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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

It's True: Even the Best Employees Are Replaceable

Everybody’s replaceable.

It’s a sentiment you’ve heard echoed in the workplace time and time again. And, while it’s definitely not the most motivating or inspiring thought, it definitely holds some water.

I recently read this New York Times article that explained the whole concept in a way I hadn’t heard before—but that I’ve definitely been thinking about since.

In the piece, journalist Adam Bryant interviews Lloyd Carney—CEO of Brocade, a data and storage networking firm—about his life in business.

[My grandfather] used to do this thing called a bucket test. He would be arguing with one of his employees, and he’d call me in and say, ‘Get a bucket of water.’ So I’d bring the bucket of water to the room, and he’d say, ‘Lloydie, put your hand in the water.’ Then I’d take it out, and he’d say to his employee, ‘See that hole that Lloyd left in the water? That’s the hole you’re going to leave when you leave here.’

It’s a pretty fitting illustration. After all, businesses are fluid (pun intended) and adaptable. When something changes—such as an employee leaving—it usually doesn’t take long for pieces and parts to shift and adjust.

I know, it’s not the most encouraging concept. And, I’m not sharing it in hopes that you’ll feel like you should hang your head and stumble into work every day feeling like just another cog in a wheel—and an unneeded cog at that.

Rather it’s very likely that you bring significant value to your team, and your company as a whole. However, it’s important to note that there’s a very big difference between being irreplaceable and just being hard to replace.

As a matter of fact, I would argue that falling into the trap of thinking you’re completely matchless is a recipe for disaster. You never want to become so confident (ahem, cocky) that you assume you can do no wrong—that you’re so talented and skilled at your job that you’re immune to any sort of negative consequences, no matter how badly you behave toward others.

Believe me, I’ve had many jobs where I thought I was carrying the entire success of the company on my shoulders. And, when I left? Well, admittedly, I was a little disheartened to realize that the entire office didn’t come crumbling down, leaving my boss sitting slack jawed and horrified at his giant desk. In fact, aside from a few loose ends that needed to be taken care of, everything carried on—business as usual.

So, needless to say, obsessing over being irreplaceable is useless—and ultimately counterproductive for your employer. So, rather than placing all of your energy and effort into wiggling yourself into a position that couldn’t be filled by anyone but you, you’re much better off focusing on simply being hard to replace.

What does that mean? Well, you want to be an employee who’s so helpful and valuable, that filling your shoes would be a tough thing to accomplish. But, you’re also humble and rational enough to recognize that it still wouldn’t be impossible. After all, that sort of balanced attitude means you won’t only be tough to replace—but people will be undeniably sad to do so.

Long story short, you don’t just want to good at what you do, but you also want to be likable. Make it so your team wouldn’t just miss your skills, but also your presence.

With that said, you’re only human. So in those moments when you’re starting to get a little too big for your britches, remember the bucket test. It might be just the nudge you need to step off your high horse and bring yourself back down to earth.

Photo of person working courtesy of Tetra Images/Getty Images.

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