The greek fix – why not to be a hero at the workplace

Navleen Girdhar
10 mins
December 14, 2020

To borrow from a legend made popular when Alexander the Great reached the river Indus, he saw what he described as a ‘gymnosophist’ or a naked wise man, who was sitting and staring at the sky. Alexander asked him ‘What are you doing?’ The gymnosophist answered, ‘I am contemplating nothingness.’ Then the gymnosophist asked, ‘What are you doing?’ and Alexander answered, ‘I am conquering the world.’ Both men laughed, thinking the other to be a fool. The gymnosophist wondered why Alexander was conquering the world when it was pointless. Alexander wondered why the other man was wasting his life staring at the sky.

The difference in viewpoints can be appreciated by understanding the subjective truths of both men and their myths. Alexander grew up hearing stories from his mother and his teacher Aristotle about Achilles, the great hero whose presence assured his countrymen of victory when he went into battle. He also heard stories about the pointless life of Sisyphus, who rolled a boulder up the mountain each day, only to find the boulder rolled down at night. Alexander’s views were therefore shaped by these stories. He understood them to mean that for his life to have meaning, it should be remarkable! These stories told him to be great like the Greek heroes and this is what drove him. These were stories about men who lived extraordinary lives, who after death, crossed the river Styx and were welcomed to Elysium, the heaven of the heroes.

Fast forward to 2020, globalization has created its own myths. With the common definition of a hero still preserved as ‘a person who is typically admired for his or her courage and noble qualities’, the modern institutional demands have served as a backdrop to construct new contexts for heroism.  A modern-day Achilles may be a software developer who was woken up at 2 am with a phone call for handling an emergency software bug. Odysseus can be an employee who has never taken a day off or one who is recognized for working late. Perseus, an employee who has never said no to higher management, no matter what the personal cost.  

The excessive adulation received by ‘heroes’ has now permeated the very fabric of most major organizations. With a reward system that continues to favor heroic behavior, it is no surprise that employees compete to become the local superheroes at their organizations. Also, being a hero is fun. There is a rush from the spotlight when you save the day: when the machine breaks down or the computers fail and you walk in and sort it all out. Employees quickly learn that to be considered ‘great’, not only must you be on time but you must also work longer hours than anyone else. To come across as someone who is dedicated, you do what is asked without complaint. Avoiding all forms of debates, you try to earn extra points by behaving with humility. Add to that, the simple act of pulling a rabbit out of a hat as and when required.  

While maintaining a heroic reputation is fun, with time however, it becomes a problem, both for the hero and the organization.

Why? Well, for the employee, heroic behavior often becomes counter-productive. To understand this better, consider the example of one of our favorite super-hero – 'Wolverine'. You would find his adamantium skeleton to be pretty awesome, right? Try getting on an airplane or simply going for a movie when your bones set off security alerts. Also, dental x-rays can not be of much use when your skull is coated in metal. That still does not take into account all the little kids sticking magnets to him. On a more serious note, heroism can lead to self-defeating cycles for the employees because:

1. ‘Recognition Addiction’ - Heroes get caught up in work that is not coming from who they really are. They get hemmed in doing other people’s work. Without enjoying the process or having the vision, they lose their autonomy and individuality and the only incentive they have left is appreciation and recognition.

2. Crisis Equals Work Done  - Heroes often get so used to living in a reactive mode that they feel like there is nothing else. People don’t tend to notice when you consistently do the work that keeps the machine maintained, oiled, running smoothly. No crisis, no recognition.

3. Limited Skill Set - By going from crisis to crisis, the hero only develops the skill to resolve crises. Such employees do not develop their ability to prevent crises. This affects the hero’s career because their value is tied to a single company. They have less value to another company which affects their ability to move on if they find they are unhappy.

4. Hero Syndrome’ - A psychological phenomenon, a hero syndrome affects people who seek heroism or recognition where they tend to create desperate situations that only they can resolve. This can be intentional or unintentional.

5. Causes Burnout - No matter how talented, hard-working and superhuman an employee might be; nobody can sustain this kind of driving pressure forever. Without fail the prodigal hero develops stress-related ailments or encounters unfortunate effects on their personal lives or simply burns-out.

6. Stepping Stone for a ‘Work Martyr’ - After the original zest for heroism has burned away, employees may transition into what is termed as a ‘work martyr’. Ty Tucker, CEO of performance management platform REV, defines work martyrdom as "an intrinsic view of someone that likes to present themselves externally as a work hero when, in reality, they are inefficient and put hours in for the sake of hours. This person is typically concerned with the number of hours they've worked, not the outcomes they have created," Tucker said.  

Then are the problems for an organization that creates a hero culture. The companies rewarding heroic tendencies function on the unspoken assumption that everyone should seek to be a hero. Yet by definition if everyone is a hero then no one is. This causes even more complications because it leads to:

1. Demoralized Staff - Putting a few chosen ones on a pedestal is a sneaky way of putting everyone else down. While the idea of looking up to a ‘hero’ seems worthy at first, it often leaves everyone else feeling like they can’t measure up to an impossible standard.  This is quite demoralizing to the masses of have-nots.  Yet, the majority of work that must get done in any organization lies in the hands of the masses.

2. Knowledge-Hoarding - A culture that overly rewards heroism can also create patterns of knowledge-hoarding in its employees. With too many people vying for the ‘hero’ label, employees begin to avoid sharing best practices. By keeping their knowledge and skills as a closely guarded secret, heroes, or people wanting to be heroes, begin to operate in a manner that is purely self-serving.

