited. Your boss wants you to keep doing the same thing you’ve always done. Maybe you want that, too for now. The problem is that one day, you realize no one needs what you do. You have become such an expert that you are quite dispensable. You have the same year of experience for several years.

Instead of being indispensable, consider how to help other people learn your work. What do you want to learn next? You need to plan your career development.

What do you do if you’re a manager, and you have indispensable employees? “Fire” them.

I’m serious. When you have people who are indispensable, they are experts. They create bottlenecks and a cost of delay. If you need flexibility in your organization, you need people who know more than one area. You need teams who are adaptable and can learn quickly. A narrow expert is not what you need.

When I say “fire” people, I mean don’t let them work on their area of expertise alone. Create a transition plan and help the expert discover new skills.

Why should you do this? Because if not, people and projects across the organization decide they need that person. Sometimes with quite bad results.

This month’s management myth is based on a true story. The organization wanted an expert to change teams and move. All because of his expertise. That’s nuts. Go read Management Myth 36: You Have an Indispensable Employee.

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8 Comments

  1. Walter Underwood

    The first time I read that you should fire indispensable people, it was in “Up the Organization” by Robert Townsend. An amazing book.

    Also: “If a manager wants to run a stable project, he would do well to follow this simple maxim: If a programmer is indispensable, get rid of him as quickly as possible.” -Gerald M. Weinberg, “The Psychology of Computer Programming: Silver Anniversary Edition “. http://www.softwarequotes.com/showquotes.aspx?id=605

    Reply
    • johanna

      Walter, yes! When I put together the management myths book, you can bet I will reference these authors. For those of you who haven’t read these books, you should.

      Reply
    • johanna

      HI Jason, thanks. Maguire’s book is great. I have a copy. Thanks for including a link.

      When I explain this to people, I also include retirement, which is not exactly dying or quitting for another job.

      The more people know about all of the code, the easier it is to ask people to work in different areas, and for managers to manage the project portfolio. Everything is easier.

      Reply
  2. Giorgio Bellinger

    Fully agree Johanna and I would underline this situation as a high risk for employees themselves when they are too focused and for a very long time on the same topic; for them there could be the risk of being made redundant, for instance because of a sudden and “dramatic” change like a BPR that “misplaces” them. This is a paraphrase of your sentence: “your options are limited”…just an opinion.

    Reply
    • johanna

      Yes Giorgio, people may find it difficult to believe that they could go from being the “hero” because they are experts in something to “sorry, we have no job for you.” It has happened!

      Reply
  3. Developer Dude

    I have seen this a lot. I have been the person pigeon-holed and I still am to a degree – although I now have more control over what work I do. In my current gig, there are two people who are among the indispensables; myself and a colleague.

    I know from experience that employers rarely recognize these issues. Some talk about the “bus factor” and cross “training”, but rarely follow through on the obvious logical remedies. When it comes time to cut head count, it is jsut as often the experienced people who get let go as the inexperienced. One gig I worked at most of the highly paid experienced people were let go and the low paid inexperienced people kept – solely to make the numbers look better in the following quarter (the long term effects be damned).

    I am now the de-facto lead (not officially, but I have all the responsibility with no pay raise or recognition) after the previous “indispensable” was laid off after 12 years (*!*) on the same project at the same organization. The reasons for letting the person go were mostly political, but the long term effects were mostly good, although the short term effects were a lot of fall out and delays.

    Reply
    • johanna

      HI Dude, you are right. The short term effects are horrible. But, in the long term, everyone gets better.

      If you ever decide you want the recognition or pay for your current role, let me know. Maybe I should write a post that says how to get paid what you are worth.

      Reply

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  2. New PM Articles for the Week of January 5 – 11 - The Practicing IT Project Manager - […] Johanna Rothman explains why the “indispensable employee” is a problem for the team, for management, and for the indispensable…

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