Are you too essential at your job?

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It’s nice to feel valued by your boss. It’s especially rewarding to be told by her that you’re so good at what you do, you’ve become indispensible. You know you’re lucky to have job security, so you don’t want to complain. But what if you’ve become so essential at your job that you’re no longer growing professionally?

Sometimes, workers find themselves in a situation where they are so specialized that no one else can do what they do. Or, the boss becomes so dependent on them that they can’t seem to move out from under her shadow. If you’re experiencing this, and you’re happy with how things are, that’s great. Some workers prefer to remain specialized and have a lateral career path, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But if you’re missing out on promotions because of it, or you aren’t able to work on interesting projects outside of your scope of work, it’s time to speak up.

“Yes, you can be too essential at your job, and you can get pigeonholed at doing one function,” says Angelo Kinicki, an organizational culture expert who teaches in the management department at Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business. “Both of these possibilities will limit a person’s career. On the positive side, this tends to occur when someone is very good at a task or function.”

Make a change
It’s not easy to rock the boat, especially when the sea is calm, but chances are, your boss would rather you approach him about the issue instead of quitting out of unhappiness. Just make sure that when you do meet with him, you are honest but also sensitive to his point of view, and you come prepared.

“I recommend that the essential employee go to their boss with their own plan to address the issue,” says Elene Cafasso, president at executive coaching firm Enerpace Inc. “For instance, the essential employer should start by identifying another project in their boss’s area that they’d like to learn more about or help with. For example: 25 percent of the time, the [employee] could work on this new project, 25 percent training someone else on what the [employee] does and 50 percent of the time doing their own essential work.”

Cafasso says that, if approached correctly, the boss should be receptive to the plan. In this situation, all of the employee’s work will still get done, another employee will be trained without the boss needing to get involved, and ultimately, employee retention and engagement will increase.

Seek out others for help
In a best-case scenario, your boss will be happy you spoke up about your issue. However, there is a chance that your boss won’t be ready to give you up and may even get upset with you for asking. If that happens, don’t be afraid to go elsewhere for help. “If your manager will not do anything to rectify the situation, I suggest talking to your boss’s boss or someone in human resources,” Kinicki says. “Failure to act on your part will lead to further stagnation, in my experience.”

Lynne Sarikas, executive director of the MBA Career Center at Northeastern University in Boston, agrees. “If your manager is not open to this, remind him that if you were to give your notice tomorrow, they would have to find a solution in the next two weeks,” Sarikas says. “You would prefer to stay with the company and are willing to offer a longer transition period. Don’t threaten; let them know you want to stay, but tactfully point out the reality.”

Don’t sacrifice your reputation for a raise
If you’ve hit a brick wall, and you’re frustrated with your boss’s resistance to change, it might be tempting to give less than 100 percent so your boss becomes less dependent on you. That’s the wrong approach for a variety of reasons. You don’t want to go so far as to put your job on the line or tarnish your glowing reputation within or outside of the company. “Absolutely do not let the quality of your work suffer,” Sarikas says. “High-quality work is your ticket to more responsibility.”

Adds Mitch Ellis, managing director at recruiting firm Sanford Rose Associates-St. Louis, “The best time to look for a job is when you have one. Ultimately, you are responsible for managing your own career. Don’t let the world pass you by, or one day you may wake up and find you are no longer ‘essential.’”

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