“Be indispensable.” This commonly given career advice is hard to argue with. No doubt it sounds appealing these days, with a softening economy and layoffs once again dominating the business news. It’s advice I’ve tried to follow for much of my own working life.
But the idea is deeply flawed.
Yes, being indispensable ought to be insurance against getting fired, and getting fired is horrible. Anyone who has been through even a single round of layoffs knows the anxiety it causes, the “Hunger Games”-ish feeling of needing to out-compete one’s friends and colleagues. Indispensability seems like the best armor — but that armor can become a cage.
Sometimes an effort to be indispensable turns an employee into a one-person bottleneck. But if they’re the single point of failure for a project, or the only person who knows how the system works, or the one employee the client is willing to talk to, it can be near impossible for them to leave — whether that’s taking time off for vacation or advancing to a bigger job.
A boss might reluctantly think, “Janice has really earned a promotion, but we’d need to hire two people to replace her,” or “It’s not fair to keep sending Paul to deal with the angriest customers, but he’s the only one who can talk them down.”
These employees are so valuable in their current jobs that promoting them would create an immediate problem for their managers. In a 2020 survey by LinkedIn, talent professionals said the biggest barrier to internal recruiting was bosses wanting to hold on to their best people. This might not be a problem if those employees are happy, but because so many organizations require a promotion in order to get a raise, indispensable people can quickly become underpaid.
Say Janice were given the opportunity to move into management — maybe she could teach more employees to be as productive as she is, maybe she’d create 12 mini-Janices. With Paul’s hard-won knowledge of customer needs, perhaps he’d be better off in a new role, helping to redesign the product so it doesn’t make people so angry.
But their indispensability — and management’s shortsightedness — keeps them and the whole organization on the hamster wheel. This failure to promote people out of individual roles to that first rung of management is sometimes called a sticky floor, and it especially hurts women and people of color, stunting their careers before they ever have a chance to run into a glass ceiling.
In organizations that lean too heavily on indispensability, valuable people become incentivized to leave to get recognition. A 2022 McKinsey study found that more than 80% of role moves involved someone switching employers; internal promotions remain rare. Most job changes they studied also involved people taking on substantially new skills, indicating that they had abilities their old employer had overlooked.
When these crucial employees eventually depart, sometimes that’s the first time bosses and colleagues realize the true extent of all the work they handled. It can take months for the team to recover. A paper by MIT economist Simon Jäger and IAB economist Jörg Heining (called “How Substitutable Are Workers? Evidence from Worker Deaths”) concluded that when departed workers can be readily replaced, wages rise as their colleagues quickly pick up the slack. When workers are harder to replace, it has a negative effect that hurts wages for those left behind.
Instead of aspiring to be indispensable, workers and companies should recognize that it’s better for everyone if employees are skilled and valuable but interchangeable. This would mean an employee can leave for vacation with minimal fuss, knowing that her colleagues will handle anything that comes up while she’s out. When workers can easily substitute for each other, their hours can be more predictable and also more flexible.
Interchangeability can even help close the wage gap between men and women: A study of pharmacists by Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz found that increased substitutability among pharmacists — thanks to uniform training, computerized customer data and the rise of national chains — has brought the profession some of the highest hourly pay and one of the lowest gender-pay gaps.
In an organization with skilled, substitutable employees, managers can redistribute work seamlessly when they realize that one person has taken on too much, or that another doesn’t have enough to do. It’s not a disaster if someone retires or quits. Customers aren’t upset if they don’t get to talk to a particular person. And when employees fill in for each other, fraud has fewer places to hide; that’s one reason some big banks make vacations mandatory.
If indispensability is so costly, why do we valorize it? Emotionally, it feels gratifying to be needed. And being indispensable might seem like good insurance against getting laid off. But as we’ve seen, that career insurance comes at a high premium. Nor is it foolproof — consider the layoffs rippling through top consulting and law firms over the past few weeks. Did any of those recently fired professionals consider themselves substitutable when they were pulling yet another 80-hour week? More likely, they thought their efforts were uniquely essential.
Fungibility gets a bad rap. We associate it with being lower-value, with being a cog in a larger machine. But there are a lot of highly skilled, highly paid jobs where workers can step into one another’s shoes: pilots, tax accountants, software developers. Health care is full of examples. If you need surgery, do you forgo pain medication until your preferred anesthesiologist is available?
In most sectors, indispensability is a habit, not a law of physics. Take editing, a profession I’ve been in for almost 20 years. I’ve worked at places where editors substitute for one another, filling in when one is out on vacation, and at places where editors do not. Although it somewhat hurts my ego to admit it, the copy turns out just as well when we stand in for each other.
Indispensability isn’t only costly, it’s unnecessary. There are many other ways to impress one’s boss. Be diligent, meticulous, efficient, respectful, cheerful. Exceed expectations. Minimize errors. Take initiative. Figure out what your boss’s priorities are and make them your own. And let that be enough.