What Happens When No One Is Replaceable?

Treating employees as faceless cogs can be toxic to workplace culture and hazardous to quality control, but the opposite approach takes special finesse and skill.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably heard many variations of it throughout your work career: “Everyone is replaceable.” In practice, it sounds like this…

  • “If you don’t want to do the job, there are hundreds—maybe thousands!—of people who are desperate for work and we’ll go find them.”
  • “If you can’t do the job, there are tons of applicants out there that have your identical skills and we can bring them in to do it instead.”
  • “If you aren’t energized by the job… well, we don’t really care about that, actually. Just go do what we hired you to do!”

While we are used to hearing these sentiments—if they’re not plainly spoken, they’re often clearly implied—there’s a serious problem here: If you are a leader and you think like this, you are slowly rotting your organization from the inside out.

First, the idea that “everyone can be replaced” has never been completely accurate. Case in point: Imagine you’re a factory worker. Essentially, the company owners just need your hands to perform a specific task; if you don’t want to do the job, can’t do the job, or aren’t energized by the job, it’s relatively easy to replace you. Or, at least, it seems easy.

However, if you’ve worked in manufacturing environments, like I have, you know there’s a lot more finesse and grace to this kind of work than it seems from the outside. There are nuances to the machines that newbies just can’t know. There are tricks of the trade that seasoned operators pick up on over time. Some people have a greater capacity for doing repetitive work than others. And some people naturally pay more attention to details, safety, and quality.

No matter what kind of work you are doing, the most “basic” work to some is not necessarily “basic” at all—it all depends on whose shoes you’re standing in.

That’s because human beings have a staggering amount of variation built in. Historically, this has been an incredible annoyance in business, because variation is the scourge of operational efficiency. So to address this, we leaders often focus on trying to get “good work” from everyone.

The problem is that “good work” in this sense just means lowering the bar of what’s acceptable to a place where everyone can hit it—the lowest common denominator.

As a result, that’s where many organizations live; we’ve got the research to prove it. There is a whole lot of “good” to go around, but surprisingly little “great.”

If “everyone is replaceable” gets us only to mediocrity (and no further), what do we do instead? If we want to be exceptional, what can we do? Could we do the opposite? That is, could we say that no one is replaceable?

There are a few specific things that would need to change in order to adopt this philosophy in the modern business organization:

  1. We’d have to actually get to know our people.

As a leader or manager, it’s your job to foster a culture that produces great work. If you believe there are people in your team who CAN be easily replaced, it’s likely you who has failed, not them.

If our people seem replaceable, it’s simply because we haven’t thought deeply enough about how that person can bring their unique strengths to their job (or we hired the wrong person). We’ve not allowing them to bring their distinctive “energizers” into the workplace. Something about the way we are managing is keeping them from reaching their peak performance.

This has a direct impact on our organization, because the exceptional strengths employees possess create the most value for customers. If we see our people as replaceable, we are standing in the way of peak customer engagement.

Action item: Have a one-on-one conversation with your people. Ask them a simple question: “When are you at your best?”—and then do your best to help them do more of whatever makes them come alive.

  1. We’d have to change the way we use job descriptions.

Understanding expectations at work is of utmost importance; unfortunately, job descriptions rarely create real clarity. Most people find out what’s expected of them at work by screwing up, via company politics, and through trial and error. This is because most of us don’t have a “factory” kind of job—our jobs are infinitely more complex than “Stand here, put this object there, and then push the button.”

When we start with the understanding that no one is replaceable, we also see tasks differently. We realize that just “getting things done” isn’t the same as doing those things in a way that honorably reflects our values and brand.

Any new hire you bring in will change what the job looks like. Your conception of the role is tied to the last person, not the next.This has a direct impact on our organization, because customers are not rational. The people who buy our products and services are intensely emotional about how they spend their money, and the manner in which employees interact with the customer either attracts them closer to your brand or pushes them further away; it never does both.

Action item: Understand that any new hire you bring in will change what the job looks like. Your conception of the role is tied to the last person, not the next. Ideally, you can use this knowledge to your advantage—it’s a perfect opportunity to leverage the unique strengths of your new person (refer back to #1).

  1. We’d have to rethink career paths and performance management.

Tasks may stay the same as time passes, but the people doing them most certainly don’t. Nothing about the world is static, including all the human beings that make up our organizations; they are always looking to grow and learn (at least, the people we want to hire are).

We get caught in a bit of irony here, because at the same time as we spread the “you are replaceable” myth, we try to keep our best people from leaving by subconsciously obscuring their advancement opportunities, or simply by not being open about the fact that their career will probably not begin and end at our company.

This has a direct impact on our organization, because our lack of transparency gradually erodes engagement. Counterintuitively, the more openly we can accept the fact that our best employees will likely leave eventually, the better work we’ll get from them while they’re with us.

Action item: The best hires will have plenty of ideas for how to continually improve their sector of the company—and, as the person closest to the work, their ideas will generally be better than ours. When we accept that no one is replaceable, we commit to getting out of the way and supporting their plans. We need to support their career ambitions as well, even if it means seeing our best people move on.

By doing this, we can create the kind of reputation that continually attracts perfectly irreplaceable new talent.

This post was first published on Fast Company.