Hero-Culture vs Team-Culture
I recently posted on how to Transform a Hero Culture.
James Bach replied (at the time of the original post) stating that hero cultures should be encouraged. I agree with some points he challenged me on, and disagree on others. In this post, I will attempt to clarify the issue I had with ‘hero cultures’, as my message may not have been clear. I understood the context under which I was writing my post, maybe you did not.
What organizations promote as ‘heroism’ is rarely how I would define ‘heroism’ (see photo). In this post, I talk about a ‘hero culture’ and ‘heroism’ in terms of how I have seen organizations promote them. You can be a true hero in a team-encouraged environment, but it works differently than a hero-encouraged environment.
Consider the firefighter who saves a child trapped in a burning building, who is able to do so because of the support of his team; and the team who saves the building. Firefighters work as part of a team where each individual plays a role to keep themselves safe and save whomever or whatever it is they hope to save. The team is heralded for the work they did to save the building, and the individual heralded for rescuing the child. They all do their best work possible, support one another, and get the job done no matter what.
Team cultures celebrate both the successes of the team, and of the individuals within the team. Neither is done at the expense of the other. If a ‘hero culture’ such as those I have seen in organizations were promoted in a firefighting department, you would hear about firefighters scrambling over themselves to be the one who saves the child, no matter what, so that they are heralded as the most important hero who saved a person. It is that type of ‘hero culture’ that I speak of in this post.
The notion of a hero as someone who does things because it is the right thing to do should not be done away with. It is how a ‘hero culture’ is promoted and encouraged in organizations that needs change.
The issue I have is when heroism is upheld above everything else, particularly the Team. Companies can not succeed on one or two individuals alone, at least not in the long term. The ability of a Team to pull together to prevent problems they can foresee and solve problems that do arise is important. We need different perspectives, skills, and experiences to prevent and solve problems in the best way possible at a given point in time. When all team members feel like they are contributing to the best of their ability and that management supports them as such, teams can accomplish far more than an individual hero can.
The promotion of heroism in organizations limits teams from accomplishing their potential as a team. Many people seek to achieve individual rewards, to get the top raise, to get the most recognition because the organization encourages it – even if they unknowingly hurt the team, the project, and the organization as a result.
I admit that I have been that person, and I know from experience that some colleagues will shut down and decline to contribute as a result. I have been the person who works 60-80 hour work weeks to solve problems, do the right thing, and help save a project from disaster. I have been the person who stays under the radar doing all the right things, and was recognized as a leader and someone who will save the day.
At the time, I thought that competition was a good thing, as it would help us all raise the bar and do the best work possible. I only understood later that if your bar is so high that other smart, capable people can not reach it, they just won’t bother. So then you have a ‘team’ of people who succeeds only on the efforts of an individual. Why bother having a team then?
I have learned from experience that Teams need to be recognized for the heroic efforts they do, not individuals. Teamwork results from people who trust each other, support each other, and can build relationships with each other. It is difficult for most people to build healthy working relationships that accomplish amazing things together when they feel they are in competition with each other.
So, I will continue to do all those things I’ve done when I feel it necessary, and yes, I want recognition when I do those things. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t. That said, I work hard to balance this with the promotion of a team-based culture, as the strength of a high-functioning team far outreaches my ability as an individual.
I thus promote Team-culture over Hero-culture; provided the needs of the project, company, customers, and investors, are met, and dare I say, exceeded.
Some specific experiences I have that highlight problems in a “hero culture”:
- A hard-nosed believes-he-is-right-about-everything programmer insists that he doesn’t have time to do things right, and tells everyone he does not test his code before releasing it to testers. He says he is too busy to bother, and it’s their job anyway. Throughout a 5 month project his features are consistently not testable because they are so broken. This persists until a couple weeks before release when he is finally able to fix the most critical known bugs in the software. Management heralds him as a hero for solving these really difficult problems, and promotes his behaviours as what they want to see in everyone. His poor decisions earlier on are not discussed and are allowed to continue in his future work.
- A senior manager spends the majority of his time talking to people about how bad a shape the company is in, and how he would do things differently if it were his company. He spends most of his evenings and weekends in the office ‘checking up’ on people’s work and getting face time with the CEO who is often in the office. This is because his family and friends live back home many hours away, and he has nothing else to do while living in the city for this job, so he spends waking time at the office. He is quick to point out employee faults, and quick to take credit for employee successes. He is promoted as a hero by his superior’s because he spends so many hours in the office, and was crafty enough to take credit for successes that were not his (without his superior’s catching on to that).
- A team works incredibly hard to release a challenging project. Everyone works together to understand and prevent problems, solve problems as they arise, and put in equal amounts of overtime. They are a high functioning team. Each time a serious problem is averted, two individuals on the team are heralded by those outside the team as the ones who save the day. The rest of the team is demotivated by this and wonders why they bother with their contributions when the other two team members always get the credit. It was a team effort and it should be recognized as such.
