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Commentary: Don’t be indispensable at work — it’s a terrible trap

What wouldn’t many of us give to have the unshakeable confidence of a Harrison Ford?

Unless it is the very start of your career, there is a horrible possibility that being indispensible at work makes it more difficult to develop or change your role, the author writes.

Unless it is the very start of your career, there is a horrible possibility that being indispensible at work makes it more difficult to develop or change your role, the author writes.

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Miranda Green

What wouldn’t many of us give to have the unshakeable confidence of a Harrison Ford?

Asked about the future of the Indiana Jones movies, maybe with someone else in the title role, the grizzled film actor reacted badly: “Don’t you get it? I’m Indiana Jones. When I’m gone, he’s gone. It’s easy.” 

The line offers a nice mix of menace and derision — it’s very Indy, in fact. 

But just as it’s a really bad idea for ordinary mortals to try our hero’s onscreen stunts at home, nor should we adopt the screen star’s après moi le déluge schtick in the office. (The phrase is translated as "after me, the deluge" in French, which is often used in the context of someone predicting chaos after they leave a place or job.) 

Because making yourself, or seeing yourself as, indispensable is a terrible trap. The internet teems with advice on how to become “the person no one can live without!” 

An example pinged into my inbox the same day I was chuckling over the Harrison Ford interview.

Like much in the career guru genre, it was promoting a strategy to deal with insecurity, both emotional and economic — after all, there’s a lot of both about.

The key anecdote concerned the one person to keep their job when the rest of a department was canned. 

Well, none of us wants to get canned, so let’s deal with the upsides first. 

Most of the popular content on how to be indispensable tends to echo a few nuggets: volunteer for everything, clear up the messes that horrify your colleagues, and become the “go-to-guy” — or gal — for solving problems for your bosses.

Of course, these aren’t terrible ideas.

If you’re trying to get noticed, taking on difficult tasks is a good plan. If you solve problems, you’re useful around the place, and since they pay you, that’s relevant (with luck it might also be rewarding).

Unless it is the very start of your career, there is a horrible possibility that you are making it more difficult to develop or change your role: some of those listicles and blog posts might be more honest with the title “Five, six or even 17 ways to get stuck in a job you’ve outgrown”. (Yes, I did find a list of 17 — and if you get to the end of that one without realising it’s all coming over a bit needy, you’re in worse shape than me.)

“It can be a bit of a self-undermining thing to do,” warns Monique Valcour, an executive coach who recognises the affliction: she has even seen cases where bosses sabotage someone’s ability to move on or out of an organisation if they become too useful. 

So if you feel a thrill at overhearing your manager say you can’t be spared to try something new, it is a definite red flag.

What about being known for your problem-solving? Yes it can be genuinely satisfying and foster loyalty. 

But “people can get caught up in the small scale, less valuable activities”, says Valcour, “and you need to be able to zoom out and get that strategic focus.” 

Professional services firms are notorious for hiring a personality type dubbed Anxious Achievers.

But Valcour sees many white-collar workers, even at very high levels, “fall into” the psychological trap of trying to make themselves indispensable for other reasons. 

“Maybe they are the sort of people who have a need for control, so they start to offload some of the jobs from their manager, who then becomes dependent,” she says.

If you are so busy making like an octopus with all the tasks you’ve volunteered for, how can you decide what you actually want? How can you delegate or take a break if you haven’t allowed your colleagues to understand your job and help you? 

A warning from Valcour: “Now you’re one of those people with a bluetooth headset on the sun-lounger still talking to the office.” Congratulations!

As for leaders who want to be so indispensable that they don’t bring on others who are capable of taking over — they can’t be deemed a success, even as they exit humming: “You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone.” 

And should success in any normal enterprise be dependent on one person? It seems more like a management failure.

Like an ageing silverback gorilla, Ford was keen to see off young pretenders and his chest-beating succeeded — Chris Pratt who was mentioned for the role says he’s now too scared. 

A new Indiana Jones film in production has the star still in the title role — no charming superannuated cameos for him. 

But you and I need to put down the bullwhip and take off the hat. We aren’t Indy and we aren’t indispensable. Nor should we want to be — it could stop us having our own adventures. FINANCIAL TIMES

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Miranda Green is deputy opinion editor at the Financial Times.


 

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work office culture office career

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