The Value of Teaching My Team Everything I Know: Should I Fear I'm Training My Replacement?

Dating back to ancient Rome, great thinkers have believed “while we teach, we learn.” Modern research has confirmed that.

It’s easy to forget that when you find yourself leading a team of talented fire-breathers who could be gunning for your job one day. If you teach them everything you know, that day could come sooner rather than later. The alternative is to sandbag, withholding key information in order to remain indispensable.

That’s the wrong play. You aren’t indispensable, and not doing your job makes you at best uncooperative, at worst a saboteur. What you need to do is reframe the question as something other than an either/or proposition.

Remember that you’re in change of the team because someone saw something in you. Perhaps you were promoted because of your track record of performance or maybe you’re in management because you have the organizational and planning skills so many top performers lack.

Remember, too, that there’s also research indicating that humans are lousy at teamwork. It’s possible for everyone to become better at collaboration if they are shown how. That’s where you come in.

Set the tone. When your team members see you making a genuine effort, even though there’s a potential long-term downside because, yes, some of them are indeed eying your office, they are more likely to respond with that same effort.

There are other practical reasons for imparting all your knowledge. Many managers, particularly new ones, make the mistake of still trying to do their old jobs. The problem is, when you’re doing hands-on work your team should be handling, you’re neglecting tasks only you can do. Your bosses will notice, and your team will, too. There might be a short-term productivity lag as you train your team but, ultimately, everyone fares better when your hands are off and you let the system works the way it’s supposed to.

At times, you could be right if you think you’re training your replacement. Have you suddenly found yourself not on a need-to-know basis on key initiatives? Is there a regular after-hours golf outing you’re never asked to join?

Oh. Wait. You hate golf. But you also hate that others are getting face time on the links, and you’re not.

In either of those situations, it never hurts to talk. We often avoid hard discussions—at work and at home—out of pain avoidance. Perhaps no discomfort is worse than nagging uncertainty.

Ask the boss point blank: Are there concerns about my performance? The tone need not be confrontational – a bad attitude is the quickest way to cement an idea that might have been only flitting across the boss’s mind. If you take a positive approach, you’ll emerge with an answer and maybe some valuable guidance about how you could improve.

Even if you get the impression that all hope is lost—nonverbal cues can be as much of a tip-off as actual words—continue to do an awesome job at everything, and that includes training your team.

If you’re going to be in the job market soon, you’ll need references. When potential employers start asking around, you’re better off if they hear you did top-notch work under horrible circumstances than if their network tells them you passive-aggressively sabotaged the company when it became clear that you were toast.

In the end, it’s not about loyalty to the company, it’s about loyalty to yourself. There is virtually no downside to giving your team members the training, skills and know-how they need to excel. There are a ton of potential pitfalls in sandbagging.

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