The Best Organizations Have No Heroes

“What are some of the ways you recognize superior performance?” I asked. 

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“Well, we used to have ‘The Hero Fund’,” said one of the executives.

“It was a pot of money we set aside for people who really went above and beyond the call of duty, helping the company in a crisis.”

The rest of the executives started to get excited, apparently remembering The Hero Fund in all its glory. 

“You know, we should bring that back,” said another. 

The excitement continued to build. Finally, I couldn’t help myself.  

“Hold on a second,” I said. “Isn’t the whole point to avoid getting yourself into situations requiring people to be heroic? I mean, if you’re having to put out ‘fires’ all the time, isn’t there something deeper that needs to be fixed?”

I could see the excitement start draining away from their faces. 

Fortunately, these particular executives were very smart, so they quickly began to see what I was trying to communicate. We continued the conversation, eventually creating a number of other ideas to explore. 

But this idea of worshipping heroes and heroic actions, I’ve found, wasn’t limited to this particular company. Numerous other organizations have similar ideas woven into their culture, with either formal bonuses or informal systems of praise and recognition that reward being a “hero.” These norms and systems incent behavior, encouraging additional heroics from employees. 

To be fair, there’s nothing inherently wrong with values and norms that prize behavior that goes above and beyond the ordinary. Every organization benefits from having people who do just that. 

Yet I’d argue that the best organizations have no heroes—or at least they don’t require heroic behavior frequently and they don’t rely solely upon heroics to survive. The best organizations anticipate change and plan for unintended consequences or unexpected situations. That way, they don’t have to rely upon heroic behavior to bail them out when things don’t happen as they should. 

A major problem with an organizational system that depends upon heroics is that it’s individual-specific. Namely, if the “hero” happens to be off on the day that the situation requires his or her Herculean efforts, then the crisis hurtles on unabated. 

Another problem is that the “heroes” risk burning out. In my experience, some organizations start to depend upon their star performers more and more to get them through the day, week, or quarter. In a way, these organizations are rewarding great performance with additional workload. After some time, these high-performing employees are likely to start wondering if there’s better employment elsewhere. And then, the likelihood of them actually quitting starts to escalate. 

A better solution is to build resilience and agility into the organization’s processes and routines. This requires thinking about contingencies before problems arise. It requires cross-training your people so that more than one person becomes the expert on specific topics or technology.  It requires embracing the reality of how much is truly possible when estimating workloads within teams and when promising deliverables to customers. 

Stories about heroes (and villains) are important within organizations as a vehicle to communicate values. And actual heroic behavior—when someone deviates from the group and does something extraordinarily positive—can be both beneficial and serve as an example for others. 

Yet as leaders, we must be careful. Heroes shouldn’t have to emerge frequently to sustain the organization. If they do, I’d wager that the organization has deeper issues to address. 

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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. Visit: www.benbaran.com.