In more recent years, many workplace issues have come under the spotlight: diversity, benefits, work-day length, etc. For this article, however, I want to discuss the underdog of workplace issues, the Hero Syndrome.
The Hero Syndrome refers to the need, usually of an individual, to look for, create, and solve issues to justify their self-worth. In the case of companies and corporations, the “hero” or the company itself will create situations for the “hero” to solve. They must create these scenarios because day to day business does not require a constant hero. The company and “hero” have become so codependent, however, that they do not know how, or do not wish to, break the dependence even though it hinders productivity, efficiency, and is exhausting to both. The “hero” usually comes in one of two flavors: The Sacred Cow and The Dark Knight.
The Sacred Cow
I define the Sacred Cow as the “hero” who will never be let go because they have seen or know too much, or have been put on a pedestal for a one-time event and are living off that. I have seen it too many times. After a large exclusive deal goes down or an employee stops a large account from leaving, they are hoisted onto a pedestal and heralded as the savior. Then, over the next 3,4,5 – 10 years, the employee is still revered as the great miracle from 1988 who stopped Client X from leaving. The biggest issue with this is that it is rarely just one person who is responsible for great actions. There are usually teams and people helping the “hero” accomplish these feats. Those people, however, are overlooked and a single person is rewarded for the work of many. Here’s the thing, a one-time glorified event does not a lifetime make. By continuing to idolize that single employee, that company grants immunity to the employee in regard to critique or productivity. Sacred Cows can usually skate by on very little work and progress by simply riding the coattails of one great achievement for the rest of their careers. This stunts general productivity and builds resentment among the employees as the teams working with the Sacred Cow must pick up the ball whenever he or she drops it.
The Dark Knight
This “hero” usually spends majority of the day (not work-day, day) at the office, rarely emerging from his or her office, (or cave if you will) as he or she shoulders the many burdens and issues of the company. Notice I say company, not department or team. Dark Knights will not limit themselves to issues that concern only themselves or their department, they believe they are the hero the company needs not the one it deserves. So, they take on enormous amounts of work as they feel that they must be the ones that solve any and all problems. Dark Knights rush headfirst into any problematic situation, fueled by the adrenaline rush of saving the day. Though they may not show it, they relish the reliance and dependence that builds as the result. Dark Knights aren’t all born either, some are made. Companies begin to realize that they can rely, almost exclusively, on one employee and start to not only funnel problems their way but expect the Dark Knight to efficiently deal with those problems and their daily duties. At this point, you may be wondering to yourself, “Dana, this sounds like job security to me. Why is this such a problem?” This is a problem because this type of codependency is not only inefficient but also unsustainable and it fuels the fire under the Dark Knight to keep being the “hero.” If a large amount of the problems in a company are dependent on one person, what will happen if the person cannot perform the task or simply burns out? There will be nowhere else to go because that employee was the go-to-person. Not to mention, with the load of work Dark Knights usually take on, it is only a matter of time before they burn out. Also, the codependency feeds the Dark Knight’s Hero Syndrome. Dark Knights need to feel like they are constantly putting out fires or saving the day, and if there are no fires, they will light the fires themselves. While both the Dark Knight and the Sacred Cow are placed on a high pedestal, I would argue that the Dark Knight hits the ground hardest when he or she falls.
Combating Unnecessary Heroism
As I mentioned before, in day-to-day business, it is rare for everything to be in crisis mode, so everyday heroics are unnecessary and create stressors and burdens that do not need to be there. The best way to combat Hero Syndrome in a company is to put emphasis on teams and delegation and discourage excessive individual heroics. This does not mean that the company should not reward individuals if they are doing a good job. Of course, recognition must be given where it is due. However, the company must be wary of any one employee bearing more responsibility or credit than their position requires or deserves. One person in HR should not be holding up the whole department and one person in Marketing should not be receiving credit for the work the department does. Most times, this tone is set by the CEO and the leaders of the company. It is up to them to discourage the behavior and if they see it developing, talk to the “hero” and let them know that heroism is a high pedestal to fall off, and teach the “hero” how to delegate to and rely on others.