Please Stop Telling People to Make Themselves “Indispensable” at Work

A friend of mine recently sent me this article about a “test” Elon Musk supposedly gave his assistant of twelve years, Mary Beth Brown, when she asked him for a significant raise. According to Musk’s biographer, Ashlee Vance, Musk’s response to Brown’s request was to tell her to take two weeks off, during which time he would take over her responsibilities to see if she was “critical to his success.” Vance claims that when Brown returned, Musk told her he no longer needed her.

The anecdote, which Musk has publicly denied and dismissed as “nonsense,” has nonetheless been widely circulated as a great example of why it’s so important to make oneself “indispensable” at work. I’m here to tell you why that’s bullshit.

The lesson of this probably-fictitious parable, according to Fortune Magazine, is that Brown should have been more focused on making herself indispensable. That way, when Musk took over her duties for two weeks, he would have been completely overwhelmed and realized that she was, in fact, critical to his success. She would have gotten that raise instead of losing her job, and Musk would have been secure in the knowledge that he was getting his money’s worth out of his faithful assistant. Happy ending for all!

All you see is the duck gliding

This is off-base on multiple levels. First off, much of the work that assistants do is invisible, emotional labor. This is what I call the “deep work” of assistance, and whether or not executives are consciously aware of it doesn’t make it any less valuable, or any less critical to their overall success. This includes labor that one simply cannot do for oneself. For example, you can’t surprise yourself with your favorite coffee drink when you’re stuck at the office working on a tough project, nor can you step out of your own brain and offer a fresh perspective on a tricky problem you’re working through.

Though these small acts of stress-reduction may not feel mission-critical in the moment, they add up over time, creating a strong foundation of emotional support from which an executive can feel safe taking on the kinds of tough challenges that really move the needle from a business perspective. To measure an assistant’s worth based purely on the parts of her job that one can easily take over while she is away betrays a total misunderstanding of the role and its actual value.

Bringing value, even when you don’t know it

Second, had this assistant made herself truly indispensable to her boss, to the point where he could not function without her for two weeks, she would never be able to take a vacation again. That’s bad news not just for her, but for the organization at large. What happens when Miss Indispensable wins the lottery and moves to Fiji? They’re screwed, that’s what. No single contributor should have to take on the burden of being that critical to the success of an executive or an organization. That’s a recipe for resentment and, ultimately, disaster.

Finally and most importantly, employees who are focused on making themselves indispensable are not necessarily focused on what is best for the team, or for the customers. They’re focused on keeping their job, at all costs.

Here’s a counter-anecdote, from a small town in Nevada where my husband lived for a short time growing up. A man we’ll call Joe was put in charge of the town’s water supply, thanks to his connections. Joe took to heart the oft-repeated advice to make himself indispensable, and quickly set to memorizing all the maps and charts laying out the locations of all the water-related resources and equipment. He then destroyed them, so that he was literally irreplaceable.

Joe then decided it would make his job easier if he tripled the amount of chlorine in the water supply. Happily, the chlorine gas was so strong-smelling it was easily detected and no one was harmed. Still, he had put the entire town in danger out of sheer laziness and by all rights ought to have been fired. But they didn’t dare, since he was now the only person with the requisite knowledge. Not exactly a happy ending.

This is an extreme example, but I’ve seen similar stories play out again and again within businesses. Advising people to focus on their own job security is counter-productive for all involved, and you have my permission to ignore this misguided advice whenever you encounter it.

How about, instead, we start empowering people to stop focusing so much on job security (which is an illusion in this day and age in any case) and start focusing on creating real value–for those they support directly, for the team more generally, and for the end-users as well? Imagine what could be accomplished if every team member were solely focused on leveraging their own strengths toward the mission of the company, not just the mission of staying employed. Let’s start rewarding team members for using the Canvas Strategy to support each other’s work rather than for making themselves impossible to replace. As Napoleon Hill put it:

“It is literally true that you can succeed best and quickest by helping others to succeed.” Napoleon Hill

Live bravely, work deliberately, and eat good chocolate.

#career #deepwork

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