No heroes needed

Being a hero is nice, isn't it? You work hard, single-handedly save the day, and your teammates are eternally grateful to you. However, such behavior is, in fact, highly problematic. Let's see why, and what to do instead.

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In Google, we have an internal document, quite often quoted, that says to let things fail if the workload to keep them alive is too high. From Google, many good practices have been exported and adopted in the IT world, and I believe this could be very useful to many teams.

Illustration: be the hero
Illustration by unDraw.

The story of how “heroism is bad” is not new. The internal Google document has actually been a presentation at SRE TechCon 2015. And, other companies have a similar take. But let’s start from the principle.

What is the significance of heroism?

When we talk about a hero for the team, we mean a single person taking on a systemic problem to compensate for it. No matter the cost, how many hours are needed, or the consequences. Of course, thanks to the hero, the crisis due to the systemic issue is momentarily avoided.

And, heroes get immediate reward! They have completed a gigantic task, they get praised from teammates, and they feel crucial: after all, without them, everything would have failed.

Why being a hero is bad

Heroic behavior, although quite encouraged in many realities, at the end of the day, brings more damage than benefits. It is bad for the individual: takes a toll on them, brings to burnout, creates unsatisfiable expectations (you did once, why don’t you do it again?), and puts a lot of pressure on them.

It is also bad for the team: it creates incorrect expectations from the team members, and it leads to inaction because the heroes will pick up anything left behind. Not only that, but it damages the morals because it makes it feel like everything has been solved by the hero, and everybody else has no purpose.

And it is bad for systems and processes: they don’t improve because teams don’t realize they are broken, given that at the end of the day, the heroes make everything work. No systemic fixes are carried on, ‘cause such problems are hidden due to the heroes efforts.

We work in teams for a reason: the idea that one person has the solution to everything is ridiculous.

What to do instead?

On YouTube, there is an astonishing TED talk by Lorna Davis, “A guide to collaborative leadership”. If you have 14 minutes of spare time today, you should really use them to watch it.

There is a key concept in the video: radical interdependence.

What’s radical interdependence?

Radical interdependence is just a fancy way to say that we need each other. In a complex, ever evolving, interconnected world, a single individual cannot change the world on its own.

And a team can delivery things that could be impossible to deliver by an individual alone.

However, quoting from the video:

Interdependence is harder than being a hero. It requires us to be open, transparent, and vulnerable. And that’s not what traditional leaders have been trained to do.

Let things fail

It’s hard, but nowadays, every time I feel the urge to step in to save the day, I stop a minute, and ask myself: “Can’t I sit down with the team and work this out?”. And every so often, this requires things to fail: but that’s okay.

When things fail, we sit down all together, and we find out what went wrong, and what we can do better the next time. This allows improvements to the system, to the process, and at the end things are remarkably better than what they would have been if they hadn’t failed.

It’s a complex, difficult approach, but it provides significant improvements. Have you ever tried it, or plan to do so? Can you think of an occasion where it would have been useful? Let me know in the comments!

If you have any question, other than here in the comments, you can always reach me by email at [email protected].