How to Become an Indispensable Employee with Bruce Tulgan

At the beginning of July 2020, there were approximately 17.8 million people unemployed in the United States. In the face of sweeping layoffs and shutdowns, the economy feels wild and unpredictable. When managers are forced to make tough decisions, you don’t want to be the one finding a pink slip on your (virtual) desk. The question you need to answer is how to become an indispensable part of your organization. 

In a recent episode of The Work Remix podcast, I discussed this question with Bruce Tulgan, management trainer and author of the brand new book, The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment and Get the Right Things Done. He illustrated what it means to be indispensable at work by telling a short anecdote centered on an interaction between an indispensable manager and a challenging client. 

“Darren” manages the quality assurance team for a major appliance manufacturer. If any orders end up faulty or incomplete, he’s the one who takes responsibility. He knows that even small mistakes can lead to logistical problems down the line and may even pose a danger to customers who end up with broken appliances.

Darren has one client in particular, a supplier named “Connie,” who shows up with dozens of fresh, chocolate brownies every time she delivers a large order. In any other circumstance, this would be seen as a kind and generous gesture. However, the manager notices that when brownies show up on delivery days, faulty parts are more likely to slip past the inspectors.

In short, Connie has been bribing the quality assurance team to overlook small mistakes in her orders. 

Here’s what Darren doesn’t do to solve this issue. He doesn’t scold Connie for bribing the quality assurance team. He doesn’t threaten to drop her from the client contract. 

Instead, he interprets the brownies as a cry for help. Connie knows that she’s prone to mistakes in her orders but doesn’t know how to fix the problem. Therefore, Darren offers to sit down with Connie and they create a pre-delivery checklist together. 

Why does this make Darren indispensable to his organization?


Indispensable Employees Serve Their Teams Well

Bruce Tulgan says that truly indispensable employees are those who serve their teams well. Darren served a client by putting aside his own assumptions, listening to her and coming up with a practical solution to a problem. He looked beneath the action of the brownie bribe and realized that Connie must really be worried about not getting the results she wanted. 

In summary, being indispensable means being:

  • reliable
  • empathetic 
  • effective

An indispensable person honors people’s needs while also completing projects on time and on budget. Darren could have shut down Connie’s desire to serve and outlawed the brownies. It would have solved the bribery issue, but it also could have caused Connie to feel rejected and unappreciated. Darren, however, found a solution that met all the needs involved. 

Indispensable Employees Choose Who They Say Yes To

With the rise of the internet and the expansion of the global economy, most jobs in the United States have increased in speed and complexity. Companies have had to survive crisis after crisis. There was the Dotcom bust, 9/11, the Great Recession and now we’re navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. Companies have had to become leaner and more flexible. Workers rely on technology that has gotten more and more advanced, but easier and easier to use. This increase in speed means that employers are trying to get more and more out of every employee.

This drive for leanness and productivity has led organizations to eliminate layers of management. Rather than just reporting to your direct supervisor, you may have to deal with your boss, teammates, customers and other department directors. You now have people from all over the organization – up, down sideways and diagonal – making requests of you all the time. And meanwhile, you are forced to rely on just as many people without being able to hold them accountable. 

The problem is that if you say yes to all these people, you’ll collapse under a large and chaotic workflow. If you try to do everything for everyone, you won’t be good at serving others. Remember how Bruce defines indispensability: being reliable, empathetic and effective. 

If you say yes to everyone, you won’t be able to complete projects on time (unreliable), you won’t have time to sit and listen to people’s deeper problems and fears (unempathetic) and you won’t stay focused on the projects that are truly important to your company (ineffective). You must choose who you say yes to.

Often, the reason people try to do everything for everyone is that they don’t want to feel the immediate discomfort of saying no. Indispensable employees know how to prioritize their tasks and only say yes to the projects that will add value to their organizations.

Becoming an indispensable member of your organization doesn’t have to be complicated. When faced with a decision or critical issue, simply stop, listen and then execute a strategy that puts other people’s needs above your own.


My new book, Recalculating: Navigate Your Career Through the Changing World of Work is now available for pre-order!

Take the next step in becoming an indispensable employee by developing your multigenerational leadership skills. I’ve gathered my top management advice into “The Multigenerational Manager’s Handbook: 25 Practical Ways to Manage Across Generations.” Download your free copy here.

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Lindsey is a globally recognized career and workplace expert and the leading voice on generational diversity. She has spoken for more than 300 audiences including Google, Goldman Sachs, Estee Lauder, Stanford and Wharton. Lindsey is the author of four career and workplace advice books, and her insights have appeared in media outlets including The TODAY Show, CNBC, NPR, the Harvard Business Review and the Wall Street Journal.


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