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No one is indispensable
Layoffs, Twitter, and searching for alternatives
Years ago, I read the book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? by Seth Godin. I was in the car with my husband on a road trip to Las Vegas. I remember being fully absorbed in the book, even as we drove through some beautiful desert scenery.
Because I’ve been tracking every book I read on Goodreads since 2007, I went back and looked at my review of the book. I had written:
A book that can be meaningful in any industry for someone who wants to produce or make an impact.
I remember why the book resonated with me so much at the time. I believed that hard work = reward for work. I finished the book and thought to myself, “I’m going to become indispensable at work. That’s how I’ll get ahead and that’s how I’ll protect myself.”
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I was already an overachiever. A few months after finishing this book, I vied for a new role as a product manager at the software company where I worked. When I got the role, I felt validated.
The flaw in this validation? It assumes that the company is acting in good faith. Hard work ≠ reward. And there’s no such thing as indispensable. Because at the end of the day, a company will always put itself first. And individuals should do the same.
It’s been a wild few weeks since Elon Musk took over Twitter.
(Checks calendar — it’s only been 13 days. Wow.)
Musk fired half of Twitter’s workforce a week later and then asked some to return. Turns out, some people were pretty critical to company operations.
People working for companies like Twitter are the crème de la crème. Yet, for all of their brilliance, they couldn’t save their jobs. Work had permanently changed at Twitter.
And, as illustrated by asking some laid-off Twitter employees to return, sometimes leadership doesn’t care or doesn’t take the time to figure out an individual’s contributions to the overall team. Even if the role is mission-critical.
Twitter is also an example of how companies can change overnight. A change in leadership or a merger can cause large-scale changes. Or, companies can silently bleed due to economic conditions, poor management, or declining marketplace relevance. When that happens, the company will hit a breaking point.
Layoffs are devastating
Individual contributors can rarely stop the downfall, but they’re the most likely to be impacted. Just look at the surge in layoffs this year.
Layoffs can be psychologically devastating, especially for employees that had poured their hearts and souls into their jobs. They wonder, “How did I become dispensable? Why was I cut instead of someone else?” And while layoffs often have nothing to do with individual performance, that’s no comfort to those impacted.
In Linchpin, Seth Godin wrote:
“The only way to get what you're worth is to stand out, to exert emotional labor, to be seen as indispensable, and to produce interactions that organizations and people care deeply about.”
That is categorically false.
People can exert emotional labor and get burned. They can produce amazing work and still be tossed aside.
To correlate quality output and reward is to assume that individual contributors hold some power in the equation. They don’t. They never do.
I remember sitting in a meeting with the CEO at my former job. He said, “Anyone can be replaced.”
I don’t remember the context of the conversation, but I remember my reaction. This was a few years after I read Linchpin. I’d been promoted to an executive role. I assumed that I was indispensable. The CEO’s blasé comment was a wake-up call. He didn’t value anyone at the company enough to think that their contributions were irreplaceable. And he held unchecked power to do whatever he wanted.
Privilege doesn’t see the imbalance of power
After layoffs, some people invariably run to social media with their *hot takes.*
I saw a particularly tone-deaf post this week. The individual took a stance that companies should be transparent when they are struggling. He wrote:
“When companies involve people in the difficulties they face, the talented, passionate people rise to the challenge. The scared, greedy, or selfish folks run off by themselves, and that’s a much better outcome for everyone.
His argument is deeply flawed, similar to Seth Godin’s. Both are rooted in the presumption that people hold enough power to be indispensable. They should give their all to a company to make themselves indispensable. And anything less than that is not enough.
Both Godin and Mr. Passionate Work are placing too much stock in loyalty — and assume that it flows in both directions. In Godin’s world, companies will be loyal to indispensable employees. In Mr. Passionate Work’s world, companies deserve employee loyalty, no matter the circumstances. Employees who put themselves first are “selfish.” They should stick it out! Risk losing their job and not being able to pay their mortgages! The company deserves that loyalty!
But loyalty, like power, is a one-sided street. It often only flows in one direction: from the individual to the company. And when it’s a choice between protecting the company and the individual, the company always comes first.
Godin and Mr. Passionate Work are putting the burden on the individual to make themselves indispensable, and that’s grossly unfair.
But there is power in community
I was talking to someone this week (on Twitter, of all places) about some friends that were recently impacted by a layoff. He commented that it’s a reminder not to put all of one’s eggs in the proverbial basket. He has a side hustle alongside his 9-5 job. And I’ve had freelance income for years.
It’s a sad state that people have to think about protecting themselves with a side hustle. Yet many people are nervous, watching friends and colleagues that they’d deemed “safe” casually tossed aside.
But those alternatives don’t exist for everyone. Not everyone has the bandwidth to pursue a side hustle. Or the interest, for that matter.
At the same time, people have to take control of their careers. We can’t let one job define our lives. We can’t acquiesce to the whim of a company — whether it be leadership or the marketplace.
I’m not saying that it’s an easy task. It’s not. We’re still in a deep recession. But one way that individuals can protect themselves is by building a network.
A professional network can be a saving grace in the event of a layoff. The network can make introductions or help identify opportunities. A network can also boost visibility. I’ve seen posts on LinkedIn that say, “Hey, I know this amazing person who just lost a job. Anyone hiring for X skills or Y industry?”
The individual may be recovering from the shock of a layoff. But the network can step up and get things rolling on the (sometimes long, sometimes hard) hunt for a new job.
Build your network. Maintain your network. You never know when you’ll need it.
A roundup of stuff from around The Interwebs. Some to make you smile, some to make you roll your eyes. And some stuff that I wrote on other platforms.
Welcome to hell, Elon | The Verge
I Like Free Speech So Much I’ve Decided to Buy It | McSweeney’s
You can also follow me on LinkedIn for more insights about work, or on Twitter for spicier takes, and Medium where I write about fun stuff like productivity and creativity. Or catch up on the personal side of my life on my blog.
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