Company Heros vs Team Players: Which is Best for Company Culture?

The novel coronavirus continues to change our lives, work, and the very fabric of our society.

With countries and regions looking ahead to how and when to re-open the world’s economy, I wanted to take this time to look at some positive differences we can all make.

Even though our current circumstances are still stressful, as we make plans for our organization’s future we should take the time to also reflect on its culture, identify flaws and find the ways to improve operations.

Our history of hero-based cultures

As COVID-19 shakes up business as usual, this is also the time to think about our deeper, underlying corporate culture. If we return to life as normal without addressing fundamental cultural problems that existed before COVID-19, then those problems will still be there when business-life finds its new normal.

One issue to consider is how Western culture’s glorification of the individual hero affects your business.

Since ancient times, our literature, historical narratives, and popular culture have romanticized the often-sacrificial acts of the individual hero, the lone wolf.

Love them or hate them, the larger-than-life characters in our books and on our big screens are part of our culture. Unfortunately in business, this pursuit of personal glory can damage company goals.

Of course there is a space in business for individual successes. They should be rewarded and lauded. But when a company’s culture becomes dependent on a few heroes to do the majority of the work, problems are created.

How hero-based cultures damage teams

Famously, Michael Jordan, 6-time NBA Champion and 6-time NBA Finals MVP, is quoted as saying, “Talent wins games, but teamwork wins championships.”

Throughout my professional career, in businesses small and large, I have too often witnessed an unhealthy dependency on individuals to solve challenges.

Adopting a hero-based culture as a strategy creates a dependency on these few individuals. They have the skills, experience, and managerial support to do whatever is needed to keep the boat afloat. They are happy for their contributions and the recognition their commitment, sacrifice, and dedication bring.

This approach, while able to provide a sense of success, creates a culture that is inefficient and unscalable. Rather than cultivating teams, the company instead unintentionally develops highly competitive individuals. These people become unable to collaborate. They feel empowered and entitled, and they maintain their preferred status by keeping their knowledge to themselves.

These organizations fail at two key indicators of long-term viability

First, they don’t create a culture of shared, accumulated knowledge. Second, these heroes, with no incentive to collaborate in a team, will be unable to help your organization achieve Teamability – the ability to form cooperative and efficient working relationships between companies.

I have seen tech companies with a hero-based culture struggle to develop teams as the company grew. New people – however talented – were assigned to simple or marginal tasks. At the same time, a core group of 2-3 individuals were assigned the exciting, challenging, and rewarding parts of product development.

I have also seen companies whose heroes gathered so much respect and power that they considered themselves indispensable. They used their status for their own benefit by requesting increased compensation and constant recognition. In the most extreme cases, they were even able to dictate the direction the company took – which was invariably in the direction that rewarded their positions with new and lucrative contracts.

This hero-based culture model worked well until it didn’t work at all. Eventually, the heroes became unenthralled, tired, or simply overwhelmed.

Keep your heroes out of their ivory towers

When individuals put great effort into a project or discover a key breakthrough, of course they should be recognized. Supporting and encouraging individual commitment, knowledge, and hard work is part of retaining top talent.

Perhaps the greatest overlooked benefit these heroes bring to an organization is their ability to inspire others to excel. Rather than being isolated – if highly valued – these people should be your company’s mentors. By bringing them down from their ivory towers, you automatically make their knowledge, passion, and commitment accessible. At the same time, you give these motivated employees a new avenue for success.

But the first step in changing your cultural model is learning how rampant its hero-based culture is. In a newer company, probably a few tweaks and adjustments can be made to what is expected from employees.  You can change tack without doing much damage.

In an established company, however, you may already depend on a few heroes, and dissolving these toxic habits will take more care. You want to excise the bad habits but – when possible – keep the great people. In the worst-case scenarios, key people can’t be risked until their hero status is already replaced with a team-based culture.

Reward teamwork, too

Perhaps now more than ever, a team-based culture is imperative. As business life adjusts to the realities of the coronavirus, you need a team that can adapt to changing cultural norms. Every company must find a balance between the heroic deeds of its individuals and the contributions of those individuals to the greater team.

Creating a team-based culture is to create a process-oriented approach that is scalable and repeatable. It needs to not depend on individuals, but still be able to commend both individual successes and contributions to teams.

With the uncertainty that we’re now facing, Proximiteam’s goal is to continue to find ways to provide value to our customers and help them navigate this difficult time. If you take stock of your company’s culture and find cause for concern, we’d love to help you get back on track. To learn more, please contact us at

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