How to become indispensable at work

Hint: No one makes the 'go-to' person redundant.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 22 Jul 2020

In early July, the OECD estimated that UK unemployment could reach 14.8 per cent by the end of the year in the event of a second wave of COVID-19. Even if viral transmission remains subdued, the report anticipates the unemployment rate hitting double digits as the government gradually pulls support from its job retention scheme.

Clearly, there are advantages to being considered indispensable at work. But what does it mean to be someone your employer couldn’t do without?

In his book The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment and Get Things Done, author Bruce Tulgan points out that the main way people typically seek to be indispensable is through “false influence”. 

He shared a few examples of how people do this with Management Today. False influencers typically try to: “bribe their colleagues or otherwise seek to establish a quid pro quo; threaten to withhold support for them in the future; badger, bully, and/or manipulate them; charm and flatter or otherwise seek to ingratiate yourself with them; point fingers, blame, complain and otherwise undermine them; or go over their heads.”

On an even more cynical level, they could try to become indispensable by jealously hoarding critical knowledge or key client relationships - it’s a headache to make someone redundant when they’re the only one who knows how to navigate your labyrinthine payroll system, or when they’re your biggest client’s golfing buddy.

The problem with taking this approach is that it won’t win you any friends. “These tactics are poor stand-ins for authority - efforts to wield rewards and punishments without official position power. They might get you what you want over the very short term or even for a while, but none of those things will result in people wanting to do things for you. More likely, they’ll make people root against you, wish for your failure or work to take away your power,” says Tulgan. 

He suggests that a far better way of being indispensable is to make yourself genuinely useful to other people, above and beyond the stipulations of your job description. If a colleague comes to you with a problem that doesn’t go anywhere near your KPIs, but you help them anyway, your reputation as a go-to person will inevitably improve - and no one wants to get rid of go-to people.

Just as importantly, by having a “generous, other-centred focus that adds value to every interaction”, you will make other people want to help you back. 

This sounds awfully time-consuming...

The problem with dropping everything to help anyone who arrives at your door is that you end up working more, possibly to the extent of burning out, which does no one any good. The solution is to approach being helpfully indispensable in a more intelligent way: by helping other people to become indispensable

Tulgan explains that there are various ways to do this. It could be by coaching them or sharing your understanding of a particular issue, or it could be by connecting them to other people and helping them to grow their own internal network. 

Your network can be one of your greatest assets after all - people come to you not only because you can help them, but also because you may be able to introduce them to someone else who can. 

Sharing this connectivity with others can create a super-network of go-to people and a culture of “go-to-ism”, which can be a great asset for the entire business. 

“It effectively pushes as much communication, decision making and cooperative actions as far down the chain of command as possible. It aligns [the organisation] in every decision and empowers individuals so they can work smart and finish what they start. When it works well, everything runs more smoothly and swiftly,” says Tulgan.

He points to examples of high-performance teams where this culture exists, like the US Navy SEALs and the GE corporate audit staff programme, but it’s an aspirational value in many organisations. It’s the reason, for example, that if you walk into one of Facebook’s offices anywhere in the world you’ll see posters saying “Nothing at Facebook is someone else’s problem”.   

None of this is guaranteed to preserve your job, of course. But in the long-term, there’s a karmic principle at work here - treating people well and helping them out, especially in a smart way, should eventually pay off. You might just find it rewarding too.

The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment and Get Things Done is out on August 4

Image credit: Harvard Business Review Press

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