While these are specific situations, I have seen many other cases where the promotion of heroism hurt the abilities of teams and organizations. In each of these specific cases, the individuals involved could have behaved differently:
- The programmer could have put his best effort into doing quality work with integrity, including testing his code before sending it for testing. It’s one thing to do your job with integrity and quality and be seen as a hero for solving a problem later on. It’s quite another thing to knowingly do crap work and then come in as the hero to fix the problems you created as a result of your crap work.
- The senior manager could have tried to help the organization improve and do better, instead of complaining to anyone who would listen. He could have informed others that the work people were crediting him with was actually someone else’s. He also could have worked from his in-city apartment (as he had a laptop and VPN access) to do whatever work he was portraying himself as doing during evenings and weekends – he instead chose to be in the office to get credit for just being there.
- The individual team members could have responded to the proclamation of their heroism that it was a team effort (because it was), and that they should be recognized as a team for those efforts.
These examples also highlight issues with management. Management plays a very big part in the culture of organizations, as they have ‘power’. The culture that traditional management encourages is one of individual heroism, which is detrimental to team culture. Now, I’ve often encouraged culture change from the ground up, and have been successful in some cases, but it’s a tough road, and one that many people aren’t willing to attempt.
If you prefer to work in hero-encouraged environments, be my guest. If it works for you, great. I challenge you to consider your motivation in wanting to work in that type of organization – you may have reasons that I completely agree with, or possibly not.
If you want to work in a team-encouraged environment, I implore you to listen to the YouTube clip linked to in my previous post. I summarize some things you can do to help encourage your organization to transform into one. I challenge you to consider other ways to encourage that transformation and share them here.
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*Note: This post is a carryover from an old blog, posted 08/30/10 at selenadelesie.com. I’m reposting in it’s original form, as it may be of interest to some people.
Comments from the original post
cstuehrenberg August 30th, 2010 at 11:46 am
It’s an interesting post and one I’ve thought a lot about recently. I was forced out of a company who’s mythical archetype was that of the hero. Of course in reality as you eloquently point out the reality was a culture rewarding the self-serving and self-inflating. I understand James’s point about desiring a culture where heroism is promoted, but I get the impression he is talking more about a culture where excellence is expected and encouraged. The inherent problem with using loaded terms like “hero” is they are …. well, loaded. You cannot use them without also addressing the assumptions and prejudices associated with them.
Albert Gareev August 30th, 2010 at 1:33 pm
Once I read the following definition:
“When all team members feel like they are contributing to the best of their ability and that management supports them as such, teams can accomplish far more than an individual hero can.”
Another definition came to my mind:
“[...] one where decisions on what to produce and what policies to pursue are made in the best interests of the collective society with the interests of every member of society given equal weight in the practical decision-making process in both the political and economic spheres of life.”
And the latter is definition of communism by Karl Marx.
As we know from history, it didn’t work out well.
I like this article, especially your vivid examples.
Please let me share a puzzle I am pondering: Is “hero” the appropriate word to use in this context? It’s a word with positive meanings. Casting it as a negative may irritate some people.
The words “false hero” seem to fit better to me. In fairy tales, the qualities of the real hero are contrasted against the qualities of the false hero. The false hero provides a means for testing the nature of the hero.
Unlike fairy tales where the false hero is discovered and the hero restored, the tales from some business organizations indicate a different outcome.
Thank you, Steve, for contributing “false hero.” That’s an important adjustment.
Selena, imagine that you have a culture of giving, except that some people give to others as a subtle way of manipulating them. One reaction you might have to that is to say you want to do away with a “giving culture.” In fact, Ayn Rand tried to do exactly that with Atlas Shrugged. In her perfect world, no one would perform any service for others, no matter how trivial, unless they were paid in coin. I think Rand was worried about a genuine problem, but her solution was even more of a nightmare.
Heroism is a wonderful thing. And heroism, in a social context, means serving other people and not just yourself. (There is also the heroism of personal growth, but that’s not so relevant in a software project.) Not pretending to serve them. Not intending to hurt them so that you can heal them later. But, really serving them.
The “Hero’s Journey” as outlined by Campbell has the following elements (I’m quoting from memory and might be a bit off):
1. A problem exists in “the village.”
2. The potential hero receives the “call to adventure” (notices the problem, or the problem is brought to him)
3. The potential hero accepts the call, thereby becoming a true-but-not-yet-successful hero (heroism is always voluntary, not required. Thus the heroic act for a fireman is not running into a burning building, but rather training for and achieving his status as a fireman.)
4. The hero receives supernatural support (this represents the inner resources that become available when you commit to something important).
5. The hero crosses into the unknown. (heroism always involves an element of the unknown. In technical work this means working on a poorly structured problem involving many tradeoffs. Therefore, sapient testing is a heroic process: you have to choose to do it well, and doing it well is not guaranteed.)
6. The hero solves the problem in the unknown land.
7. The hero returns with the solution to benefit “the village” thus becoming a successful hero (in other words, you have to close the loop with your team and your clients, or else you are just some mysterious dreamer)
Personally I think it’s better to say that an act was heroic, rather than to say that the person who did it was a hero. We are all heroes at one time or another. The question I have for myself is, will I behave heroically again today, when my village needs me? That is always a choice and a chance, and never a settled truth.