Working oneself out of a job (WOOOJ, pronounced like “whoosh”) means attempting to make your position unnecessary. This can be done by eliminating unnecessary tasks, simplifying necessary tasks, training others how to do what you do, delegating duties to subordinates, and otherwise reducing the need for you to remain involved in your present position.
There can be both selfish and selfless reasons to pursue a WOOOJ strategy. On the selfish side, an employee might opt for WOOOJ so as to become less essential for (i.e., less tied to) jobs that pay less or hold little appeal, and more available for better jobs. From the perspective of a business owner, WOOOJ can result in an enterprise capable of running itself without your constant supervision, making it more valuable to a potential buyer. From a supervisor’s or chief executive’s perspective, it can be more efficient to hire people and assemble a team that can handle the moment-by-moment tasks without you, leaving you free to do your real job — that is, to focus on managing and leading.
On the selfless side, people pursue a WOOOJ strategy in a variety of contexts. Parents adopting this strategy seek to raise children who can stand on their own. Ministers and missionaries may want to expand their proselytizing reach, and to enhance the local flavor of their religion, by training many others (preferably, from the target region) to do their ministerial work. Employees who are faking it may feel a duty to be honest about their actual contribution to an organization. Nonprofit organizations may recognize an obligation to meet real needs in their target communities, as distinct from merely insuring their own continued existence in ways that can actually harm those communities.
As illustrated in another post, the attempt to work oneself out of a job can fit within a larger strategy of prioritizing among multiple tasks.
I had heard of this concept of working yourself out of a job, and in fact I had tried it once. I decided to do a refined Google search on the concept. That search yielded a total of 60 hits. This post summarizes what I got from those 60 webpages, along with the one webpage that I got from a companion search of Google Scholar.
A few of the 60 were not useful for my purposes. One was just an entry in a Spanish-English dictionary. One was a notice of a workshop that would be touching on the topic in connection with parenting. Another was an ad for a CD on working yourself out of a job. There were 1 2 3 that required me to buy their CD or pay a fee to read their article. One used the phrase “working yourself out of a job” but did not really seem to be about that. Another 1 2 3 sites were republications of other sites arising in the search, or were simply duds with no useful content.
The majority of the websites were positive on the general WOOOJ idea. There were some exceptions. An article in EuroWeeklyNews advised people not to work so hard as to impair their own employability by making themselves sick or making mistakes due to fatigue. IAAP similarly warned that obsessive passion about one’s career could lead to burnout and other adverse consequences.
Several websites treated “empowerment” as a key part of the WOOOJ concept. For example, Jamie Rohrbaugh defined leadership as an activity that “empowers and equips your people.” Mari agreed that leadership is a matter of “empowering others to learn, grow, and develop” that usually “includes a few mistakes.” In the corporate context, a YouTube video described empowerment as the opposite of “command and control,” and said it is often not implemented in companies because of fear and trust in the decision to hand off crucial functions to employees.
A number of the websites referred to WOOOJ in connection with Christian ministry or missionary work. The concept here, expressed in a quote from a book by T. Stanley Soltau, was as follows:
The goal in missionary work will be achieved only as a church is established which is independent and indigenous. . . . Every foreign missionary should so plan and so carry on his work under the leadership of the Holy Spirit that there should be no need for a missionary [i.e., foreign] successor to him when he comes to lay down his work.
In the words of Stephen Burgert, “We’re forever trying to pass the baton and let others carry the torch forward.” While religious work was the focus of those webpages, the core ideas seemed similar to those expressed in various secular webpages.
The ministerial webpages also tapped into a different line of thought. Some people saw WOOOJ as a way of advancing oneself personally, while others were thinking of it in a mindset of altruism or service to others. The missionary quote (above) illustrates the latter: the missionary should establish a church that can survive without the assistance of people like him/her. The goal in that case was not to provide humane assistance to others, but rather to advance an organizational (in this case religious) agenda, as noted by Kathi Macias: “[W]e were to be busy discipling others to follow in our footsteps and to extend the ministry far beyond anything we ourselves could ever reach.” Either way, though, the purpose was not personal advancement.
