SUPPOSE you are a lawyer and you are evaluating competing job offers, one from a law firm and another 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 are a marketer, you have to decide whether you would prefer to work for a marketing agency or in the marketing department of an organisation. If you are a programmer, you have to decide between jobs in the technology field and technological jobs in non-technical organisations – law firms, publishing companies, and universities and so on.

While anyone’s choice will be influenced by many factors, from work-life balance to salary considerations to company culture, our research suggested that one factor to consider carefully is the extent to which the role is crucial to the organisation’s mission. Roles that are “lynchpins” – a lawyer in a law firm, a marketer in a marketing agency, a programmer at a tech company – offer many benefits to the people who fill them. Over five studies, we set out to learn what an organisational lynchpin is and to understand the benefits and costs of occupying a lynchpin position.

A core lynchpin position is one that offers critical, irreplaceable resources – that is, without these resources, a company 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 its impact would be felt if the role went unfilled, the more core that position is. It is 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 organisation. 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 (non-core). Both can reap the psychological benefits of being in a lynchpin position. Across three studies with more than 800 participants, we developed and validated a scale to assess four dimensions of a job’s “lychnpinness”.

They are:

  1. How critical the work produced in the position is to the company’s 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;
  4. If nobody were to do this work, how many other work activities would cease (how pervasive the impact would be).

It is these four attributes – criticality, non-substitutability, pervasiveness and immediacy – that make an organisational 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 was consensus among employees in different positions about which roles were 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.

Advantages of being a lynchpin

Is being an organisational 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. We studied what benefits being an organisational lynchpin may produce. Surveying about 700 employees in many organisations, we found that criticality, non-substitutability, pervasiveness and immediacy predicted more meaningful work, more emotional organisation commitment and less job insecurity and burnout. 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 organisation, and less job insecurity and burnout.

There are also implications here for intra-company career moves. If your company offers you a transfer to a more core position, it is 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 companies want to keep their employees satisfied, especially employees who do important work in core positions.

But our research suggested that organisations may get a better return on their engagement efforts if they purposely targeted 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 company and are more likely to feel job insecurity and report burnout. Therefore, they may have the most to benefit from organisational efforts to enhance employee well-being.

This article was first published in The New York Times.

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