Businesses should stop glorifying cheerful superheroes and emphasize the quiet safeguarder.
Cheerful superhero is my term for those people who sweep in to fix a problem after it’s occurred, often with a loud noise and a smile on their face. They don’t complain about cleaning up other peoples’ messes, partly because they thrive on restoring order out of chaos. Superheroes are here to save the day and do what others can’t (or won’t) do.
We glorify problem solving in business through awards, and promotions, and HBR articles. In doing so, we are incentivizing having more problems. It seems better to let things go wrong and fix them afterwards (and get the associated visibility) than to prevent the problem from ever happening in the first place.
But, as the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Solving problems is reactive while preventing problems is proactive. We regularly practice problem prevention in our personal lives:
- Brushing and flossing our teeth to avoid dental surgery
- Changing the oil in our cars to avoid engine failure
- Installing anti-virus software on our computers to avoid malicious viruses
So why don’t we practice more problem prevention in business?
Partly it’s because many problems seem unlikely or not imminent, so people concentrate on the tyranny of the urgent. However, the primary reason is people aren’t incented or encouraged to prevent problems. Problem preventers are more likely to be thinkers and planners than action heroes. Problem preventers do most of their good work in private rather than publicly putting out business fires.
Problem preventers aren’t cheerful superheroes; they quietly safeguard our businesses.
Companies should better value and support quiet safeguarders. Even though proactive preventers don’t get the glory, research has shown they have higher job satisfaction and are therefore more likely to stay when the going gets tough. They focus on team results more than individual success.
Since solving problems takes more resources and time than preventing them, we should reward problem preventers more than problem solvers. Stop glorifying cheerful superheroes and start valuing quiet safeguarders.