Beware The Heroic Worker!

One of the most interesting parts of my job is working with a great variety of businesses and organizations. Over time I have started to notice trends and types. One type of worker that I have run into many times is the heroic worker. The heroic worker is the one who comes to the rescue when things fall apart, working 20 hour days if needed to patch together a project. They usually wear several hats, sometimes a few at once. I used to admire these heroic workers, standing in awe of their accomplishments. No more.

So what's wrong with a hard working employee that can leap tall buildings in a single bound? Isn't that a good thing? 

Having a heroic worker around can seem like a good thing but really it's more like business heroin. The company gets hooked and keep going back to the heroic worker to bail them out without addressing the underlying issues. 

Heroic workers thrive in chaos. They feel a sense of accomplishment when they single-handedly slice through the chaos of a project. 

Effective systems are at the core of every healthy business. Systems are the enemy of chaos. So heroic workers usually resist systems. Systems remove the organizational need for regular heroism. Whether the heroic worker is conscious of it or not they are often working to undermine chaos-fighting systems that threaten their sense of worth. 

Here's some tips for spotting heroic workers:

  • They claim that the system doesn't work for them, or they don't have time to learn it, or they are "old dogs" unable to learn new tricks.  All complete BS.
  • They hate to delegate. When they do delegate they micro-manage the project until they get it back since "no-one can do it right but me".
  • They brag of their hard work, lack of sleep and general suffering.
  • They keep several key areas of the business in lockdown, unwilling to share their "secrets" with others claiming that it would be too complicated to explain what they do.
  • They regularly send emails late at night reminding everyone else that they are still working.
  • They don't laugh very much on account of having little rest and being continually stressed out. 
  • They speak negatively about everyone they work with since no-one works as hard as them.
  • They sincerely believe that the company would go out of business without them.
  • They rarely take real vacations.

So what to do when you spot a heroic worker?

Chances are they have no clue that they are doing damage to the organization. I recommend you start with raising their awareness- "hey, we really appreciate all the hard work you are doing but I can tell you are exhausted so let's discuss some changes that should help out." Their need for being valued isn't a bad thing, it just needs to be redirected. But if you can't get them on board and working within your system then they need to go, no matter how indispensable they might seem. In a healthy company with an effective system everyone can be replaced. I've learned that myself, the hard way. And yes, I probably was one of these "heroic workers" at times in the past and still have to fight the urge to roll around in the addictive chaos.

note: thanks for Dave Meeks (aka Stat) for inspiring this post based on his comment referencing heroic efforts during chaotic projects on my recent "Hourly vs Fixed" post. Also thanks to my amazing wife, Jenny, who brought some of her HR experience into my thinking.