The Truth About Indispensable and Replaceable Employees

We all know words have power. 

The words we use as leaders, parents, friends, and even with strangers impact the day-to-day world we live in. The words used about us create constant opportunities for us to accept or reject the opinions of others. Often these words feel black and white when in reality there is a rainbow of perspectives that colors individual opinions.

People in leadership sometimes refer to team members as either indispensable or replaceable. This distinction is often related to an ongoing situation or singular action that created feelings of either appreciation or frustration. As motivated and engaged individuals, we don’t often think of ourselves as replaceable, rather, we typically think of ourselves as indispensable. Conversely, our tendency is often to view others as replaceable.

So, what is true? 

Are we indispensable, like we think we are or replaceable, like others think we are? Whatever our boss, clients, or direct reports believe about us at any given moment? The extreme nature of these two words implies that someone cannot simultaneously be both. Who ultimately determines indispensability: Leadership? Team? Performance metrics? 

The truth is that indispensable and replaceable are words that have no relevance to our value and purpose, whether in family, in business, or in life. Believing someone is replaceable minimizes their purpose. Believing someone is indispensable sets them up for failure because of arrogance, disappointment, or mistrust towards leadership when they say indispensable and the team disagrees.  


Performance is driven by motivation and purpose. 

Impact is driven by intentionality, work ethic, attitude, trustworthiness, and relationships. 


The combination of performance and impact inform the external perception of bosses, team members, and clients. Ultimately each person is individually responsible for their impact and the perception of others related to indispensability or replaceability. In order to accurately make that assessment of ourselves requires transparency, vulnerability, and accountability with ourselves and with others. This means candid conversations, sharing our perspectives of each other and the impact we experience.

As a leader, my responsibility to my team is to support their performance. 

This looks different for various team members, based on their role and personality. In order to successfully support my team, I have to understand their motivation, clarify their purpose, and set them up to successfully complete their responsibilities. Candid, respectful conversations don’t come easily to most people, but forcing ourselves to face the uncomfortable and be transparent and vulnerable makes the path to success so much easier.

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