Other religious webpages illustrated this distinction more clearly. Carla Sunberg urged her colleagues within the Church of the Nazarene to “pray that God will develop our servant leaders with hearts that will not feel threatened by the success of others, but rather, with hearts that will soar when they work themselves out of a job.” She advised church bureaucrats to train others to take over their positions, so as to groom the next generation of leaders. Similarly, Nick Scott told church leaders not to be “ME-centered” like Saul, who kept trying to remain in power when instead he should have welcomed David, the newcomer who would go on to become Israel’s greatest king. Nick said, “Whatever I have, all that I have, I want to give it away. I want to build up leaders.” In a youth ministry webpage, Tony Hevener talked about doing ministry “with students instead of doing it for them or to them,” in “a philosophy and approach to ministry that will work you out of the job in some cases,” as you become a cheerleader and send students forth to change the world. Similarly, a ChurchWhisperers.org webpage discussed the role of an interim pastor working with a search committee. The webpage advised against the conflict-of-interest situation in which the interim would throw his/her hat in the ring for the permanent position being filled. In another illustration of the selfless WOOOJ concept, Jamie Rohrbaugh described Christian leadership as something that “makes your people even better at things than you are” and “finds each person’s gift and teaches them how to function in it 100% effectively” so that “they no longer need me to lead them.” Gary Troubee criticized the concept of leadership succession in which pastors “do our job for 20 years and then hand it off to an 18 year old.” In contrast to the mindset in which pastors stay in charge until they are in their 40s or 50s and then start looking for successors, Troubee said,
[I]f your the only one or the one who most often stands on the platform in leadership in any capacity and you’ve been there more than 5 years it’s time to start asking yourself some very serious questions.
Parenthood is another area in which, like ministry, numerous webpages referred to WOOOJ. On one webpage, Jim Jonas said, “My job as a parent is to work myself out of a job.” Jim explains that he has a half-dozen kids and, as such, has found it necessary to bring his children along so that the oldest ones
have grown and matured to a point that they are helping me work with the other children more than I am working with them. To put it into cold, unfeeling terms, the projects have become project managers. Alternatively, the gifts have begun giving, and not just to me, but to their siblings and the rest of the world.
Likewise, a Pinterest page quoted Karen Tyler as saying, “In mothering, if you do it right, you work yourself out of a job.” Coach Stevie B explained that the goal is to give children “grounding in the formative years” so that they will “know what to do and how to do it,” leaving the parents to serve as a continuing point of reference. Dawn Davenport said, “I want to launch my kids into their own universe where they are their own decider.” Connie suggested that this process involves hands-on training — typically by Mom, for the girls, and by Dad, for the boys — to “equip them well for life on their own.” Natalie Hale applied the idea of working yourself out of a job to the specific task of teaching your child to read: “It’s short-term employment with lifelong benefits.” In family life and elsewhere, Terry Luschen distinguished discrete tasks (which you should be handing off) from the relationship (which is constantly being built). In a different family context, Debbie Young said that a postpartum doula, unlike a nanny, is motivated to work herself out of a job by constantly asking herself, “What will they do when I am not here?” That priority calls for helping the new parents understand their baby’s sleep cycles, rather than merely handling nighttime duties for them.
In contrast to these religious and familial illustrations of selfless attempts at WOOOJ for the sake of other people or for advancement of a particular religion, numerous webpages recommended WOOOJ for the seemingly paradoxical purpose of advancing one’s own career.
