People can(‘t) be replaced

As I continue to dive more deeply into the field of professional development, I hear more and more stories about the lack of appreciation in the workplace. Employee turnover is rampant.  Teams are disengaged. Or there is one bad apple who is spoiling the whole bunch.

When I hear these things I start to wonder… what is the root cause?

With many variables and parties at play, it’s hard to pin one specific cause down. But one thing I’ve noticed over time is the unhealthy and transactional nature of this expression: “People can be replaced.”


I do believe that there are many people capable of performing a single job. There are an abundance of smart, ambitious, talented people in the world to make our teams and companies better. But just because there are many people who can perform a job, is that a reason to discount the unique value and talent of the individuals who actually do perform them?

Imagine you’re a business owner or founder of an organization, and that a potential customer discounts the value of your product.  

But our product is different,” you insist.  

“Okay. What makes it different?” the customer inquires.  

I’m supremely confident you can reel off five to ten reasons how your product is different, and why it is important that the customer give you a chance. I don’t imagine you say, “Actually, our product is no different. It can be replaced.”

We’re good at understanding the unique value and benefits of the products and services we offer. That is what our companies are initially built on, often out of significant personal investment and sacrifice. But the key word is “initially,” and as a company grows, it’s the people of the business who make it grow in the long-term. It’s the people who build the products, serve the customers, and ultimately carry out the mission and vision of the company.

So why do we hear this expression of “people can be replaced” in the workplace?

I suspect it emerged to remove some of the emotion related to terminating an employee. Or to rationalize our emotions or discomfort on how to respond in the face of conflict. Regardless of the reason, the saying alone is so transactional that by saying it and repeating it… it appears we start believing it…or, even more significant, becoming it.

In the data science world, there is an analysis called a “holdout” test. It takes a function (i.e. website) and shows the entirety of a site to a group of people (Group A). It simultaneously shows the site less one variable to another group of people (Group B). In essence, it’s removing a variable, “holding it out”, to understand its value. The question to be discovered:  How does the removal of this variable affect consumer behavior, and ultimately our business?

It is transactional. Often digital. But it is very powerful and can have a significant impact on business decisions. The rationale for a holdout provides insights to the adage, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.  

But here’s the thing: People are not technology-based variables that can be removed and then re-inserted with the flip of a switch. They are not transactional. And by expressing things like “people can be replaced,” we’re treating them that way.

So what can we do about this? It’s a bit complex to answer in this forum, and every situation is different...   

But it begins with checking your mindset.

If we start with a core belief in the value of something — or even commit to discovering the value of something — we’ll be in a better position to reflect, explore, and appreciate what it has to offer. Whether it’s our people, customers, products or work environment.  

It circles back to having a growth mindset. By entering a situation without judgment, we can ask questions and allow ourselves to be curious and continually discover. We can challenge ourselves to think critically about the drivers of our behavior. And in doing so, we can open our minds to possibilities.  

Questions to ask yourself:

“What’s driving my thought process that people can be replaced?

“What’s stopping me from appreciating and valuing my people?”

“What can I do to more effectively communicate how much I value and appreciate my people?”


Believing that “people can be replaced” runs contrary to the depth and complexity of relationships. It undermines our collaboration with others in the workplace — our ability to think and imagine, to evolve, connect and grow together.

If you can genuinely appreciate this beauty and live it, the opportunities for our people, teams, and companies will be boundless. And if you struggle to appreciate, then please stop saying it.  Even that’s a start.