Being a Stoic Hero Rounds to Zero

I once had a boss who compared me to a hunting dog. It was mostly a compliment, but it was also a serious criticism of my work ethic wrapped around a generous piece of career advice. A piece of advice that finally clicked for me in my mid-forties.

We were working at a small startup and he had noticed how in addition to doing my own job, I was picking up a lot of balls that other employees hadn’t even noticed were in play. I had accreted responsibility for building the demo, alpha testing for each release, and developing the training material, among other orphaned responsibilities.

In a surprise performance appraisal (a surprise our startup had appraisals at all) my boss thanked me for shouldering these other responsibilities, and then gave me career advice by explaining hunting dogs. He asked if I were familiar with the Southern expression, “That dog won’t hunt.” He then mentioned that were two other kinds of hunting dogs. There are the kind that are great at hunting, but when the quarry has outsmarted and outpaced them, know it’s time to stop and wait for the hunter to decide what to do next. And there is the third kind that is so caught up in the hunt that it won’t stop, and just keeps chasing and chasing until its heart gives out. My boss was comparing me to that third kind of dog. “You love that dog’s spirit, but you wish it had some level of self preservation.”

My boss appreciated that I was noticing orphaned tasks and quietly assuming responsibility for them. But I was just going to kill myself. Or, more likely, I was going to grow resentful that I was carrying a large burden and no one, particularly senior management, noticed or appreciated it.

It was great advice.

Several years later I was leading a group of mostly senior, self-driven staff, and saw the same tendency in several of them. The organization as a whole was understaffed so there were lots of “unclaimed balls in play.” We also had constituents who didn’t always meet us half way on projects, often neglecting tasks that were definitely on their plates, not ours. Two staff, in particular, were consistently, stoically, going above and beyond to ensure success, sometimes putting in an additional 20 hours over a weekend. From a management point of view this was frustrating because I would have preferred to work with constituents to change either how much got delivered or the delivery date. But these staff felt that there had been a commitment, and they were going to meet it, even if they were doing more than our group’s share of the project. (I’ll write a future post on “letting things break”).

I’m all for heroics when the situation calls for it, and I want a team of staff who are more than willing to be heroes. But I want heroics to be rare and a mutual agreement between staff and me, not a way of life.

I sat down with each of these staff and we talked about the unintended side effects. Not surprisingly, they were each feeling grumpy and resentful about their “need” to be heroes. Even worse than their grumpiness, however, their stoic heroics were creating an untenable situation that was making things worse for everyone. Here are a few consequences:

  • Changing the definition of normal.
    By consistently, stoically, producing at 125-130% effort each week, a recalibration happens and that extra heroic effort soon rounds to zero when people eventually perceive this new level of output as simply the new 100%. In other words, these staff were no longer getting credit for that extra 25-30% of weekly effort.
  • Setting a bad precedent.
    Colleagues within our own department as well as some constituents would regularly dump extra or last-minute work on them because they knew that these two staff would come through. The worst part is that I wouldn’t hear about it until afterwards.
  • Limiting my options.
    From a management point of view, it left me no where to go. What would we do when a crisis arose? How could I ask them to work even harder?

The bad side effects are also bad for your health, according to Stanford Professor Jeffry Pfeffer:

“All too many companies seem to love employees who put in long hours, but evidence makes crystal clear that organizations would be better off with employees who don’t overwork themselves.”  Jeffry Pfeffer in Dying for a Paycheck: How Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance — and What We can Do About It.

So what should you do? Obviously, I’m not advocating that you should simply stick to your assignments and not do more than necessary. If you’re that type of person, I don’t want you on the team. I want team members who are aware of all the balls in the air and are willing to take responsibility for some of the unclaimed ones. But I particularly value staff who will stand up for themselves (and the organization), and more importantly, are smart about when a situation should be addressed through personal heroics and when you need to ask for help.

These are my latest ephemeral thoughts on the business of managing IT. I’d love to hear your perspective. Leave a comment or share a thought.  

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