Think you’re indispensable?
Making plans for a summer holiday? You’re probably wondering whether you are too busy to take a week off from work. Maybe you are thinking that you can, but only if you’re headed to a resort that has wi-fi. The prospect of being away from the office likely makes you a bit jittery. After all, how will they get along without you? Just fine.
You are not the first person to consider what not to pack to make room for your laptop. We convince ourselves that our work contributions are so absolutely essential that our organisation will fall apart at the seams if we go off the grid, no matter the interruption to our personal lives, much less the disagreeable impact on our colleagues.
It is the indispensability syndrome: a fallacious emotional urge rooted deep in our desire to be wanted and needed. Our fragile psyches are at work here. We feel threatened by the realisation that our work world can continue without us. It is a perfectly natural feeling, but it comes at high cost.
Common justifications for such an inflated sense of self-importance are multilayered, ranging from “it’s my responsibility” to believing you’re the “only person qualified” to handle a particular project or task.
Certainly, our contributions at work are valuable. But why don’t we apply the same thinking to our families? What makes us think our colleagues can’t function without us, but our families can? Why are we so unwilling to power down once in a while?
One executive I worked with had been promoted to partner at a mid-sized government consultancy two years ago. Only 35, his ambition and work ethic propelled him quickly through the ranks. He was known as a perfectionist whose work reflected the very highest standards. His new role meant that he oversaw several major accounts. He was also responsible for the professional development of associates reporting to him. The firm required all partners to take a two-week sabbatical every two years. The idea was to step back from the everyday grind and come back rested and recharged with innovative ideas about how to advance the company’s practice. Associates were expected to be prepared to assume all responsibilities during a partner’s absence.
But during his sabbatical, this young partner endlessly perseverated on how things were progressing. He e-mailed and texted his associates multiple times daily and directly contacted clients for updates — even though doing so was explicitly prohibited by firm policy. He just could not help himself. The result: four of his ten associates requested transfers. They had seen how well the sabbatical programme worked for others and resented being robbed of an opportunity to expand their skill sets and to build relationships with clients and other partners. They made his behaviour known to the managing director and he was sternly warned by the management committee that his behaviour was unacceptable and would negatively affect his annual performance review, which determined bonuses and promotions. He learnt the hard way that he was not indispensable. There is a psychological bulwark to indispensability syndrome. Not only do many of us inflate our view of our own significance, we also worry that our talent is not as critical as we have presented it to our colleagues or ourselves. At some level we are also terrified that, if away, someone will figure that out. We fear that we will lose our jobs if we’re not 24/7.
According to a 2013 survey by the American Psychological Association’s Centre for Organisational Excellence, more than half of all employed adults say they check work messages at least once a day over the weekend, before or after work during the week, and even when they are home sick. More than 40 per cent reported doing the same while on vacation. Keep in mind that this was for the workforce broadly sampled. The results would likely be amplified if focused on supervisors and executives. My own research, conducting interviews with 127 executives from 17 countries, suggests that the APA’s findings would be amplified if focused on senior corporate employees. When asked how important their contributions were to their unit or team, all of them responded “very important”. When asked how important their contributions were to their unit or team, compared with others, 76 per cent responded “more important” and 24 per cent responded “as important”. None said “less important”. They all thought they were as, or more, critical than everyone else that they work with.
When asked how uncomfortable they would be if they had no contact with their organisations whatsoever for two weeks, 72 per cent said “very” and 20 per cent replied “somewhat”. Only 8 per cent responded that they could part for a while with no worries.
Part of this is human nature — humankind did not progress via sloth. We need human interaction — work relationships affirm us and provide physical and emotional protection. We are atavistically aware that both of these require us to add our fair share or more.
And part of this can be traced to technology. Thirty-six per cent of employed Americans said communication technology increases their workload, makes it more difficult to stop thinking about work or to take a break from work, the APA survey reported. Research conducted by Gloria Mark at the University of California, Irvine, showed that people interrupted by e-mail reported significantly increased stress compared with those left alone to focus. Gary Small, a psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that stress hormones have been shown to reduce short-term memory.
The effects of this behaviour are bad for us and our colleagues. If we distort our own importance, then we reduce the value of others. In doing so, we smother the people who work for and with us, rather than helping them to stand on their own. That isn’t leadership.
A leader’s absence is an opportunity for colleagues to take a measure of their own skills. Empowered workers bring new energy, different perspectives and new experiences. To be sure, there is feeling of insecurity that comes with people succeeding at your exclusive role, but it can also be gratifying to see them succeed. We have accomplished what we have for a reason, so there’s no reason to worry that our capabilities will be forgotten after a week or two of vacation. If we reconcile ourselves to being not quite as important as we think we are, that all of us need to decouple from work to replenish, and that our constant involvement is not always beneficial to colleagues, we are more likely to take a vacation, and will, in turn, make a greater contributions at work upon our return.
•James R. Bailey is professor and Hochberg Fellow of Leadership Development at the George Washington University School of Business
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