Research: The More Essential Your Job Is to Your Company, the Happier You’ll Be

Say you’re a lawyer, and you’re evaluating competing job offers — one from a law firm, and the other for a general counsel role in a tech company. Which one should you take?

This is a complicated question, and one that professionals face all the time. If you’re a marketer, you have to decide whether you’d prefer to work for a marketing agency or in the marketing department of an organization. If you’re a programmer, you have to decide between jobs in the technology field and technological jobs in nontechnical organizations — law firms, publishing companies, universities, and so on.

While anyone’s choice will be influenced by a host of factors, from work-life balance to salary considerations to company culture, our research suggests that one factor to consider carefully is the extent to which the role is crucial to the organization’s mission. Roles that are “lynchpins” — a lawyer in a law firm, a marketer in a marketing agency, a programmer at a tech company — confer a host of benefits on the people who have them.

Over a series of five studies, we set out to learn what an organizational lynchpin looks like and to understand the benefits and costs of being in a lynchpin role. A core lynchpin position is one that offers critical, irreplaceable resources — that is, without these resources an organization could not achieve its primary goals and mission. A law firm cannot provide legal services without lawyers, for example, but a tech company could continue to operate for a long time without a general counsel. For any given role, the more pervasive its activities are in the company and the more immediately they would cease if the role went unfilled, the more core that position is.

It’s important to note that anyone in any role can be a core employee — someone who possesses valuable and unique knowledge, skills, and abilities. However, even core employees may hold a peripheral position in an organization. For example, a lawyer in a high-tech company (as opposed to a law firm) may be a great asset to the company, but because the job is not critical to the tech company’s mission, the lawyer is essentially peripheral. Conversely, not all employees who are in lynchpin positions become core employees. For example, in a law firm there are both partners (core) and associates (noncore). Both can reap the psychological benefits of being in a lynchpin position.

Across three studies with over 800 participants, we developed and validated a scale to assess four dimensions of a job’s “lychnpinness”: (1) how critical the work produced in the position is to the organizational mission; (2) whether the work can be performed or substituted by another position; (3) if nobody were to do this work, how immediately other work activities would cease; and (4) if nobody were to do this work, how many other work activities would cease (i.e., how pervasive the impact would be). It is these four attributes — criticality, nonsubstitutability, pervasiveness, and immediacy — that make an organizational lynchpin.

However, one might ask whether a self-reported measure of lynchpin status is valid. After all, many of us like to think that what we are doing at work is critical and irreplaceable. We conducted an additional study to assess whether there’s consensus among employees in different positions about which roles are the lynchpin ones. We asked 76 tenure-track faculty and 215 employees who held other positions within the same university to evaluate the lynchpin status of tenure-track faculty. We found a high consistency between the self-reported and other assessments. That is, employees holding other positions (as well as tenure-track faculty themselves) agreed that tenure-track faculty represent lynchpin positions within a university. While it’s possible that the role faculty play in a university is more obviously core than the role played by different employees in, say, a consumer goods firm, our findings tell us that there is a likelihood that employee self-reports are accurate.

The Advantages of Being an Organizational Lynchpin

Is being an organizational lynchpin all that it is cracked up to be? For instance, while being needed and important may enhance job security, it may not always be enjoyable if it results in long hours or frequent interruptions. With our scale in hand, we studied what benefits being an organizational lynchpin may produce. We predicted that being a lynchpin would lead to greater perceived meaningful work and higher emotional commitment to the organization, while at the same time leading to lower levels of perceived job insecurity and less job burnout. Surveying nearly 700 employees in many organizations, we found that criticality, nonsubstitutability, pervasiveness, and immediacy predicted more meaningful work, more emotional organization commitment, and less job insecurity and burnout. We found no downsides.

The major implications of our research for individuals regard career choices. When individuals enter the job market, they should consider whether the job is core or peripheral to their potential employer. Occupying a lynchpin position may offer greater opportunities to experience meaningful work, commitment to the organization, and less job insecurity and burnout. (One caveat is that we only tested these four factors; it’s possible that lynchpin roles may have downsides that we haven’t uncovered yet. It’s also possible that there are some downsides but the upsides make up for them, at least for most people.) Holding all else constant, a person might be advised to work for an organization where one’s position would be a core one.

There are also implications here for intra-company career moves. If your company offers you a transfer to a more core position, it’s worth considering. Although core positions often come with greater responsibility, employees should understand, counter to conventional wisdom, that such a position may be less likely to burn them out. Conversely, accepting a peripheral position may have unanticipated adverse consequences as a result of not being “in the thick of things.”

Most organizations want to keep their employees satisfied, especially employees who do important work in core positions. But our research suggests that organizations may get a better return on their engagement efforts if they purposely target employees in peripheral positions. After all, employees in peripheral positions are less likely to see their work as meaningful, have lower levels of emotional attachment to the organization, and are more likely to feel job insecurity and report burnout. Therefore, they may have the most to benefit from organizational efforts to enhance employee well-being.


This piece was originally published by Harvard Business Review.

Featured image by Steven Moore.

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