Employee Engagement & Retention Tip for Professional Services: Eliminate Hero Syndrome

At Projector, we believe that the best project work happens without operational heroics. So what is hero syndrome?

Hero syndrome in a professional services organization or consulting firm can frequently go unnoticed—until a dedicated, but over-burdened, top performer calls it quits. Also known as superhero syndrome, superman complex, and work martyr syndrome, hero syndrome is a condition characterized by employees who perceive themselves as the only one capable of performing a given task.

This employee may enjoy being a top performer and taking on additional projects in order to be recognized or considered an asset to the team, but the effects of their workload can eventually result in burnout and other negative consequences. This, in turn, threatens the employee engagement and retention rates at your professional services organization and weigh down the full potential of its success.

According to SPI (Service Performance Insight) Research’s 2022 Professional Services Benchmark Report, replacing a consultant can cost $150,000 or more after recruiting, ramp-up, and knowledge transfer are taken into account. One of the most critical and controllable aspects of avoiding this costly process is maximizing employee engagement and retention, and developing effective employee retention strategies to combat the factors that pose a risk to it.

Since hero syndrome at work is one of those factors, let’s take a look at what it is, how to recognize it, and how you can go about eliminating it from your services organization.

What is Hero Syndrome in Professional Services?

Hero syndrome is a pattern of behavior in which an employee feels they need to be the hero to get things done. It can lead to employee burnout and disengagement, as well as reduce their productivity and performance.

The concept of hero syndrome is fairly straightforward: employees who feel like they have to take on all responsibility for themselves or their teams, or who see themselves as indispensable to their company’s success, often fall into this category. They’re usually passionate about whatever work they’re doing, but that passion doesn’t necessarily translate into good work habits, collaboration with others on projects that could benefit from different perspectives and knowledge bases, or even healthy boundaries between work life and personal life (which can put stress on both).

Hero syndrome can be common in consulting and services because it’s an industry that often focuses on individual achievement rather than team success. More specifically we tend to observe hero syndrome in early maturity professional services businesses that have not scaled up their operations.   

Professional Services Maturity Model and Hero Syndrome
Hero syndrome tends to be more prevalent in early levels of the Professional Services Maturity Model

Symptoms of Hero Syndrome at Work

If your professional services organization has prioritized project efficiency over the well-being of your employees, you may be dealing with hero syndrome. But how can you recognize if this is the case within your business? While there can be a variety of indicators, some of the most common symptoms of hero syndrome in a professional services setting include employees who:

  • Do not feel like valued team members.

  • Quit at a higher than average rate.

  • Exhibit a lack of confidence and trust in others, as well as a lack of collaboration, both interdepartmentally and within teams.

  • Say yes to everything and having an inability to delegate tasks effectively, which can lead to taking on excessive workloads and burnout.

  • Have a need for recognition and stepping in to continuously interject advice to others.

  • Are afraid to ask for help, admit they don’t know something or acknowledge they made a mistake.

  • Are narcissistic, showing off or acting self-centered.

While some of these symptoms can result from an employee’s natural personality, it becomes a problem when it affects your organization’s operations and the people around them. Once you recognize hero syndrome symptoms, it’s key to understand what causes it, the effects it can have on employee engagement and retention, and what you can do about it.

Causes of Consultant Hero Syndrome

The hero syndrome is a common problem in the professional services industry. A lack of leadership and an employee feeling like they’re not making meaningful contributions at their firms can often cause this disorder. Depending on the scope of a project, consultants frequently operate with their clients independently from fellow consultants, so there’s little incentive for them to work together or teach each other new things about the services they provide.

If a manager has a highly specialized role, it can be hard to find someone who can do it as well as they can. This often makes them feel that their skills are irreplaceable and that there’s no one out there who could do their job as well. Some managers can also hold onto authority for too long, even after they no longer need it because they’re afraid of relinquishing control. For example, when an employee reaches a certain level in their career path (e.g., becoming department head), their manager might still expect them to report directly to them rather than take on more responsibilities within the company.

