Management Myth 36: You Have an Indispensable Employee


An employee may become indispensable through arrogance or happenstance. These employees can cause bottlenecks and often prevent others, as well as themselves, from learning and growing professionally. "Firing" these indispensable employees sets your team free to work even when the expert is not available.

Two development managers were arguing: "I need Tom on my team,” Chase said. “He has the specific knowledge I need. We’re not going to be able to release unless we get Tom on my team."

Pierce retorted, "You can't have him. He's working really well with my team. He likes my team. Forget it.”

They went back and forth for a couple of minutes.

Sharon, the VP of engineering interceded. “Can anyone else do that work, Chase?”

“No. Tom used to work on that area a couple of years ago. He trained several people, but they all left.”

Sharon cleared her throat. "Well, there you have it. Move Tom. He's the only person who can do that work."

“No, that’s crazy,” Pierce said. “Chase, your team can learn how to do the work if you give them a chance. You haven't even told them what it entails. You just keep promising them they don’t have to learn. You keep telling them ‘Tom is coming, Tom is coming.’ You’re preventing them from learning.

“I'll loan Tom to you for a week to help your team learn, but Tom likes this team."

"No. Tell Tom he has to move," Chase said.

Sharon nodded. “Pierce, we need this work done now. Tell Tom he has to move. He’s indispensable.”

Pierce shook his head. "No. You tell Tom he has to move; I'm not doing it. Both of you are being ridiculous. Are you telling me that if a person develops expertise and becomes ‘indispensable,’ they get stuck with the same job their entire professional lives here? Forget it.

“I’m leaving before I say anything else. Don't do this. Please, think about this for more than the two minutes you’ve spent on it.”

Pierce left.

Sharon turned to Chase. “Wait a minute. Let me ask you a couple of questions. Have you really been telling your team that Tom is coming and that they don’t have to try to work on this without him?”

Chase nodded. “It’s really intricate code. We don’t have the tests to support the work. It would be much faster with Tom.”

“Can your team learn how to do this work at some point?” Sharon wanted to make sure they were capable of doing the work.

“Well, I’m not sure. I think so. The problem is that this team is part of the move to another state and I’m not sure how many people will stay once we move.”

“Wait a minute. You want to yank Tom away from a team he likes and his current community?”

Chase had the grace to look sheepish. “Well, yes. But it’s for the good of the company.”

“No, it isn’t. Look, what we do is work, not slavery. If he’s this good, how long do you think he’ll actually stay here if we do change his team and ask him to move? Worse, we set a precedent for management idiocy. No. Rethink your options. Pierce is right. Do not move Tom. He can’t be indispensable to you.”

What’s Wrong with Indispensable Employees?
If you have bottlenecks in the organization, you have people who prevent others from learning. You have people who might be disruptors, who might be quite arrogant in their prevention of other people’s learning, although that’s not the case here. You have people who are stuck in their current roles, who are not able to learn or grow in any way, because they must be able to service the organization in their current role.

In addition, you will have a cost of delay for your projects. That’s because work will queue behind this person, until this person can get to it.

It’s not good for the person, the team, the project, or for management.

User Comments

Herb  Ford's picture

Excellent article... those "indispensable" employees are only indispensable in their minds if the managers allow them to be that one. Good Managers have to do more than just get the work done, they have to "manage" their team. Now that means actually looking at skillsets and giving employees the opportunity to learn new things. Having one person to "only" work on one thing does nothing but stop the growth of others.

January 15, 2015 - 5:13pm
Johanna Rothman's picture

Herb, you are correct. Indispensable people create bottlenecks (because only they can work on certain things), and prevent other people from learning. It's nuts.

January 16, 2015 - 9:34am
Alex Schroeder's picture

There are two kinds of being indispensible. One kind is the special knowledge, which is the source of all kinds of bottlenecks. Another thing is that there exist people which are truly indispensible in a project or team setup - by being all over the place, crossing boundaries of topics and being true communication multiplicators. In a team there are always to a certain kind leaders and followers - if the leaders go you either end up with just the followers, or worse, the followers follow the leader.

January 27, 2015 - 12:31pm
Johanna Rothman's picture

Alex, you do have a point. Every team needs someone who facilitates the collaboration and solves problems across the organization. Sometimes, those people are named "project manager," "Scrum Master," or "manager." Sometimes, they are technical leads. Regardless of title, they act as servant leaders. 

You are lucky to have one of them.

Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

January 27, 2015 - 1:53pm

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