Word-Of-the-Week #622: Indispensable

July 6, 2016 by  

Indispensable – absolutely essential.

This week we celebrated Independence Day. Was that a vacation day for you? If so, did you enjoy the day away from work? Have you made any vacation plans for this summer?

This week features excerpts from the Sunday LA Times article by James R. Bailey, Managers, take your vacations. Many suffer from the indispensability syndrome. But your co-workers will be fine without you.”

“Making plans for summer vacation? You’re probably wondering whether you’re too busy to take a week off from work. The prospect of being away from the office probably makes you a bit jittery. After all, how will they get along with you?

Just fine.

You’re 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 organization will fall apart at the seams if we go off the grid, no matter the interruption to our personal lives, much less the disagreeable effect on our colleagues.

It’s the indispensability syndrome: A fallacious emotional urge rooted deep in our desire to be wanted and needed. We feel threatened by the realization that our work world can continue without us. It’s a perfectly natural feeling, but it comes at high cost.

There’s a psychological bulwark to the indispensability syndrome. Not only do many of us inflate our view of our own significance, we also worry that our talent isn’t as crucial as we have presented it to our colleagues, or ourselves.

According to a 2013 survey by the American Psychological Assn.’s Center for Organizational 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.


36% of employed Americans said communication technology increases their workload, makes it more difficult to stop thinking about work or take a break from work, the APA survey reported.

The effects of this behavior 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 stand on their own. That isn’t leadership.

We’ve 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 the fact that we’re not quite as important as we think we are, that all of us need to decouple from work in order to replenish and that our constant involvement is not always beneficial to colleagues, we’re more likely to take a vacation, and will, in turn, make greater contributions at work upon our return.

James Bailey is a professor and Hochberg Fellow of Leadership Development at the George Washington University School of Business.

This week is about evaluating how indispensible you really are. Is your being at work so absolutely essential that your organization can’t run without you? Could you possibly be distorting your own importance? How would it feel to be totally removed and off the grid for a week or more?

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