The Hero Syndrome In The Workplace


By Gina Bribany

Being a hero has intrinsic positive connotations. Heroes are loved, wanted, admired, recognized and kept in high importance. Then, what makes it a syndrome? There is a difference between becoming a hero by accident or as a side effect of your dedication and becoming a hero because you believe that you are a hero, or you are looking to be one.

The hero syndrome, also known as hero complex, describes individuals that are constantly seeking to be the hero of the situation, that want to be the one that saves the day and/or rescues those in need. It’s accompanied with an exaggerated sense of self-worth, and they tend to tell everyone about what they did.

Even though this syndrome is a psychological phenomenon most commonly observed and studied on civil jobs such as police officers, militaries or firemen, the hero complex is very attractive to individuals with roots of abandonment, lack of recognition or love, and difficult childhoods, and it could be observed in any office workplace. There are people looking to be heroes everywhere. In fact, you could be working for a hero complex or be one of them.

“The right thing is not getting done. No one is watching or noticing the threats, but I can see them coming, I have the solutions. I can fix that problem; it is common sense. If they do not follow my suggestions, they are going to fail.”

Do these phrases sound familiar to you? We all know someone that says those things. At any point in our professional careers we may experience our passion making us believe that we could save the day and make a positive impact. There is nothing wrong with that.

The mistake is not the passion or the desire to fix and address opportunities we identify. The mistake relies on believing that we have to say what no one had the courage to say before or fix what no one had been able to fix because they are incompetent. The delusion begins when we believe strongly that we are better than others, smarter or more special.

Depending on what stretch of the spectrum the hero complex is, they could come across as arrogant, selfish, and bullies or dramatics that sacrifice for others. As long as the hero complex does not go to the stretch of hurting others or creating problems for them to resolve later and become the hero, we are safe.

How to Identify and Coach A Hero Complex?

The lack of teamwork and trust keeps the “I am the hero” attractive to certain performers. Competitive environments and lack of recognition nurtures this hero syndrome. On the other hand, work environments with lack of accountability have the same effect when these individuals are looking to be praised for their efforts and they feel overlooked and underappreciated because poor performers are not kept accountable for their actions.

An employee wanting to climb the ladder, feeling entitled to it because of their exceptional skills, while speaking poorly about their colleagues or managers with a sense of superiority could be an indication of hero syndrome, but an employee spreading too thin wanting to be involved on every single project could be embodying a hero complex as well.

Regular and authentic one on ones conducted with UNDIVIDED attention, focusing on the employees’ personal and professional development as well as constructive feedback addresses most of these challenges and cultivates excellent performance.

The key is the customization. When managers said they have no time for this, it tells me they do not understand the ROI of the customization practice.  A Gallup study, for example, shows that 72% of employees considered recognition as an intrinsic part of engagement as well as individual performance of employees.

Some people need more recognition than others and this is a natural part of diversity. However, leaders need to assess their team members’ personalities as well as their individual recognition needs and tackle them on a consistent basis, neutralizing hero complex behaviors and fostering healthy and collaborative environments instead of competitive cultures that incentivize bogus heroes to appear.

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