Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Workplace Heroes—Good or Bad?

David recently rode the Jesse James Day Bicycle Tour in Northfield. Afterwards, we enjoyed walking through the town, touring the museum and watching the reenactment of the James-Younger gang attempted robbery of the Northfield Bank.

It got us thinking about heroes and workplaces, especially the kind of folk-heroes who aren’t positive role models but still get mythologized and celebrated.

Jesse James was a criminal: a bank robber and murderer who is associated with various atrocities before and during the Civil War. He was a disaffected pro-slavery ex-guerilla fighter who felt he and his family were the victims of economic injustice. However he’s often remembered as more of a Robin Hood character—taking from the rich and giving to the poor—although there is no evidence he ever did anything of the sort.

(Read more about the real Jesse James.)


Workplaces often have similar individuals: people whose actions are counter-productive and harmful to the people around them. Yet their colleagues tell semi-mythical stories about how they stand up to the boss or have become untouchable. These individuals become workplace folk-heroes; and leaders find it difficult to deal appropriately with their performance and influence.

How do we advise our clients to inoculate their organizations against these anti-heroes?

#1 Real Success Stems from Collaboration

Folk heroes appear to act in the popular interest against the oppressor. If that sounds extreme, think about how it worked with Jesse James. Although there is no evidence that he helped anyone but himself, he cloaked his activities in a supposedly just cause. After the Northfield raid, the bandits claimed they were targeting the savings of Republican politicians and Union generals.

Similarly, anti-heroes in the workplace often tap into an emotional dislike of groups—their colleagues, leadership, customers or the new company taking them over. They cloak their selfish motivations by emphasizing how bad the others are.

Business is about collaboration and finding opportunities to exchange goods and services for mutual benefit. We encourage our clients to continuously emphasize the collaborative nature of positive work and the importance of engaging everyone in working together.

#2 Avoid the Hero Culture Altogether

A hero culture is the kind of place where heroes save projects and think of great ideas. As a result, they get large, visible and individual rewards. Hero cultures encourage individuals to stand out by working long hours beyond their colleagues, which ensures they get personal credit for their ideas and gather a strong group of personal followers.

We advise our clients to be careful about creating a hero culture in the first place; you just might be creating a monster.

A hero-culture is a symptom of underlying problems: If projects constantly need saving, perhaps they are being mismanaged. If individuals are continually singled out for rewards, perhaps work assignment needs to be altered. If individuals are creating a personal, political workplace, perhaps the organization’s values and mission need to be emphasized more.

We have seen a lot of workplaces where bad behavior is rewarded and toxic employees are tolerated. Don’t do this. Be firm and fair, encourage collaboration and ensure people are lead so everyone has an opportunity to be successful.

Singled-out, legendary heroes? No. A workplace full of everyday heroes? Absolutely.

Would you like to continue this discussion? Contact Koliso.

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