Hero culture is when we rely on individual heroics on a regular basis. Someone pulling an all-nighter to get one thing done, one time, may be ok. Relying on that on an ongoing basis is unsustainable and will destroy whatever teamwork and culture you used to have.

One of my clients has a kudos channel in their Slack instance, which is a practice I really like. The intention is to draw attention to, and to celebrate, the good things that people are doing.

Over a few months, they noticed that the tone of their kudos had changed. They’d started with comments like “Thanks to Amy and Bob for all the creativity they showed during the last demo.” and “Thanks to Carol for always having our backs.”

Over a period of a few months those had changed to “Thanks to the Dragon team for working all through the weekend to get the release out.” and “Thanks to Don for putting in the hours even when he was sick.”

You can see that they’d originally started as kudos for character and positive outcomes and had quickly devolved into rewards for heroic and unsustainable behaviour.

In a hero culture, we rely on typically a small number of people to take extreme measures to make things work. When they demonstrate that they’re able to do that, we pile more work on them.

The heros often take this work on willingly as demonstrating competence provides strong intrinsic motivation1. When it really needs to be done, we give it to the hero because we rely on it getting done. The problem is that this quickly becomes a self-fulling prophecy. The more we give to the hero, the less the rest of the team takes on and the less the team takes on, the more the hero is required to step up.

Over time, what happens is that the hero inevitably burns out and that the rest of the team disengages so completely2 that they no longer enjoy the work they’re doing. It’s common for both the hero and the others to start quitting at this point. Nobody is enjoying it any more.

I’ve been the hero before and I’ve seen it happen over and over again to others. The good news is that this is an avoidable problem. We can break the cycle as soon as we recognize what’s happening.

The way to break this is for the hero to stop doing work by themselves. Their job is now to ensure that other people on the team are capable of doing the work. They should be working with others and not working by themselves.

In the beginning, this will be painful for the hero as it will take longer to get the work done. It won’t take long though before we have many people who are capable of doing the work and the team is far more productive than they used to be.

We want those heros to start demonstrating leadership, rather than heroics.

While I’ve been talking about the hero as a single person on a team, heros can also happen as teams within an organization. I’ve seen hero teams that take on all the really important work and we get the same problems as they burn out and other teams disengage.

Hero culture is seen as positive by many companies, and yet it is destructive over the long term and should be avoided wherever possible.

See also: The Karpman Drama Triangle, which has similar ideas but is not exactly the same.

  1. Intrinsic motivation is the most powerful of the various forms of motivation. More about motivation 

  2. “Amotivation” is when we lack the motivation to do the work. More about amotivation