Recognizing and Curing Superhero Syndrome

Written by Stefan Thorpe
#superherosyndrome

It’s always good to be aiming higher and trying to achieve more in life and in the workplace. In fact, many of us would admit to needing a little extra push and motivation sometimes to help us achieve our ambitions. But it is important to balance these ambitions with realistic and achievable everyday goals. When we fail to do this on a daily basis, it can often lead to superhero syndrome setting in.

What Is Superhero Syndrome?

We are all used to the image of the noble superhero selflessly and single-handedly fighting back against any problem, no matter how small or world-threatening the issue. It is an attitude that many of us have tried to incorporate into our professional lives. It is even encouraged. Superhero syndrome is when one member of the team assumes responsibility for doing everything. Not only this, but in spite of taking on extra work and responsibilities, they take any failures and mistakes to heart, always striving for perfection.

This is not a healthy state of being to maintain, and in today’s working environment employers need to be ever aware and supportive of employee’s mental health. The IT industry, while not singular for jobs which involve long hours and high-pressure situations, is fraught with roles that deal with stressful issues daily.

The Problem with Superhero Syndrome

While it may sound melodramatic, superhero syndrome can spell disaster, both for the individual involved and the people around them.

For the individual, superhero syndrome can cause them to put an unmanageable amount of pressure upon themselves to perform. This condition is not sustainable long-term. They will not only be pushing themselves to complete their own work as usual, but they will also be trying to take on too much in the way of additional roles and responsibilities. Of course, it is good to be ambitious. But by pushing themselves too far, they will quickly burn out, and their performance will be affected.

For the rest of the team, it is easy to become dependent upon the superhero. And even take advantage of someone who is willing to take on extra work. This situation exacerbates the pressure that the individual is under, while also encouraging the team to take a back seat. When problems do arise, other members of the team are much less likely to be able to react and respond appropriately in times of crisis if the superhero has assumed knowledge that hasn’t been shared.

It is through times of crisis and mistakes that many of us do our most important learning. See failure as an opportunity to absorb new information for progression and improvement. When one individual is accumulating responsibilities and data that, ideally, the whole team should know, when it comes to dealing with any difficulties and problems, everyone is losing a vital opportunity to improve themselves.

What Are the Symptoms?

There are five tell-tale signs that superhero syndrome is setting in, and that action needs to be taken to spread to the workload around your team. If you notice yourself, or others, exhibiting the following behaviors, it’s time to take a step back and highlight the issue.

    1. Saying yes to everything: This is perhaps the most obvious sign that you are beginning to suffer from superhero syndrome. You need to be able to say no to certain requests now and then. This isn’t an encouragement to slack off, but be reasonable about your workload. Don’t put yourself in the position of taking on a mountain of extra work just to keep other people happy.
    2. Saying yes even when you really want to say no: Saying yes to everything is easy to do when you are able to justify doing so. However, a clear indicator that this is the result of superhero syndrome is if you begin to notice that you are saying yes while thinking no.
    3. You don’t trust your team to get things done: It’s easy to think of superhero syndrome as something that is largely forced upon people. But it is not always the case that the superhero is busy because their coworkers are lazy. It is just as common for the superhero themselves to try and take all the extra work on voluntarily because they don’t trust the team. This is also not the team’s fault, but a false mindset that the superhero is the only one who can do the job properly. Trust others to have the same work ethic and values that you have.
    4. Competing against yourself: If you begin to notice that you are constantly evaluating each performance against your last, this is a sign that you are no longer being objective in your self-evaluation. You will be doing yourself no favors by taking this approach. Improvement is obviously good, but it is not always a constant process, it occurs in stages.
    5. Trying to be everything to everyone: This goes hand-in-hand with saying yes to everything, even when you don’t want to. Superheroes will try and take on every role they come across and will expect themselves to be able to perform all of these roles with the same high competence.

How to Cure Superhero Syndrome

If you notice yourself falling victim to superhero syndrome, you need to address the problem as soon as possible. This isn’t just for your own good; a superhero causes trouble for the entire team. The world may need a superhero every now and then, but the workplace doesn’t.

The first thing you need to do is to practice saying no. It isn’t always easy, but you will have a much easier time if you can get used to asserting yourself. Start will small requests if it helps but be ready to put your foot down and reject any requests that start to put you back in an overworked position. Once other people see that you are able to say no and that you aren’t afraid to turn down requests, they will know to only ask you for favors when it makes sense to do so.

Another important behavioral correction to make in curing superhero syndrome is to hold yourself to an objective standard. Don’t constantly place excessive demands and expectations on yourself; give yourself time and space in which to improve, rather than expecting to constantly get better.

There is nothing super about superhero syndrome. It can be a disaster for both individuals, and for teams. If you notice superhero syndrome setting in, do whatever you can to correct the behaviors that are underpinning it. Sooner rather than later, for your own state of mental health.

For more on dealing with superheroes on your IT team, check out our article The Problem with Internal Superheroes.


Caylent offers DevOps-as-a-Service to high growth companies looking for help with microservices, containers, cloud infrastructure, and CI/CD deployments. Our managed and consulting services are a more cost-effective option than hiring in-house and we scale as your team and company grow. Check out some of the use cases and learn how we work with clients by visiting our DevOps-as-a-Service offering.

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