MT Feature: The indispensability trap

If you're too good at your current job you risk getting stuck in it. In fact to get on, you need to learn to delegate, and show you can think big and adapt to greater things.

by Richard Jolly
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Unfortunately, there are many bitter managers lurking in our offices who berate the fact that poorer performing colleagues have advanced ahead of them. Is it because top management haven't realised what they have achieved? Is it that other managers have been engaging in manipulative politicking? Sadly, it is often neither of these. Top management usually has a pretty good idea of what it takes to make it to the top. If you are not getting the promotions that your performance 'deserves', it is probably because you haven't realised how much you need to adapt as you become more senior. You've fallen into the indispensability trap.

In the first half of your career, the game is straightforward. You demonstrate your technical expertise, you work hard (often making sacrifices in other parts of your life) and develop skills and competence that allow you to become a star performer. In such cases, job security is high - you have become 'indispensable'. When times are tough, in particular, this is simple, Darwinian self-preservation.

Such individuals rapidly move into managerial positions, and this is where the second half of your career begins. Now you have to overcome a universal challenge - the curse of knowledge. When you have developed a skill to a high level of expertise, it becomes automatic. Moving into management means that you have to supervise people who don't know how to do things that for you are obvious. At this point, you realise something important, that people are a problem. They just don't get it. Are they stupid? Are they intentionally trying to screw things up? What's wrong with them?

Drivers who get stuck behind a learner and find themselves becoming frustrated and critical are experiencing the curse of knowledge. The whole point about learner drivers is that they aren't good drivers, so getting irritated by their incompetence is not a rational approach - you too were once a bad driver, yet some managers have selective memory about their own learning curve. Helping other people develop competences that have become automatic for us requires learning some basic management skills, though luckily these are relatively easy to acquire and most managers are reasonably competent after a few years.

So if you have managed to demonstrate your expertise and ability to supervise others, the team is performing to a very high level and is regularly heaped with praise from above, should you not expect your career - which sparkled in its first half - to carry on up its meteoric path?

Well, no. When you confront your bosses about your career ambitions, they couldn't be more flattering: 'You are fantastic: indispensable. Which is why you are the last person I would promote. You are far too important where you are.'

So what has gone wrong? And what can you do about it? To be an effective executive, you need a strong desire and ability to control, consistently delivering high-quality output; exceeding expectations regularly - generally being an 'over-achiever'. Organisations rely on these types of manager to do the hard work required for value creation.

But this focus on control leads to perhaps the most dangerous phrase heard in organisations: 'I don't have time to delegate', and this is where managers get stuck in the indispensability trap. Delegation initially feels like losing control. It is probably going to be faster and lead to a better result to do things yourself. Delegating to people who are less experienced takes up valuable time. They will probably have to come back to you for clarification or help. You may end up having to do the job yourself anyway, picking up the pieces.

This instinct to control, however, can increasingly become a liability, rather than an asset. As you become more senior, the quantity of work that you are responsible for clearly increases and there is a limit to how much you can personally accomplish. The problem is that if you are focusing on the tactical issues where you have expertise, you are implicitly avoiding the broader strategic issues that will allow you to develop yourself, your direct reports and the organisation, and ultimately enable you to get ahead.

A phrase that is sometimes used to describe this is: 'When you are fighting off the alligators, it's hard to remember that you were trying to drain the swamp.' Fighting alligators feels good - we are busy and can see the achievements we are heroically and often singlehandedly creating. We feel in demand, productive. But the more senior we become, the more our success becomes dependent not on our personal ability to 'do', but on our ability to 'think'. Having the discipline to take time away from fighting the alligators to focus on the critical priorities necessary for strategic success is difficult, and increasingly so for managers. That's why we shouldn't be indispensable.

But it's difficult to make space to think, even if we are able to delegate, because we are now always 'on'. Some managers have yet to find the 'off' switch on their BlackBerrys (it does exist) and all managers struggle to take time away from doing things (fighting the alligators) to think.

The 19th-century Austrian statesman Prince von Metternich apocryphally categorised military officers against two dimensions: how smart they were and how hard-working. The stupid, lazy ones are easy to deal with - get them out. The stupid, hard-working officers are very useful, as long as you supervise them effectively. The smart, hard-working ones were also useful for relatively junior positions. But the ones he focused on were the smart, lazy officers - they know what needs to be done, but don't want to do lots of work. So they find the short cuts; they are creative.

