Making plans for summer vacation? You’re probably wondering whether you’re too busy to take a week off from work. Maybe you’re thinking that you can, but only if the resort has WiFi. Likely the prospect of being away from the office makes you a bit jittery. After all, how will they get along without you?
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 impact on our colleagues.
This is what I call the indispensability syndrome. It’s 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 realization that our work-world can continue without us.
It’s a perfectly natural feeling, but it comes at high cost.
Common justifications for such self-aggrandizement are multi-layered, ranging from “it’s“my responsibility” to my “obligations requires it” to believing you’re the “only person qualified” to handle a difficult project or task.
Certainly, they’re legitimate reasons to stay connected. It’s true enough that our contributions to our team and company are valuable. But why do we think our families are fine without us, but our colleagues can’t function without us? What’s that say about our esteem for them? What tragedies might occur if we power down once in a while? Seriously?
One young executive I worked with, Errol, 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 was much broader than before; he was now responsible for business development and managed several major contracts. He was also responsible for developing the associates who now reported to him.
The firm required all partners to take a two-week sabbatical every two years. The idea was to recharge and reconsider the way business was approached while removed from the everyday grind. The intent was that partners returned rested and with innovative ideas on how to advance the company’s practice. Associates that reported to that partner were to have been prepared to assume all responsibilities during his or her absence.
Errol was in the middle of his sabbatical, and it wasn’t going well. He endlessly perseverated on how things were progressing. He emailed and texted his associates multiple times daily and even directly contacted clients for updates, even though doing so was explicitly prohibited by firm policy. He just couldn’t help himself.
Frustrated by the interference, Errol’s associates made his behavior known to the Managing Director. The associates had seen how well the sabbatical program worked for others, and were resentful that they were robbed of an opportunity to expand their skills and develop meaningful relationships with clients and other partners. Four of Errol’s 10 associates requested transfers. When Errol returned, the tension was palpable. He was sternly warned by the Management Committee that his behavior was unacceptable and would negatively impact his annual performance review, which determined bonuses and promotions.
Errol learned the hard way that he wasn’t indispensable.
The psychological bulwark of the Indispensability syndrome is intriguing. As humans, we inflate our view of our own significance. We often think our role in this interconnected universe is so valuable that if we are removed from it, even for a well-earned vacation, the world will suffer. We worry that our talent isn’t as critical as we have presented it to our colleagues and ourselves. At some level we’re also terrified that, if away, someone will figure that out. Worse, we fear that we will lose our jobs if we’re not 24/7.
Our insistence—often at the expense of our mental and physical health and the development of those around is—that we be connected to work despite consequences, is an addiction of sorts. The only cure is learning how to release ourselves. Today, the indispensability syndrome is a genuine virus, and it is spreading like the plague.
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, according to a 2013 survey by the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence. More than 40% 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 comes from interviewing 127 executives from 17 countries, all at the senior Vice President level or above. When asked how important their contributions to their unit or team was, 100% responded “very important.” Fair enough. We all make a difference.
When asked how important our contributions to our unit or team was compared to others, 76% responded “more important” and 24% responded “as important.” None responded “less important.” Really? We’re as or more critical than everyone else we work with?
Finally, when asked how uncomfortable they would be if they had no contact with their organizations whatsoever for two weeks, 72% said “very,” and 20% said “somewhat.” Only 8% responded that they could part for a while with no worries.
Part of this is explained by human instinct. We’re active creatures. Humanity didn’t progress through slothfulness. We crave engagement. We’re social creatures, too. Some people thrive on reclusiveness whereas most of us need others. Those relationships affirm us and provide physical and emotional protection. We’re atavistically aware that both of these require us to add our fair share or more. This is deep survival stuff.
Technology exacerbates this, of course, and unfortunately. More than one-third 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. As previously noted, the percent would likely be higher if only supervisor and executive results were reported.
Moreover, a study at the University of California, Irvine, found that people interrupted by e-mail reported significantly increased stress compared with those left to focus. Gary Small, a psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles, notes that stress hormones have been shown to reduce short-term memory.
The effects of this behavior are both bad for us and for 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, teaching them “learned helplessness” as opposed to developing them to stand on their own.
Supporting others to stand on their own is what leadership’s about. Your absence is an opportunity for your colleagues to take a measure of their own skills. Empowered workers bring new energy, different perspectives and new experiences. There is an inevitable feeling of insecurity that comes with people succeeding at your exclusive role, but it can be incredibly gratifying to see them succeed.
The impact on our own psyches can be just as detrimental. We sacrifice our mental and physical health to be “Johnny on the spot.” Despite the damage wreaked upon our well-being, we bend to the will of a false sense of indispensability. It may be a cliché, but also the reality.
What can be done about the indispensability syndrome?
1. Reconcile yourself to the fact that although you’re important, you’re probably not as important as you think you are. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but it’s mandatory medicine.
2. Realize that you’re inability to decouple from work is absolutely necessary for you to maintain your sharpness. You need to replenish, just as everyone else does.
3. Remind yourself that your constant involvement is not always welcome, nor helpful, to your colleagues. Oversight can go too far.
4. Remember that you’ve accomplished what you have for a reason. You’re talent will not be forgotten in a week or two.
The fragility of the psyche may demand that we remain connected to the workplace, but a detox during your off hours—and an ego check—may help you find balance and elevate your professional achievements. The indispensability syndrome requires treatment, and you’re your own best physician.
For the Washington Post Version, click here.
For the Los Angeles Times version, click here.
For the Royal Gazette Version, click here,
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