The hero culture conundrum

Tell me if both of these things describe your company:

  1. Managers say overtime is bad and it leads to burnout and “we don’t need heroes” and so on.
  2. Managers say thanks and kudos to people who “go the extra mile” to hit a deadline or sprint commitment

We can’t reward a behavior while also saying that behavior needs to die. “Please don’t do X. Oh, you did X? Awesome, you rock!” What the heck? Pick one!

A new hire sees their tech lead pushing code at midnight and getting thanked for it on standup the next day. They think “oh ok, I guess that’s how you get a good reputation here.” It doesn’t matter how much you tell them “we don’t need heroes” because your culture says you’re lying.

So what’s the solution? Punish the heroes. Do not thank them. Give them negative feedback. Tell them that overtime is only acceptable if team decides it’s necessary.

I know it feels backwards to criticize the people working the hardest. But there are bigger things than deadlines. Deadlines are not the be-all and end-all; culture is. Deadlines are a test of your culture, and you’re failing the test.

If you want to reward someone, reward the new hero. Reward the person who says “the only way to hit this deadline is to work overtime, what do we think about that?” Reward the person who makes overtime unnecessary by simplifying scope or calling out too many sequential tickets in a sprint plan.

These new heroes are the people living your culture instead of speaking it. These are the people that deserve your thanks.

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