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.

What Do You Do with Indispensable Employees?
The first thing you do with indispensable employees is to “fire” them. You don’t have to actually fire them, but you have to make them dispensable, not bottlenecks in the organization. There is no reason for anyone to be the one person that everyone depends on.
How can you “fire” an indispensable employee? If you see an employee falling into this role and you have enough time, suggest that your expert does not work alone while you organize a one-week transition plan.

If the indispensable employee works as part of a team, a one-week transition period might be sufficient. However, if the employee works alone or one-on-one with one other person, one week is not enough time to transition all the work. While one week might not be enough time to finish a handoff, it is enough time to start a handoff.

If the team can’t learn everything in one week—and don’t be surprised if they can’t—make sure team members decide how long to learn on their own before they call the expert for help. Do they work as a team for three or four hours? Or, will it be a day? Have the team and the expert decide together what is reasonable.

Over time, the team should call the expert less. If after a month or two the team still calls the expert often, the expert can make herself unavailable for longer periods of time. Instead of responding in a day or so, the expert would respond in a couple of days, and then three days. The idea is that the team still has the expert available, but not easily available. The team needs to learn how to work together to solve problems.

Consider the Growth Mindset
In the growth mindset made famous by Carol Dweck in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, people realize that they can learn. People realize they are not just a product of their current talents and skills; they can learn at any time and get better. And as a result, people can coach themselves into giving better results.

If managers and the people on the learning team know about the growth mindset, they can apply it to themselves. If managers have the growth mindset about their employees, they realize that they, the managers, have the job of creating an environment in which people can learn. That means that as soon as they have solo experts, the managers have to work to reduce the possibility of an indispensable employee.

Don’t Fall Into the Scarcity Thinking Trap
If you think you only have one alternative—to maintain that indispensable employee where he or she is—reconsider. Indispensable people are a product of scarcity thinking. If you fall into the scarcity-thinking trap, you believe there are winners and losers, that you only have one alternative, that work is a zero-sum game. Don’t believe it.

You have many alternatives to the idea of indispensable employees. What if that employee retired and went to Fiji to sip umbrella drinks? What would you do then?

Address the issue of your indispensable employees now, before they all do retire to Fiji or win the lottery. You want to prepare now.

Read more of Johanna's management myth columns here:

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

About the author

StickyMinds is a TechWell community.

Through conferences, training, consulting, and online resources, TechWell helps you develop and deliver great software every day.