Heroes are rare gems, references, key players, people who absolutely need to be there. They are linked to projects that do not start without them. Impossible to change something without their approval, they are essential to the proper operation of the business; their knowledge is guarded and sought after.
In a fertile environment, the heroic attitude is always expanding and infiltrates all the company’s processes, the way we communicate and also the way we perceive ourselves. The problem does not reside in the fact that some people are acting like heroes, it arises when they become full-time heroes. Instead of being a means to face a particular situation, this attitude then becomes a posture, an identity, a way of life. It becomes the way to manage all situations.
More than a stance, an identity…
Let us take as an example a manager who was previously a team member and who, as part of his or her new duties, stays attached to content and dictates the team how to act, approves decisions, uses power of veto.
Or an architect who possesses extensive knowledge of the business since he or she has been there for the past fifteen years. Everybody goes to him/her to ask questions, face to face, by email, over the phone. The architect is invited to almost every meeting. Availability is so limited that we are ready to move or postpone initiatives to be sure he or she will be able to be there and finally, he/she is late and has to leave early.
Or a consultant who finally arrives with the answers and takes charge of a situation nobody was able to manage. He or she executes the plan, possibly outside business hours, and we end up keeping or renewing him or her indefinitely since he/she is the only one able to help.
Behind this attitude, there are people who are not bad. The heroic attitude is in fact an answer to situations that arise. The difficulty is when people associate this attitude with the way they are, when their title becomes as important as their identity.
“I am a manager, I am an analyst, I am…”
What happens when this title is threatened by any change? As an example, think about multidisciplinarity, self-organization and task automation. People protect themselves; they are especially looking to make sure their title does not change since it is linked to their identity, to their life. Therefore, when it is time for a business to change, it is very difficult to do it at the expense of its heroes. Imagine that your best developer knows almost all your applications, that he or she is a specialist of a specific technology and that the market is evolving toward something else. He/she would not be the reference anymore and consequently be less and less essential.
So there is discomfort, a change of status, power, and influence. It creates stress, worries and distrust. The hero’s identity is then shaken. How do we deal with the fact that he or she is still useful for his/her knowledge, without limiting the constant integration of changes in the market and the evolution of employees’ responsibilities? What would be your approach in this case? Protect the hero? Let him or her leave? Try to hide the truth from him/her? Change the role?
Roles change according to the objectives
Facing such questions, I more often observe a status quo culture than anything else. Changes are slow, novelties are rare, projects are prioritized in order to make people as busy as possible and heroes are protected against changes. Why? Because the hero is valued. We are more afraid of losing the hero, or of not being the hero anymore, than of doing the best thing according to the objectives. In the case of titles, it is about dissociating the title from the person. A person can play multiple roles, a role can be filled by several people and roles will change with time according to the objectives.
When a hero welcomes this possibility, he or she becomes completely comfortable with being a hero in a specific situation and changing his or her attitude in another. His or her identity is not linked to a title or a role, but rather to great adaptability and the ability to make people grow, no matter the situation. Things work great when that person is there, and they still work when he or she is not.
Let us examine the example of an expert who is the reference, or what I call “the great dictionary.” This expert has an answer for everything, and very quickly. So, people develop a reflex of consulting this expert. The side effect is that people do not develop the ability to find answers on their own, so when the expert-hero is not there, it is difficult. We can change this dynamic by changing the questions and answers. As a hero, instead of answering on the spot, we can ask the following questions:
- What do you understand from this situation?
- What have you tried until now?
- What will you try then?
The goal is to get the person to develop their ability to think and find solutions with the hero as a guide who can prevent them from going around in circles, because he or she can help to see the next steps. At the same time, the person asking a question to the hero should do it to understand how to find the solution, not ask for a complete and direct answer. As a manager, it would be wise to encourage this practice.
The heroic attitude is then an issue for the individual, his entourage and the company. If we want more adaptability, innovation, performance, flexibility, response to change, and therefore be able to face increasing complexity, it becomes important to understand the heroic attitude, its scope and how to make it evolve.