Dangers of Indispensability

Knowing When to Say No

By Margaret Vaughan

In the coming months, as companies reopen offices, a reassessment will occur. I’m not talking about upper management’s reassessment of assets and resources; that, for the most part, has already been done or is in continuum. I speak, rather, of our own reevaluation of our workspace, our coworkers, and our tenure.

The twin blows of the Covid-19 virus and the precipitous drop in oil prices have hit the breakbulk community hard. While there are still projects ongoing and others beginning, a significant number have either been scaled back, postponed, or mothballed entirely. The resources (read: people) needed for those projects have, quite naturally, become unnecessary and have either been furloughed or dismissed. The assessment is about our own situation; how long will I be kept on, or for those released into an uncertain job market, where do I go from here?

In either case there may be a common reaction and that is to become indispensable. Because of the scale-down in personnel, those remaining employees may decide to take on other tasks in addition to their own, to assume more responsibility for the project’s success, to become the “go-to person.” In other words, to be seen as indispensable to both the project and to the company, thus ensuring future selection for future work. I am all for multitasking and cross training. However, being indispensable has one major drawback. Being indispensable means you are unpromotable.

Think about it. Because you want/need to maintain your employment, you have taken on the work of several positions which you will perform to the very best of your abilities. You’ll be seen as versatile, flexible and proficient in several areas. The company will also overlook you for any other positions or promotions. Why? Because you are too valuable where you are, plus you are saving the company quite a bit of money by having one person working the desks of two or three others. For your part, you know you are valued and that your position in the company is secure and they won’t get rid of you. You also know that it’s not right that other people, not nearly as competent as you, are being promoted ahead of you. What you don’t know is why. The answer is that by virtue of your self-created indispensability you have made yourself unlikely to be promoted.

During times like these, it’s important that everyone pitches in and does whatever they can to help the company succeed. If the company fails, everyone is out of a job so you do whatever you can. But as soon as the crisis has passed, you need to speak up and tell the company to unload from you the burden of the additional workload you shouldered during that time. They need to know that as the company’s work increased, so has your workload and you – as good as you are – cannot continue to perform as well as you have. You will be seen as valued, maybe even perhaps invaluable. And promotable. 

Margaret J. Vaughan has more than 30 years’ experience in all facets of supply chain management.

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