The nature of the service team and company culture can also be contributing factors. A resource manager or project manager may feel like they’re responsible for all their team members’ successes and failures—even though those successes and failures aren’t necessarily their fault or responsibility. And a culture that doesn’t support a work-life balance or have a focus on maximizing employee engagement and retention can fuel hero syndrome as a result.

Services organization that are experiencing rapid growth may find employees striving for internal moves and promotions. As they try to assume more responsibilities to advance in this case, it can mean less cohesion with teams within the organization and initiate additional negative effects on employee engagement and retention.

Hero Syndrome in the Workplace and Its Effects on Employee Retention

It’s not only important to understand what causes hero syndrome at your services business, but also the effects it can have on both the employees and the company.  

When a professional services employee or consultant has hero syndrome or continuously tries to be the workplace hero, he or she will often become disengaged from his or her job because it won’t be rewarding anymore. They may become less productive, more resistant to change and process improvements, and more likely to leave the company for another job opportunity that would offer more challenges and opportunities for greater career advancement.

The effects of hero syndrome at the company level include lower employee engagement and retention, higher consultant turnover rates, and higher levels of stress throughout the organization.

When heroes syndrome is addressed and eliminated, services businesses can counteract those negative impacts with a variety of employee retention benefits. As employee engagement and retention become a greater focus within the organization, not only will employee attrition rates see a positive decline, but employees themselves will experience an increase in morale, career satisfaction, productivity, and performance. A greater focus on employee learning and development can also improve employee creativity and innovation, making it a win-win for both the company and consultants.

Hero Syndrome Effects on Employee Engagement and Retention

How to Improve Employee Engagement and Retention by Fixing Hero Syndrome at Your Services Organization

In the 2022 Retention Report released by the Work Institute, research shows that 69% of turnover in 2021 was a result of more preventable reasons for leaving. Managers can break the cycle of preventable hero syndrome and help their employees excel by recognizing the signs and coaching their employees to work smarter, not harder.

One of the most effective ways to fight consultant turnover and hero syndrome is to create a culture that cares about driving performance and retention through employee engagement and recognizing the importance of work-life balance.

Tips for combatting hero syndrome within your services business include:

  • Focus on communication, teamwork and knowledge-sharing instead of individual accomplishments.

  • Implement PSA software to enable visibility to the atomic unit of professional services firms: time.

  • Empower employees to delegate as well as say no.

  • Listen more than you talk; this is important for both your employees and your customers. Listening demonstrates respect for others and can also help fill in any gaps in information that could lead to misunderstandings or errors on the job.

  • Break up the monotony of daily tasks with new responsibilities that keep everyone on their toes (and engaged).

  • Be a mentor—not just for new hires but also for more experienced team members who need training on new technologies or processes within the organization, as well as those who are going through any personal challenges that may affect their work performance (e.g., illness, divorce).

    Mentors offer guidance and support while being empathetic listeners when needed—they’re not always right but they always seem to know what’s best when it comes down to making important decisions about people at work!

  • Encourage self-reflection. Ask your employees to reflect on their work to help them identify mistakes and areas for improvement, which can help them avoid or break out of a hero syndrome cycle.

  • Don’t just praise someone’s accomplishments to help them feel valued, but also provide constructive criticism when needed. Recognizing an employee’s strengths is important for building confidence and encouraging them to grow as professionals, but if you don’t point out ways future efforts could be improved, you’ll leave them feeling like they’ve done everything right in every situation.

    This can lead to complacency over time and ultimately discourage learning new skills or taking on additional responsibilities (see how it all works together?).

  • Promote frequency and recency of time off to disconnect, supporting employee well-being and work-life balance.

