A hero culture might be a sign of low psychological safety

(Homelander image is from the Amazon Prime series. The character was created by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson.)

When we think of mythical heroes, they possess such traits as:

  • Showing confidence in the face of overwhelming challenges
  • Demonstrating a lack of vulnerability even though most heroes have their own “Achilles’ heels”
  • Being able to inspire others based on what they were able to achieve but not always how they achieved it

I wrote an article a few years ago about the issues with an organizational hero culture including:

  • A lack of recognition for the teams and individuals who deliver results without needing to resort to heroics
  • The potential for so-called heroes to create crises when none exist to maintain their hero status or to stroke their egos
  • The increased likelihood that luck will run out when a hero fails as other countermeasures might not have been instituted to guard against risk realization

Fear of failure or ridicule isn’t a concern for those lucky few who are anointed as heroes. When they fail, the goodwill they have built up based on their past heroics is usually more than enough to protect their social status.

You might think that this would encourage their followers to also take calculated risks. But if an “average Joe” tries something and it fails, would they receive the same support or benefit of doubt as a hero? If not, the hero culture might cause other staff to feel less safe to experiment.

A hero might also inspire their followers to blindly trust them.

While this trust might be needed in exceptional crises, it might also cause others to be less likely to confront the heroes if they witness them doing something wrong. Combine that reluctance with the backlash that whistleblowers could receive from other followers for challenging their heroes and it increases the likelihood that a hero could get away with bad behavior.

A hero’s (apparent) lack of vulnerability is also a cause for concern.

If they are unwilling to say when they don’t know or are afraid of something, those who look up to them may be tempted to behave in the same manner. And that can cause issues to arise which wouldn’t have if assumptions and knowledge gaps had been surfaced in a more open, timely manner.

Finally, a hero culture can be divisive as it naturally generates an “us and them” state. Dr. Timothy R. Clark identifies Inclusion Safety as the foundation of his four stage model on psychological safety as without inclusiveness you can’t unleash the power of diversity. It is hard to be fully inclusive when a subset of the organization is placed on a pedestal.

Leaders are expected to be force multipliers. If a hero can help others to behave and be treated like they are, that’s wonderful. But that won’t happen by itself.

What if you could have that power… now? In every generation, one Slayer is born… because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule. They were powerful men. This woman is more powerful than all of them combined. So I say we change the rule. I say my power… should be our power.” – Buffy the Vampire Slayer

(If you liked this article, why not pick up my book Easy in Theory, Difficult in Practice which contains 100 other lessons on project leadership? It’s available on Amazon.com and on Amazon.ca as well as a number of other online book stores)

Categories: Project Management | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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