In the book The Phoenix Project, unplanned work is described as "anti-work". If not addressed, it's the antimatter to the matter of what you want to actually get done.

“Like matter and antimatter, in the presence of unplanned work, all planned work ignites with incandescent fury, incinerating everything around it.”

Company culture has its own antimatter. It may not always ignite with incandescent fury, but it strikes at the root of a team's potential with insidious and difficult-to-recognize ferocity. It's the cult of the toxic hero.

It's a role that companies celebrate far and wide - and who doesn't want to be celebrated? You will feel powerless in confronting it because in doing so you may be perceived as not "celebrating the success of others", "jealous" or (ironically) "not a problem solver".

When Saving the Day Kills the Company

Brain Drain

Toxic hero culture doesn't give room for others to rise to hero status. Whether consciously or subsconsciously, toxic heroes will resist sharing the knowledge they have, and they will tend towards approaches that only they can decipher. In my experience, this is rarely intentionally malicious, it's just the natural by-product of hoarding knowledge and resisting collaboration with others.

Often, the toxic hero knows how to save the day because they caused the issue to begin with. Attempts to understand the root cause will be resisted and derailed (if they can manage it) because they'd rather brush it under the rug and move on. When this happens, it robs the rest of the team of building system knowledge and being able to hold everyone accountable.

Gifted and capable engineers will see the inevitable train wreck and try to raise awareness, but will opt out once they realize they're not having an impact. Those that remain will grapple with deeper demoralization. The toxic hero's resistance to sharing knowledge and credit not only drives out solid talent, it makes it harder to attract the kind of employees you want and need.

Fire & Fighting

A culture that rewards firefighting breeds arsonists. -- Michael Stahnke

We should recognize constant firefighting for what it is: a downward spiral. In firefighting mode, we tend to cut corners and ship the first thing that seems to work (on our machine) and bypass whatever safety checks are in place to prevent more fires – but this perpetuates the problem, as it usually starts more fires (or adds fuel to the one already raging). If this behavior is reinforced by company culture, then you're unintentionally breeding arsonists. Like Brent in the Phoenix Project, the toxic hero will think "I've got this!" and unilaterally make that change to the production database - the change that not only doesn't fix the problem, but makes it worse.

Managers need to be especially clear here. If you're rewarding toxic heroes, you are enabling a stream of unplanned work. When a toxic hero is present, expect to see an uptick in unplanned work wherever they exert influence. Like Deming said, "A bad system will beat a good person every time." Toxic heroes will always tip the scales on any system from "good" to "bad". If you want to ship features on time, you owe it to yourself (and your team) to stop toxic heroes from constantly injecting unplanned work into the system.

Poisoning the Well

The presence of a toxic hero in a culture will invite a "tribal split" within your organization. Celebrating their heroics will deepen the divide. In extreme cases it moves from unhealthy "us vs them" antics into sabotage.

I've observed this kind of sabotage multiple times in my career. In some cases these were otherwise decent people that had reached a point of stress that clouded their judgment in a terrible way. In others, it was calculated and deliberate. I can't emphasize enough how destructive this is to company culture. Managers, (especially if they defend the toxic hero), will not hear the full extent of how frustrated and burned the team feels. Regardless of the reason behind the sabotage, it's critical that it is dealt with swiftly, and that the team knows that something was done (without sharing inappropriate details, of course). In only one instance of this behavior did I observe the team bounce back from the experience - in every other instance it led to disastrous consequences for the team and the product.

What's the antidote?

If you're in any kind of leadership role, helping your company become better at aggregate resource planning, tactfully saying "no", and avoiding the tendency to "death march" late in projects are essential in cultivating an environment resistant to the rise of toxic heroes. If it's too late for that – if your team is already caught in a never-ending cycle of "heroic" firefighting – you owe it to yourself to read "Past the Tipping Point: The Persistence of Firefighting in Product Development". The research in this paper, in their words, "suggests that a temporary increase in workload (and the consequent need to engage in fire fighting) can cause a permanent decline in performance." When faced with unrealistic expectations on workload and deadlines, we're often tempted to squeeze every possible second (including unsustainable amounts of overtime), yet the authors of "Past the Tipping Point" found that "a fully utilized product development system is also a system constantly on the verge of descent into fire fighting".

The most important move, though, is to stop rewarding firefighting behavior.

Mature leadership recognizes the need – and acts accordingly – to reduce the incentives (like firefighting) for toxic heroes to gain a place of prominence.

In my experience, there are things that serve as cultural vaccines that will boost your company's immunity to the presence of toxic heroes:

  • Reward behavior that leads to preventative maintenance. Publicly and loudly praise this behavior to the rest of the company.
  • When the situation really demands firefighting - thank those that stepped up. Give them extra time off or other tangible rewards – but respect them by doing what's necessary to prevent the need from arising again. Remember to praise preventative maintenance more loudly than firefighting.
  • Equip your team with the tools they need to have healthy confrontations (i.e. - consider a conflict management class).
  • Require your technical leaders to abide by the same standards they expect others to uphold (i.e. - no one is above the law)
  • If you identify a toxic hero, rotate them out of the position(s) that lend themselves to this. Instead, assign them to work on the solution (in collaboration with others) that prevents the need for firefighting. Make sure knowledege is disseminated across the team.
  • Find ways to communicate the costs of toxic heroes in terms of dollars to the business stakeholders in your company. The rework, late night tier 4 emergencies, loss of morale - all of these things can be measured and in some way tied back to how it impacts the company's performance.

In the end, you want a team of people that are capable of being the right kind of heroes if called upon, but that should be the rarest of situations. A team that works together in humility, that's empowered to continuously improve and eliminate waste, that shares credit and responsibility - by its very nature, such a team will drastically reduce and eventually eliminate firefighting from being a regular occurrence. Toxic heroes won't feel at home on a well established team like this. They'll either adapt or move on to find the heroic dopamine hit elsewhere - and your team will be the better for it.