  • Employee retention software and analytics. By using software such as Projector PSA (professional services automation), services organizations can take a data-driven approach based on various employee retention metrics to determine such things as employee burnout risk.

    Employee retention analytics and metrics can also be extended to incorporate other factors tracked within a PSA system, such as investment in professional development, time since last promotion, diversity of project experiences, and more.
Optimizing Employee Engagement and Retention

Summary

Hero syndrome at work can be detrimental to employee engagement and retention in your services organization. It can lead to high consultant turnover rates, low employee engagement, and high levels of stress. When employees feel undervalued, overworked and burnt out, they are unlikely to stay with your company for very long, taking a toll on your efforts to maximize growth and success.

It’s important to acknowledge that hero syndrome may be ingrained in your organization’s culture. That’s why it’s critical that leaders address the problem head-on and make an effort to try to change their own behavior as well as their employees’. If you want your business to run smoothly, you need a team of satisfied, motivated employees who work collaboratively together instead of competing with each other for recognition and rewards.

The good news is there are a variety of employee engagement and retention strategies you can take today start eliminating hero syndrome from your organization. Once you understand the role of motivation in employee retention and identify the signs of hero syndrome within your team or organization, start conversations about how to create a healthy work environment. When employees are allowed to invest their energy into tasks where they can make a real difference, they become more engaged in their work and more likely to contribute as a team.

To see how Projector PSA can support your strategies for the retention and motivation of employees, have a conversation with a member of our professional services specialist team today. You might also be interested in one of the below resources for more actionable tactics to optimize and scale your business.

WHITE PAPER | Fighting The Great Resignation: How To Maximize Employee Retention

Frequently Asked Questions About Hero Syndrome and Employee Engagement and Retention

What is hero syndrome?

Hero syndrome is a pattern of behavior in which an employee feels they need to be the hero to get things done. It can lead to employee burnout and disengagement, as well as reduce their productivity and performance.

What is employee engagement and retention?

When employees are engaged with their work and the company, employee retention rates see a positive increase, but employees themselves will experience improved morale, career satisfaction, productivity, and performance. A greater focus on employee learning and development can also improve employee creativity and innovation, making it a win-win for both the company and its employees.

How are motivation and engagement related to employee retention?

As employers focus more on retaining and engaging their employees, those companies will see a decline in turnover rates and an increase in morale, productivity and performance.

Can mentoring enhance employee retention and engagement?

One way to improve employee retention and engagement is by being a mentor—not just for new hires, but also for more experienced team members who need training on new technologies or processes within the organization. Mentoring employees going through any personal challenges that may affect their work performance (e.g., illness, divorce). Mentors offer guidance and support while being empathetic listeners when needed.

How do you know if an employee has hero complex?

While there can be a variety of indicators, some of the most common symptoms of hero syndrome in a professional services setting include employees who:

• Do not feel like valued team members.
• Quit at a higher than average rate.
• Exhibit a lack of confidence and trust in others, as well as a lack of collaboration, both interdepartmentally and within teams.
• Say yes to everything and having an inability to delegate tasks effectively, which can lead to taking on excessive workloads and burnout.
• Have a need for recognition and stepping in to continuously interject advice to others.
• Are afraid to ask for help, admit they don’t know something or acknowledge they made a mistake.
• Are narcissistic, showing off or acting self-centered.

How do you solve hero syndrome in the workplace?

Managers can break the cycle of hero syndrome and help their employees excel by recognizing the signs and coaching their employees to work smarter, not harder. One of the most effective ways to fight hero syndrome is to create a culture that cares about driving performance and retention through employee engagement, and recognizing the importance of work-life balance.

How does employee engagement affect retention?

Hero syndrome at work can be detrimental to employee engagement and retention in your services organization. It can lead to higher turnover rates, lower employee engagement, and increased levels of stress. When employees feel undervalued, overworked and burnt out, they are unlikely to stay with your company for very long, taking a toll on your efforts to maximize growth and success.

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