First, from the perspective of the supervisor or employer, Robert Greiner recommended that “you should always be trying to work yourself out of a job” — by which he meant “building up your team in such a way that someday you could walk away from your project and everything would continue running normally without a hitch” — and simultaneously focusing on “working yourself into the next job,” delegating some functions in order to “trade-up for tasks that provide more value or have more visibility.” Bernadine advised, “Don’t fall into the ‘if I’m busy, I must be important’ trap.” See also Paul Alves, who said, “I have always viewed my job of CEO as that of a coach. I recruit smart people to join our team, provide a strategic direction, advise on process and execution, but ultimately I can not do it all. . . . [M]y suggestion is to put your ego aside and create an organization that can operate without you.” Martin Babinec agreed:
Once you find the right people to surround yourself with, work hard at making yourself dispensable. Your success as a leader has more to do with building an organization that runs smoothly without you than it does being dependent on your being in the thick of every decision.
Natalie Cheney went further, recommending that the business owner create a WOOOJ work ethic throughout the organization, so that it will survive the departure of key personnel at any level. Hugh MacLeod added more drama to the change by publicly announcing that, in two years, he would no longer be in his current job — because, he said, this cutoff date would focus intent, create a specific end point, and define a window within which things must happen.
As a different example of how working yourself out of a job can yield financial rewards, Grif Frost observed that a small business in Hawaii would tend to sell for a much higher price if it could be run by a new buyer on a part-time basis, rather than being highly dependent upon full-time-plus efforts by its present owner. Frost advised allowing three to six months for the transition, and focusing during those months on delegating the tasks you don’t enjoy to staff or to independent contractors. Dale Tyson wrote a WOOOJ book that also appeared to develop the perspective of the small business owner.
From the employee’s perspective, Robert Greiner said,
Working yourself out of a job is challenging. It takes you out of your comfort zone and leaves you vulnerable. However, the potential rewards are well worth the risk. If you don’t agree with me, just consider the alternative approach of living in a world of job protection and CYA tactics year after year.
Greiner’s point seemed to be that WOOOJ not only helps you to obtain more responsible and visible positions; it also frees you from playing games to preserve and protect your existing position. David Klemke contended that such self-protection is bad for the business that becomes overly vulnerable to that single employee who has made him/herself indispensable, and in the long run it is bad for the employee too: such a person will be too valuable to be promoted, and is not likely to develop skills that will keep him/her in demand when the bottleneck is finally eliminated. Ultimately, Klemke said, anyone is replaceable.
Those who opt for Greiner’s approach may tend to be confident and motivated enough to try to rise within the organization. Rick Weaver said, “Job security is increased when your mindset is to eliminate your job” because employees who actively seek ways to achieve that outcome will “find creative ways to get the job done” and “look for redundancies and unnecessary tasks” — and supervisors will notice and appreciate what you’ve done. In support of that last claim, one source quoted Christopher Elmore for the promise, “If you work yourself out of a job, I will promote you.” Santa CAD seemed to embody some conflicts within this mentality: he said he went partway toward making his job unnecessary; his company responded by eliminating his position; he already had “a few job offers”; he felt the company would soon “discover their foolishness” in thinking they had no need of someone like him; but in the meantime, he did seem a bit rueful about their response to his initiative. Shades of Gray contrasted WOOOJ against the job-protection mentality of the Detroit auto unions where, as one respondent puts it, “If you work fast, then that becomes the new standard and you get your ass kicked [by fellow employees] in the parking lot.” Another respondent at that webpage agreed: “I’m just there for the money. I don’t see why these new guys have to come and try to work their ass off.”
Greg Meyer advised, “You should already be trying to work your way out of a job by being more productive, learning more, and doing things faster.” Instead of waiting to receive a pink slip, Meyer said, you should act like it has already happened — so that you can “spend more time working on the things you like to do and the things that provide value to you and the people around you.” Randall Craig echoed that: by making extra time, “you can redefine your job to include new challenges” and can make yourself available for “career-enhancing special projects.” Peter T. Davis noted that there is also a moral element: be honest with yourself. If you aren’t really needed, trim down your job and get yourself out of there to a place that does need you. Jason McNeal felt that work is no longer primarily about mass production. It is, rather, about individualization and relationships. In my interpretation, McNeal was saying that you create strong relationships, and thus grow your business and your employability, when you are thinking in terms of what is best for the client.