3. Lack of Innovation - By incentivizing heroism, companies encourage employees to focus on the most pressing issues at hand. This means that most of the energy is consumed in ‘putting out the fires’ rather than on taking the initiative on new ideas.  

If indeed companies begin to recognize such traits and their harmful effects on the organization in the long run, why then do they encourage heroism? The answer lies in the vocabulary associated with heroism.

By simply paying attention to the instances where the word ‘hero’ is used in the local news, one can begin to observe some obvious patterns. Often, by hailing ordinary people as heroes, one can successfully circumvent the ordinary processes of accountability and reform.

After all, by pausing to examine the failures that led to the incident, one might accidentally dishonor the ‘heroes’.

By applying the same principles in the corporate world, companies can avoid addressing the underlying issues as to why there was a need for heroic behavior in the first place? Within a culture that is so enamored with heroic behavior, companies do not have to answer for processes that don’t work, poorly trained staff, inconsistent customer service, etc. They trust that the very language of heroism will distract the people from focusing on what can be done about it all.

With such caustic propensities, for both, an individual and the company, hero culture is something that needs to be restructured. Rather than someone who comes in to fix a problem, for recognition and appreciation,

a ‘hero’ needs to be redefined as someone who is willing to share learned information about procedures and skills within a business and be completely involved when finding ways to proactively prevent sticky situations from materializing.

Reforming the culture will mean a substantial shift in the mindset of both, people and organizations, alike. So how can we begin this process? Just like with most transformations, with one step at a time. A few suggestions to get started are:

1. Prioritizing Crisis Prevention – It has already been established that resolving the crisis without prevention has diminishing returns. The focus needs to be directed towards creating better systems and processes and by revising those that seem to need regular ‘fixes.’

2. Skill Sharing – Generally, ‘heroes’ tend to withhold sharing their expertise. By involving them in events like ‘Sharing Best Practices’ the heroes can be made to feel appreciated for their knowledge and skills. By shifting the limelight, the hero still feels heroic but in a more altruistic way.

3. Educating the Team – Organizations need to involve multiple people in every crisis. It can be done by having people work either with or parallel to the hero in a crisis. Even though it may seem slower at first, by including multiple people, more employees can learn the skills required to handle the future crisis.

4. Democratizing Tasks – Every organization should adopt the idea of ensuring smooth business operations no matter who is, or is not around. Without a heavy reliance on any particular employee, everyone gets a chance to step up to the plate, providing an employer with a variety of skill sets from within the task force, thereby supporting greater team unity.

5. Incentivizing innovation – Companies should look at incentivizing innovation. Rather than rewarding ‘putting out fires’, companies should reward taking initiatives and creating new business opportunities. By shifting the focus towards innovation, organizations can begin to escape the current hero culture.

6. Allowing for Change – As more and more people begin to share their ideas and visions of improving systems and processes, they must be given support for developing their ideas. It is imperative to support the outcome, irrespective of its success or failure.  

None of these steps are easy to take. After all, it is never convenient to think of the long term when you have an emergency.

But for all the reasons stated above, it is critical to change the dynamics of our hero-culture. The only way forward is to break the vicious cycle of having only a single hero to solve crises because the hero is the only one who has ever solved a crisis.  

We only need to look at our history to realize that the world has not been shaped by the singular. As much as our cinema would like us to believe otherwise, change occurs primarily by associating more deeply with the people around us, rather than by rising above them.

It comes from harmonized encounters rather than solo action. By slowly transitioning away from self-focused individualization, we can begin to harness the power of the collective. A rather poetic expression of the power of the collective can be seen in the works of an indigenous Australian artist, Jonathan Jones. Displayed at the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Brisbane, his installation — a great infinity-loop figure of feathered objects mimics a great flock of birds in flight. It seems to swell and contract and shift as countless individual creatures climb and bank and turn together, not crashing into each other, not drifting apart. “I’m interested in this idea of collective thinking,” he told a journalist. “How the formation of really beautiful patterns and arrangements in the sky can help us potentially start to understand how we exist in this country, how we operate together, how we can all call ourselves Australians. That we all have our own little ideas which can somehow come together to make something bigger.”

And if we still find ourselves yearning to be a hero, let us take the time and embody an expression of what others would aspire to be. Then the world will have more people aspiring and working towards achieving higher values instead of complacently waiting for deliverance.

References:

1. Devdutt Pattanaik east vs west the myths that mystify | TED.com | https://www.ted.com/talks/devdutt_pattanaik_east_vs_west_the_myths_that_mystify

2. Six Ways Your Company's Hero Culture Is Killing Productivity| Linkedin.com | https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/six-ways-your-companys-hero-culture-killing-dan-kimble-mba

3. Hero Syndrome in the Work Place | Linkedin.com | https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/hero-syndrome-work-place-lance-charlton

4. Don't Be a Hero: Breaking the Work Martyr Mentality | Businessnewsdaily.com | https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/9655-work-martyr-mentality.html

5. Reward Firefighting And You'll Create A Culture Of Arsonists | Forbes.com | https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnkotter/2013/07/29/reward-firefighting-and-youll-create-a-culture-of-arsonists/?sh=73ff2deab584

6. Aboriginal art: a view of the world through two cultures| FT.com | https://www.ft.com/content/b38196de-77f6-11ea-bd25-7fd923850377