"No Fred, we're not considering you for that promotion. You're too valuable where you are." How many of us have heard those words, or said them at least once to our staff? Sometimes, we use the "too valuable" phrase to avoid discussing problems with a staff member, problems you can bring out in the open and manage.
A Problematic Truth: When Someone Is Too Valuable
If Fred is indeed too valuable, then you've missed a managerial opportunity to make sure other people were cross-trained to fill needs that are important to your organization. You are also unprepared to promote Fred to the next level when he is ready. If you find yourself in this position, instead of "too valuable," you could say something like this to Fred:
Because I haven't thought about the problems you take care of in my group, you have become too valuable where you are. I messed up by not having someone else available to take over your work so I could promote you. Let's put together a plan to fix that.
After all, if you have a too-valuable employee, what would happen if that person quit tomorrow? What actions would you take to get the work done? Plan those actions now, so you aren't trapped with a "too-valuable Fred," and Fred doesn't feel trapped in a role he is ready to move beyond.
Maybe Fred is the magician in the test team (most test teams have one): he can find a bug in any software in five minutes, just by staring at the screen. If you let his talent become a ball and chain that holds him back, he may lose his magical powers, or take them elsewhere.
Not Quite Enough Experience: When They're Not Ready Now
Maybe you have an employee whose capabilities don't yet match their ambitions. When Fred doesn't have enough experience to be ready for the promotion, the "too valuable" phrase doesn't help him plan his next steps for getting the promotion he wants. You could say something like this to Fred:
You make valuable contributions to this team. However, based on your current behaviors and accomplishments, you have not yet shown me that you are ready to do the job you want to do. Let's put together a criteria list of activities and behaviors I'd like to see from you before I promote you.