The Danger of Being Indispensable

There is a danger that many women face, the danger of being indispensable. I see it at work, with women who say, “I have to do it myself. I’m the only one.” I see it at home, with women who assume the role of only caregiver.

It’s a hard lesson to learn at work, that you have to let go of the skills and activities that made you successful in your last role, that you have to delegate those and learn new skills, reallocate your time to new activities that will make you successful in your current role. I cannot count the number of times over the years that I have told women who work with and for me to put on their own masks first, before helping others with their oxygen. By which I meant, don’t do it all yourself. Don’t rescue your team without having time for yourself.

For some reason, I never had to say this to men; they never found themselves in this situation. I imagine if I said it to a man prophylactically, his response would be a look of “Do you think I’m an idiot?”

I see it now in a colleague who works late every night, starts early every day, works through lunch. She says Yes to everything that comes her way, instead of developing her team to take on more, instead of setting priorities and pushing back on activities that don’t align with those priorities, or satisficing when she can’t push back. Which means, of course, if something happens to her – she takes a much-needed mental health day, or is sick one day, or gets pulled into a strategic meeting – the work stops.

I saw it in the past, with a young manager who worked for me. She insisted on doing a particular piece of monthly work herself; she refused to share it with her team. The work was perfectly suited for team delegation – and the other work her team was doing would have complemented it, enhancing both that work and their other work. She would have still had an important role to play, stitching her team’s work together and smoothing the transitions, getting executive approval of the work. But she refused to let go of it. And, when she got sick, the work stopped, deadlines were missed, relationships were fractured. When she was out for an extended period of time, I stepped in, delegated the work, got it done. Was it as good as it would have been had she been there to manage it? No, I was not sacrificing my other work to it, or my sanity. But it got done. Then she came back, took up the reins, and stopped delegating. And then she got sick again.

I see it now with my sister in law, who insisted that her 90-year old parents move in with her, but then made herself indispensable in their lives. My mother in law only showers if my SIL is there to insist on it and help her in the shower. (Even when I visit, my MIL is reluctant to have anyone except my SIL or her husband help her.) For the longest time, my SIL insisted that she had to cook all the dinners, despite the fact that she has two teenagers who expect her to wait on them and a husband who loves to grill. Now she lets her husband help and even one of the teenagers is developing her cooking skills. The other teen, not so much. Now my SIL, who on top of everything else, is a doctor, has been exposed to Covid. She is self-isolating away from home while she waits for the test results. Between the time that she received the call and started self-isolating, she went grocery-shopping to fill the larder for while she was away. Because, I guess, her husband doesn’t know how to shop?

This is a professional, a brilliant person, and yet she continues this unhelpful pattern of thinking.

My own sister had a similar challenge, which she is starting to overcome now. For the longest time, she made dinner every night and drove it, and her increasingly reluctant family, a mile to mother’s house, to have dinner. After dinner, she made small talk (while her family went home) until mom felt sleepy enough to go to bed. And then she carted the leftovers and cooking dishes home. Despite her caregiving responsibilities and her job – and the two teens she had at home – she or her husband cooked breakfast dinner every night. I recommended that she hire caregivers for mom so she didn’t have to have dinner there every night and could be a guest when she did. And that she assign each of her kids one dinner a week that they were responsible for. She fought me for the longest time, but finally agreed to full-time caregivers earlier this year – what a difference it made! – and each of her kids now cooks dinner once a week. It means those meals are a little repetitive, but she isn’t cooking them and that’s what matters. Now grocery shopping has become the chore that she can’t delegate. I keep reminding her that, when I was her younger child’s age, my parents used to drop me off at the grocery store with a signed check made out to the store. After I had done the shopping, I filled in the amount and handed it over; and they met me outside with the car to carry me and the food home. Was I perfect at it? No, I tended to go by memory and, if half the family were traveling that week, we had way too much milk, eggs, and bread. But I did it.

Even I have a tendency towards these dysfunctional habits, which may be why it is so easy for me to spot in others. I have to watch myself, to ask, am I indispensable in this? Can they do it themselves? At work, at home…

A successful manager delegates the work, rather than doing it herself. She focuses on making sure she has a team that can do the work – through hiring, training, resourcing – sets up systems that support an effective workflow, makes sure the team knows what success looks like, and manages up.

An unsuccessful manager says that she’s the only one who can do the work. That she wants to spare her team. That they don’t do it the way that she would do it. That it’s too important to let anyone else work on it. That it will take longer to train her team than to do it herself.

And then the unsuccessful manager burns out.

Which manager are you?

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