Learning & Development, Talent

The Challenge for Employees Seen as ‘Irreplaceable’

Knowledge sharing is a key issue in many organizations. The transfer of knowledge from experienced industry experts with a long history in the organization to newer, less experienced colleagues is usually the goal.


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Unfortunately, the company’s interests sometimes conflict with the perceived interests of individual employees. When it comes to knowledge sharing, employees often feel it’s in their best interests to limit the amount of knowledge they share so that they appear irreplaceable.

The Big Problem with Being ‘Irreplaceable’

Many employees feel threatened when they are encouraged to share knowledge with or train others. They believe that sharing their exclusive knowledge makes them more expendable and that anyone who gains a piece of their proprietary knowledge becomes a potential replacement.

The challenge for managers when faced with such employees is to convince their staff that they should not want to be seen as irreplaceable. While this might seem like a tough sell at first, there is a good reason that can help convince staff members to share their knowledge and train others: Irreplaceable employees are extremely difficult to promote!

A Case in Point

Consider a hypothetical internal subject matter expert (SME) at a manufacturing firm. This SME is the only person in the organization with in-depth knowledge of, and experience working with, a particular type of metal used in making a key product sold by the firm.

The SME might think she is well served by withholding her knowledge to retain her position as the sole SME for her job—she’s the only employee who can fill a key role.

But, what if a management position opens that she is highly qualified for? Management will recognize that she is the most highly qualified candidate, but it may also feel it can’t promote her because she is imperative for that role.

Bigger Benefits for Sharing

If the SME in our hypothetical example had been willing to share knowledge and train additional staff in her key function, she would have opened herself up to greater opportunities. Instead, she will remain in her current role unless, and until, the organization feels it can get by with someone else.

This is one of the main reasons employees are hesitant to share knowledge, and they often don’t realize it because it seems counterintuitive: Being irreplaceable isn’t necessarily a good thing.

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