Who is the most dangerous person in your business? If I suggest you start by looking at your “indispensable” employee as dangerous, would you be shocked? In fact, it’s not unusual to find most career experts include advice to “make yourself indispensable” among their recommendations. So what’s the problem? Let me make a distinction – there’s a difference between what I call the indispensable heroes and the indispensable martyrs. The savvy business owner knows how to encourage heroes, recognize and eliminate martyrs.
How do you distinguish the indispensable martyr? Generally, it starts out innocently enough…she is the go-to gal! She gets things done! She creates the procedures and organizes your systems. And she is rewarded for all the above so she continues to amass more authority and responsibility. You cannot imagine your business without her and there’s not a decision or a project that this person doesn’t have a hand in. Sounds harmless…and it is in the beginning. Imperceptibly, a line is quietly crossed and this person goes from being the hero of your business to a martyr and it’s time to take action.
How do you know the line has been crossed? A martyr is generally defined as someone who suffers or dies for a cause – in this case, the cause is your business. There are a few warning signs. The indispensable martyr has an astounding amount of knowledge but is ungenerous about sharing it. Hoarding knowledge to maintain their power and position is common. She works long hours, rarely takes a vacation and when she does, some projects and responsibilities come to a hold until her return. Or worse, work must be redone when she returns because no one knows how to do it “right.” She’s known for being too busy to train anyone to relieve her workload. Team members simultaneously in awe and intimidated by this her – her authority is unquestioned. Systems and procedures designed to help grow the business may automate the martyr’s authority rather than deliver on strategic efficiency initiatives. Ultimately your business growth will be inhibited because systems and procedures won’t scale under the control of one person.
Fire the martyrs, even if it’s you. OK…firing is a strong action. But your business future depends upon taking swift action to minimize the risk of dependence on any single individual. And the truth is the martyr can be your greatest partner in making the transition if you proceed with care.
It all starts with you! Be the hero of your own business by modelling behaviors based upon your Core Values. If you value “innovation,” encourage a questioning culture unafraid to fail. If you value “empowerment,” model cross-training and reward delegation and resourcefulness. If you value “efficiency,” reward those who recommend and implement streamlined processes and systems. If you value “teamwork,” foster a culture that celebrates team successes. If your goal is growth, involve all employees in designing personal performance goals and rewards tied directly to your mission and strategic initiatives.
If you’ve unintentionally rewarded martyr behavior in the past, these changes may initially be difficult for the indispensable employee. Bring her on board early and encourage her participation in fostering a new culture which rewards heroes. The truth is a martyr simply wants to contribute and feel valued for her contribution. Appeal to her need for validation and she may become your biggest business hero. Recognize this person may not have the organizational credibility and trust necessary to lead the transition– that’s your job – but she can help you champion cultural changes rather than see them as a threat.
Small steps to a Better than Ever Business…
Spend a few minutes imagining the culture you want to create and brainstorm ways you can transform your martyr into an indispensable hero.