HR Insights, Rewards & Recognition

When Hero Worship Becomes a Workplace Problem

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I’ve been contemplating the concept of what constitutes a hero lately. It’s hard not to do with the London Olympics and tragedies that have unfolded in the U.S. in recent weeks (like the shooting at the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises and the massacre at a Sikh Temple near Milwaukee.)

Stories of real people who perform amazing feats of athleticism and the even more amazing feat of saving others’ lives inspire us – and give all of us (especially children) the RIGHT role models to emulate.

I also happen to believe that everyday heroes include people who aren’t celebrated or famous, but overcome great personal challenges/obstacles with bravery and perseverence, like the children living with autism or adults caring for a parent with Altzheimer’s disease.

Heroes are a necessary, and important, part of our lives and critical to a society that often seems to put the wrong folks up on that pedestal.

Causing harm in the workplace?

But what strikes me is that the hero worship that is so critical for our children (and our society at large) can do a great deal of harm in the workplace.

Do you promote a hero-worshipping culture? If so, you may be inhibiting productivity and innovation and driving talent out of the organization.

To me, hero worship becomes a problem when:

  • You rely on a “hero” to save a project. It’s great that you have someone who can come in to save the day, but it might be important to figure out why your projects always need to be saved.
  • Rewards and recognition are typically bestowed only on your heroes. What does that say to the rest of your team who perform as expected and do the right thing every day, managing your business, interacting with your customers and doing their part to achieve business results? It may not include heroics, but slow and steady wins the race.
  • Individuals who are recognized/rewarded work longer hours (at all times) and never say “no.” Don’t get me wrong; the best talent will work to get the job done vs. clocking out at 5 pm every day regardless of deadlines. But we all know the folks who seem to work around the clock, sending emails at 1 am., working on the weekends, who want to be perceived as heroes. Sometimes, the best employees are the ones who work smarter, learn how to effectively delegate to others and can balance the demands of work and home life (thereby becoming role models for others).

Without a talent development strategy, I’ve watched so many skilled and essential employees  leave companies where the “work at all hours” culture isn’t just tolerated, it’s expected and celebrated, and seems to be the only way to get ahead and have a career.

This was originally published on PeopleResult’s Current blog.

Sheri Browning is a Partner at PeopleResults PeopleResults who specializes in leading change, when she’s not watching the Olympics. You can reach her at sbrowning@people-results.com.
  • Julie Porter

    Great blog Sheri, agree with all but not 100% sold on the last bullet. Seen many companies where a punch the clock system was unproductive and feel that the new workforce shouldn’t be about hours or time but getting it done, whether that is at 9p or 5a, making work work for the professional and the company.

  • P Johnson

    I agree. So many organizations have a hero culture where last minute heroics are valued more than those who are doing it right every day. So important to acknowledge and value those who make great things happen without unnecessary fireworks or drama. Great points – good reminder.

  • Martha Duesterhoft

    I love your observations Sheri! We get so excited about the sparkle of celebrity, yes, there are internal celebrities, and often forget about the everyday heros that are there to save the day, no matter what.

  • KMErickson

    Sheri – great post. I particularly like your point about rewards going to the few when there are always many involved in the result.

  • EDCary

    Great insights, Sheri. Got me thinking about how that attitude of putting a premium on those who seem to ‘save the day’ to the exclusion of the quieter achievers can be played out in organizations in all kinds of ways — for example, a tendency to favor hiring the outside expert and hero with ‘super hero powers’ (ostensibly) rather than focusing more on developing and promoting the talent from within the organization.   

  • Bmilhizer

    Great post. Sometimes the heroes are really the ones behind the scenes, and as talent strategists and managers, we can’t forget that.

  • Swalker

    Great insight Sheri. Heroes come in all forms – workplace should be recognizing based upon contribution and hard work vs. time spent getting it done.  If you find you are worshiping the same “type” you are definitely building a culture around it — be sure thats how you want to define your company.

  • Cathleen Rossiter

    This is so true. The last company I worked for went straight down the drain in the five years I was there because of this problem. Blind Hero Worship was rampant to the point that they were bleeding talent, then had huge lay-offs of the brightest talent that still remained.