“Everyone is replaceable.”
For so many years I have heard this phrase bandied about any time someone considers leaving or expresses frustration with their current environment. Recently a friend in the US reached out to me to share her experience and it has stuck with me as I have navigated resignations from team members and post-covid job frustration from friends and colleagues.
During a recent half-year performance evaluation, her boss (an executive on the team) asked her if she had given any thought to what she wanted to do next. Because she hadn’t considered that she would stop doing what she was responsible for at the time, she instead started talking about her longer term (4 – 5 years) plans to become a CFO (his job…oops). After she shared what she thought she needed to focus on to be prepared for that leap in a few years, she suddenly noticed that his gaze had gone cold and that she had apparently stepped into dangerous territory. What had felt like a safe space for brainstorming, suddenly took on a chill that she hadn’t expected.
What came out of his mouth next was wounding, even if it is so cliche and oft repeated as to be something she assumed was true…
“Everyone is replaceable.”
She gulped and waited to see what else he would say. When nothing came she said “Yes. Of course.”
To which he replied, “Let me know when you know more about your next steps. I can start figuring out who we can replace you with.”
She told him that she had no intention of leaving any time soon. She shared that she had been dreaming of the long-term future. She expressed how much she enjoys her current role in the team and would like to take on more responsibility.
Her attempts to be understood seemed to get through. At the very least he seemed to thaw out a bit as he said “Well good. It’s not like I couldn’t replace you, <pause> maybe I’d even find someone with more experience. But finding your replacement right now would be a pain in the ass and the team would be pretty upset if you left.”
Later over zoom coffee as she told me this story, she still seemed shook. When I asked what was troubling her, she said, “Every time he said the word ‘replace’ it felt like a gut punch. Of course I know that I am replaceable, but I’m curious why it hurts so much to hear.”
I gave it quite a bit of thought over the coming days. I weighed it against my own experience of being told I was replaceable either explicitly or implicitly. And what has really struck me is that this phrase is meant to both hurt the leaving party and protect the person being left. Brené Brown would probably call it armor…something you wear as a leader to protect yourself from being vulnerable. But more importantly the message it sends to the humans you work with can wound.
Here is how I think about it…
- Every task can be performed by another human. We can substitute someone else in to pick up the work…and that person might perform the tasks at the same level or be better or worse at the task across time. But that doesn’t make someone replaceable.
- Every time a team member joins the team or leaves the team, the team is a new team. The reason is that a each human brings their skills, personality, and offering to the table. And the team is then built around the humans on the team. Is it possible that a team is better when someone leaves or when someone joins? Totally. But that is not equivalent to replacement.
- Replaceability indicates that each person is some sort of machine…or maybe worse…just spare parts. It also indicates that as a leader I can lift, shift, and install different parts in order to keep the machine running. But that is not how humans work. It is also not how teams work. Spare parts are replaceable, humans are not.
People come and go. And sometimes as leaders we play a part in their decision. Sometimes someone has left because I’ve encouraged them to take a bigger role but not been able to provide it for them. Sometimes someone has left because they have a negative impact on this particular team and culture…the fit is off. Sometimes a person leaves because they don’t like how I (or another leader) lead…there is a style or vision mismatch. There are so many reasons for leaving and joining, and each reason, like the person making the decision, is unique.
And each time, we are made different by the person’s departure.
We won’t replace you. Instead we will honor the space you held and the person you are. We will congratulate you on finding a new adventure. We will celebrate and/or mourn your departure. And will will do the most honorable thing we know to do…find someone to take on your tasks and begin the work of reinventing the team to honor the new joiner. We will honor your hard work and contribution by carrying on in our service to customers and stakeholders.
Every human has an impact. Thank you for yours. You are not replaceable.