While this is not a formula that any modern organisation should use for selecting and promoting managers, it does raise an important challenge about the amount of unnecessary work carried out in organisations.

A finance director client was frustrated about the amount of effort required to produce the monthly management accounts summary for the board - a giant, 77-page report. At one particular board meeting, she asked whether all this information was really necessary, as this report was taking up a lot of her department's resources for days every month. The universal response was that everything was critical. She was far from convinced, so the next month she put in a couple of pages of nonsense Latin text and waited to hear how many people contacted her to complain that they were unable to do their job without this data. No one called. She did the same thing the next month in a different part of the report. Again, no calls. When she confronted the board at its next meeting about what she had done, there was silence. The company now has a very efficient seven-page monthly report.

It's important to know that you are never promoted because you were good at your last job. Yet we instinctively assume, when we have been promoted, that our previous behaviours have been rewarded - a mechanism called positive reinforcement. Surely if I do more of the same, I will continue to be successful?

Instead, those who promote you make a leap of faith; a hope that you will be able to adapt to the different demands of the more senior role. This issue is getting more challenging as roles become more specialised and, therefore, promotions can often mean a radical change in the nature of the role.

Nowhere is this truer that in law firms, where the efforts that associates make to get promoted to partner are intensely demanding over many years. Law firms have attempted to codify the competencies necessary to be made partner. But it is only when people are made up to partner that it is possible to tell whether they are able to make this transition effectively - the role of a partner is different from that of an associate and not all partners take up their broader responsibilities successfully.

So, if indispensability keeps you back, should the answer be dispensability? Clearly, this has risks, particularly in a challenging economic climate. Yet this is exactly what is required. It takes a lot of confidence for a manager to go to his or her boss and say: 'The team is working so well that they don't need me any more - I am ready for my next challenge.'

This confidence only comes from having identified, supported and developed a number of people who could easily step into your role when you move up. Many managers see themselves as solitary heroic figures. These individualists are easily identified - they don't have any succession plans in place. At its worst, this phenomenon leads to a narcissistic belief that they are the only competent person around. It takes confident, self-aware managers to surround themselves with people who are frighteningly impressive. The desire to feel indispensable is compelling and dangerous. It paralyses organisations with unnecessary, thoughtless work and micromanaging, bottle-necking managers.

If the goal is dispensability, then the only way to get there is through delegation - breaking the cycle of dependency that limits both performance and motivation, and helping employees become more self-reliant and responsible. Authority and responsibility need to flow down the hierarchy, particularly as organisational structures become more complex in the age of the matrix organisation. Accountability needs to flow up the hierarchy. Some managers have the mind-set that this approach abdicates control and responsibility. It does not. The responsibility for the tasks that you have delegated is still yours after you have delegated.

One of the key challenges of effective delegation is the perceived loss of control. Managers need to learn that there is a spectrum of different degrees of authority that can be delegated. On one end of the spectrum, the manager says: 'Look into this issue for me, gather the facts; I will decide what to do.' At the other end, the manager says: 'Do what you think is right, I don't need any further communication about this.' Having the 'antennae' to know where along this spectrum is appropriate in any given situation is a skill managers have to learn. But the more you are able to involve people in defining what the solution should be and in implementing this solution, the more engaged they will be in carrying it out.

Jeff Immelt, the chairman and chief executive of General Electric, said: 'The four most important words in business are "what do you think?"' All employees want the same thing from a boss. Someone who:

  1.  Believes in them and their potential
  2. Defines a clear and challenging task
  3. Locates this task within a broader organisational context or purpose
  4. Is available when needed for advice and coaching
  5. Is supportive and ensures they have the 'air cover' and resources necessary to succeed
  6. Provides feedback and appropriate rewards
  7. Gives them space so that they can learn and develop.


If managers are going to avoid the trap of indispensability, we have to stand back from our day-to-day tasks and think. We have to create an environment where others can grow and be held responsible. We have to fight our instincts to control. Alfred P Sloan, the man who ran General Motors from the twenties to the fifties and created the largest and first truly modern corporation, dominating the car industry for over 70 years, put it this way: 'The most important thing I ever learned about management is that the work must be done by other men.'


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