Cold, Hard Fact: You're Not Indispensable at Work

Don Tennant
Slide Show

If the Job Fits

Five questions you should ask before accepting your next IT job.

Here's a news flash for you: As much as you may like to think you're indispensable at work, you're not. Nobody is. We're indispensable at home and elsewhere among the people who love us, but at work, each and every one of us can be replaced. It might be inconvenient, it might be expensive, it might even be disruptive. But make no mistake: There's not a single employee on the planet who's irreplaceable.


The trick, then, is to do whatever you can do to get as close to indispensable as possible. Obviously, being extremely good at what you do, and working extremely hard, are essential. But what else can you do to ensure that you're the kind of employee that your bosses value and want to keep around?


Quint Studer, a workplace consultant and author whose most recent book is "The Great Employee Handbook: Making Work and Life Better," has come up with some answers to that question that are worth sharing. Here are eight tips that, according to Studer, seasoned employees have learned over time, and that employees at any level can use to their advantage:


  • In the boss's mind, the ball is always in your court. Once the boss gives you an assignment, she may mentally mark it off her to-do list. She may even forget about it. It's up to you to do what you need to do to move it forward quickly. Never let yourself be the hold-up. Check in with the boss regularly on the project so that she doesn't have to bring it up. If you hit a roadblock and can't proceed until you get more information, let her know-just be sure you're not procrastinating. Sometimes people let a few missing details hold an entire project hostage. It's always better to complete chunks of work and fill in the missing details later. This is good for your workflow but it also reassures the boss that you're doing the best you can to keep the project moving. It relieves a lot of anxiety for her.
  • When you bring the boss a problem, always bring a solution. Leaders are like the rest of us: overloaded and overwhelmed. Yet, despite the boss's already massive to-do list, employees habitually add their problems to his pile. This is the least effective way to get things done. Think about it this way: If every time you got lost in the woods, a park ranger showed up to lead you out, you'd never learn to find the way out yourself. That's what many leaders do, and it creates a situation where employees stop trying to solve problems. They think: Someone up there has always figured it out before, so they will this time, too. But that's hard on the leaders and it's limiting for the company. When you bring a problem to the boss, also bring a solution. The boss will appreciate your initiative and creativity. Also, you're closer to the problem than he is so you can probably come up with a better solution. If all employees did this, the whole company would be stronger, more innovative, and more resilient.
  • There is one thing the boss cares about more than anything else. Figure it out and act on it. When you know what matters most to the boss, you can laser-focus on meeting her needs in this area. Let's say you've noticed negativity drives her crazy. She just can't stand griping and complaining. It puts her in a bad mood and makes her want to hide out in her office. Once you realize this, you can make an effort to frame your communications with her in a positive way. This is not sucking up and it's not a self-serving exercise. It's just being aware of your own behavior and tweaking it to create a productive working relationship with the boss. It's good for her, it's good for you, it's good for everybody.
  • Knowing the why makes all the difference. If you're not sure what it is, ask. Let's say your company implements a major change in the way you capture and process customer feedback. No one likes the new system. It's harder and more time consuming than the old way, and you've noticed your coworkers seem resentful. The problem is that no one told them why the system changed. When companies implement change, there's almost always a reason why. But leaders may not always explain that reason, and people almost always assume the worst. Instead of getting behind what seems like an arbitrary new rule, they resist it. If this happens at your company, ask about the why. You can tell others what you find out. Not every company understands the value of transparency, but sometimes one employee taking the initiative to ask why can change that.
  • There's no substitute for being liked. Do you greet people with a smile each morning? Do you bring breakfast for everyone once in a while? Do you say happy birthday? Do you offer to take their trash when you're taking yours out? Do you congratulate coworkers when they have a big win? There are a million little ways to contribute to the "emotional bank account" at work. These deposits have a big, big impact-and they reduce the pain of the inevitable withdrawals. Go out of your way to make people happy when you can and they'll forgive you when you make a mistake. These things are not that hard to do; it's just that we don't always think to do them. When you start looking for ways to be a positive force in your coworkers' lives, you'll be amazed by how many there are-and what a difference they make.
  • Last-minute requests can derail your day. Retrain chronic offenders. Being a great employee means executing well, meeting deadlines, and, in general, protecting your own "brand." Yet, it also means stepping in and helping others when they need your expertise. It's not always easy to walk the tightrope between these two realities-especially when coworkers are constantly asking you for "five minutes of your time" (which really means 30 minutes or even longer). When you're good at what you do, everyone wants a piece of you. That's good, but it can also lead others to take advantage of you, even if they don't mean to. If you don't stop last-minute requesters, your own work will eventually suffer. Hold up the mirror and recognize your role in the problem. What we permit, we promote. Usually, people find they need to be more open with coworkers about how long a task takes and how much notice is needed to get it done. When you educate others, you not only relieve your own burden; you help them do their work better.
  • It's best to resolve coworker issues one-on-one. This is a tough one for many employees, because we tend to avoid confrontation. Yet taking a conflict to the boss, who then must discuss it with her boss, who may then have to get an HR rep involved, is time consuming and unproductive. That doesn't mean there aren't times when it's best to go through official channels and involve HR. Certainly, there are. Yet many times an issue with a coworker can be solved with a face-to-face adult conversation. Confronting others may not always be easy, but it's a necessary part of clear and productive communication. It builds healthy work relationships and shows a true sense of ownership.
  • "I'm sorry" are two of the most powerful words in the English language. We all make mistakes. It's what we do afterward-after we've dropped the ball or missed a deadline or got caught in the act of gossiping about a coworker-that truly determines our character as employees and coworkers. And it's what ultimately determines whether the people we work with want to help us out, or want to help us out the door. Apologizing shows one's vulnerability, and vulnerability is a powerful trait. People fear they'll be rejected if they show weakness or admit that they failed. The opposite is true. It actually makes people like us. It shows we're human, just like them.

Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Mar 21, 2012 6:09 AM Jake_leone Jake_leone  says:

Google recently acquired a company called "Milk".  For all the whining that Google does about needing engineers, the only people they laid off were there engineers?

"Interestingly, among the people on the Milk team who were laid off were the company's technical engineers. Google was more interested in the design and product development team.

For Google, it doesn't really need more technical knowhow. "

Ok so Google doesn't need an more Visa's either.

Why is Obama listening to the liars?  (reference to the casual dinner he had with the fat tech execs last year).

Mar 21, 2012 11:05 AM M. Reilly M. Reilly  says:

By far one of the best advice articles I've ever read. And I've made every mistake in the book, so I should know! Thank you, Don!


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