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Competitors work to pull a woman up an obstacle where competitors must jump to the top of a half pipe during the Tough Mudder at Mt. Snow in West Dover
Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi
When lending a hand means your boss will never let it go.
STALLING OUT

“Make yourself indispensable” is terrible career advice

May Busch
By May Busch

Executive coach

There’s a common piece of career advice that will stall your career if you’re not careful. It often comes from a well-meaning person—a friend, family member, or close mentor who wants the best for your career:

In order to secure your job and position yourself for bigger, better roles, you need to “make yourself indispensable.”

In reality, making yourself indispensable is the best way to keep yourself where you are in your job, rather than advancing.

When you’re so amazing in that one role that most people can’t imagine you doing anything else, they won’t want you to do anything else. Your manager relies on you so much that they won’t part with you, and you’re at risk of being pigeonholed.

I remember being in a management discussion about how we could backfill a role that was about to be open. Another manager suggested we promote Steven, but his boss jumped in and said, “Don’t touch Steven—I need him right where he is!”

None of us dared suggest Steven for other roles after that. Steven was about to be stuck in his role for a while without knowing it. One day he would look back and wonder how he went from being a star to being passed over for better roles.

This effect is often made worse by another piece of well-meaning advice: “You’re doing a great job, just keep doing what you’re doing”. This is what managers often say when they are too nice (or too lazy) to come up with feedback that will help you develop.

While that feels reassuring and can even make sense in the next quarter or two, it does nothing to prepare you for the next level. How can you grow if you don’t know how to change? If your boss is telling you that every year—to stay where you are, just keep doing what you’re doing—then it’s time to get some proper feedback to help you move forward (or a new boss!).

Could that be happening to you right now?

How to avoid the “indispensable” trap

So, how do you perform highly without getting caught in the workplace equivalent of Groundhog Day? And how do you free yourself if you’re already in the trap?

The key is to be indispensable for what you can become, and not for what you currently do. Here are four ways to do that.

  1. Help others see you in a different light. Show people that there’s more than one dimension to your capabilities. So if they mostly see you doing “behind-the-scenes” research, invite them to a meeting where you’re “on stage” presenting. Take on new challenges. Let others know you have the interest and potential to do more. How could you demonstrate you can learn and grow beyond your current role?
  2. See yourself in a different light. The longer you stay in the comfort zone of the role where you’re indispensable, the harder it will be to envision yourself doing something else. And that will color your behavior. Instead, challenge yourself to see yourself in a different light. Look for opportunities where you can learn, stretch, and develop new capabilities. What does You 2.0 look, feel, and sound like?
  3. Prepare for the next level. The best way to do this is to continually invest in yourself and your development. Make time to learn new things. Identify the experiences and skills you want to have. Talk to others about what it takes and the things they wished they’d done to prepare themselves. Then go explore how you can do those things. What would prepare you for the next level in your career.
  4. Make yourself moveable. Building a bench of talent beneath you is the best way to ensure that senior managers feel comfortable moving you to the next level position you aspire to. Remember, you don’t want to end up like indispensable Steven. Who could step into your role when you move up? If you can create your own backfill, managers won’t feel as anxious promoting you.

Don’t risk stalling your career by being so indispensable in your current role that you can’t move onward and upward when you want to. Be known for being indispensable for your potential, not your performance.