WOOOJ was also applied to situations and relationships outside of a single family, business, or other organizational unit. In a professional context, Daphna Levy-Hernandez drew a direct parallel with parenting to describe her efforts, as a life coach, to move her clients to a point where she is no longer needed: “If they are as dependent on you in their adulthood as they were in their youth, you have failed as a parent!” A forum thread discussed WOOOJ between companies, where one did its job very well and thus made itself unnecessary to the company that had hired it. Colleen Moffitt said that, in her business of public relations, her company was always trying to lose accounts by helping client corporations become eligible for acquisition by other companies. The business rationale seemed to be that success in that effort would more than pay for itself in new business referrals.
Similar self-elimination could happen — indeed, it may be required — in governmental contexts. Namawinelake treated an agency known as the National Asset Management Agency, apparently created for purposes of a specific task, as others (above) have treated individuals — calling for it to wrap up its work and prepare to close down as its creating government intended, rather than attempt to keep itself alive and preserve its employees’ jobs indefinitely. Jamie Henneman described a similar situation in connection with the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency. (Note my own WOOOJ experience in the massive but temporary organization created to resolve America’s national banking crisis in the late 1980s.) Mysa-Admin characterized the role of the U.S. Army in Iraq, circa 2007, as an example of WOOOJ, insofar as the time had come for the Iraqi army to start doing the heavy lifting. WOOOJ can even be applied to politics, as where Fighter #1 suggested that politicians should set up systems to automate their positions whenever possible, just as good computer programmers do, so as to replace them with smarter machines capable of solving problems that the politicians remain unable to solve.
Daryl Conner posited three levels of self-sufficiency:
- Light transfer means helping clients learn how to handle current projects, leaving them “highly dependent on the [external consultant] for about 80% of the change facilitation that will be needed on subsequent initiatives.”
- Moderate transfer means helping clients develop a solid base of understanding and skill to handle future problems, with ~30% dependence on the consultant.
- Deep transfer means helping the client develop “a degree of expertise that rivals the practitioner’s.”
Some of these situations suggest a fuzzy line between WOOOJ for purposes of helping oneself and for purposes of helping others: it seems that both can occur simultaneously. Abby Perkins said WOOOJ does mean prioritizing organizational rather than individual goals — although, contrary to most interpretations, she also hedged her bets by suggesting that WOOOJ doesn’t actually mean making yourself redundant. In another piece, Perkins applied WOOOJ at the level of the corporate department, quoting Shannon McFayden for the view that a human resources department should “help leaders get really good at attracting, developing, and engaging talent — so good that they don’t need us anymore.” Against the fear of self-jeopardization, Perkins repeated the view that “this mentality of self-preservation is bad for companies, and it’s bad for individuals.” Kristin was less ambiguous about it: in the nonprofit world, she said, your organization should in fact work itself out of a job, but that just means the organization must then move along “and discover what new job you can create that will be relevant to the needs of the community.” That, said John, is unheard-of in the corporate world and remains “a lofty ideal” in much of the nonprofit development world as well.
Finally, several of the webpages arising in my Google search focused on how to work yourself out of a job. Daryl Conner said that thoroughly working yourself out of a job means leaving the other person or organization in a place where they know what to do when a need arises, they understand why the action is necessary, and they are prepared to pass that knowledge and ability on to others. Abby Perkins recommended three things: share your knowledge and expertise; work toward organizational rather than personal goals; and keep the big picture in mind. Mari said, develop yourself first (by seeking feedback and otherwise learning about relevant matters) and then help to develop others (by providing positive and corrective feedback, delegating, helping team members incorporate their passion into their daily work, caring about team members, expecting them to care, and focusing on two rather than ten big development opportunities for the coming year). Doug Packard recommended building a spreadsheet of current activities to determine what you are good at and what you like, to identify a responsibility you can assign to someone else — preferably to managers who, when asked, volunteer interest in taking on that particular responsibility.
That concludes this summary of the insights offered on 60 webpages identified through a refined Google search on the topic of working yourself out of a job.