(By Chrissy Scivicque)
“For those unlucky enough to force themselves into a perceived status of irreplaceability, that’s when things really get hard. Truly being irreplaceable means you’re stuck exactly where you are. You can’t move up, because of the uniquely you-shaped hole you’ve created for yourself. No one wants to deal with figuring out how else to fill it. You’re needed exactly where you are today, so growth is out of the question.“
The idea of being “irreplaceable” at work is one I’ve always found confusing and counterproductive. After all, if there’s one thing I know for certain, it’s that no one is irreplaceable. Sure, it’s great to be a vital contributing member of the team. But, let’s be honest: If you hit the lotto tomorrow – or, God forbid, the big red bus hits you – your company will survive without you.
While your friends and family certainly can’t replace you, your company can and will. Your replacement might not be an exact replica of you, but – rest assured – she’ll do.
Beyond that, the workplace is a dynamic environment where a whole host of things, from technology to outsourced labor, are constantly competing to replace you. At any moment, for reasons outside your control, your company may decide that a robot or a nice young man in India can do your job. Maybe the replacement won’t do your job as good as you, but good enough. Blinding yourself to this reality isdangerously naive.
Even with all the evidence to the contrary, many professionals fall victim to the belief that being irreplaceable at work is the goal. The problem with this isn’t just its impracticality as outlined above. Here are three more reasons to avoid the misguided advice to make yourself irreplaceable at work:
1. Trying to be irreplaceable leads to self-defeating behavior. Some professionals go to dramatic lengths in an effort to create a perception of irreplaceability. They hoard knowledge and refuse to share their expertise with others. They claim certain tasks simply can’t be done by anyone else.
Before you know it, these folks are refusing to take sick days and unable to take any extended vacation for fear that, without their presence, the delicate house of cards they’ve created will tumble. This is a clear recipe for burnout. Plus, managers are quick to recognize such behavior and the organizational risk it poses.
2. Believing you’re irreplaceable inspires an attitude of false security and inflated self-importance.The danger of trying to make yourself irreplaceable is heightened when you actually believe it’s working. Professionals who think they’re so vitally important can easily convince themselves that the rules don’t apply to them. Nothing they do or don’t do can jeopardize their standing. They believe they’re immune to the uncertainty of the average employee because, after all, no one can replace them. This leads to a dangerous level of arrogance and complacency.
Truth be told, there’s only so much anyone can get away with, even when you’re important. Eventually, people get tired of accommodating egos. They realize that someone else can do what you do without all the baggage. Just ask Charlie Sheen, former star of the popular sitcom “Two and a Half Men.” He learned this lesson the hard way.
3. Being irreplaceable pigeonholes you exactly where you are. For those unlucky enough to force themselves into a perceived status of irreplaceability, that’s when things really get hard. Truly being irreplaceable means you’re stuck exactly where you are. You can’t move up, because of the uniquely you-shaped hole you’ve created for yourself. No one wants to deal with figuring out how else to fill it. You’re needed exactly where you are today, so growth is out of the question.
Plus, in the constantly evolving working world, needs are constantly changing, too. There’s no guarantee that the perfectly you-shaped hole you fill today will be the exact hole that needs to be filled tomorrow. If you’re so locked into this one spot, you may not be viewed as a transferrable asset. Once the need is gone, so are you.
What to Do Instead
So, what’s the alternative? I’m not suggesting you make yourself easily replaceable. I’m simply asking that you acknowledge the stark reality of the modern workplace. Establish yourself as a critical component of the team, but stay right-sized in your thinking. Prepare for uncertainty, and always look for opportunities to grow and expand the shape of the hole you fill.
The underlying spirit of the advice to “make yourself irreplaceable” is simply to be valuable, work hard and find your niche. You can still do all of these things, but don’t take the idea literally, or you’ll be sorely disappointed.