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Do You Have a Social Media Superman Complex?

I’ve become the designated “social media guy” for a massive organization (25,000+ people). For a while, the responsibilities of this role consisted primarily of explaining what the Twitters were and why people cared about what you ate for lunch. As social media has grown in popularity, so too has the internal and external demand for people who know what they’re talking about (the demand is so great that even people who have no clue what they’re talking about are in demand). My time has since become monopolized by my colleagues asking me to join meetings, review work products, pitch clients, and “pick my brain.” Once the words “social media” were uttered, the call went out – let’s get Steve in here right away!!

I liked it. I was in high demand, and I became well-known throughout my huge company as THE social media guy. It was fun and led to awards, promotions, and raises. I became the social media Superman, flying in to win new work, solve problems, and offer innovative solutions! I built a team and developed a mentality that if there was social media involved, I’d swoop in and save the day, wherever and whenever I was needed. The fact that I didn’t have the resources, the budget, or the authority to scale this across an entire organization was a concern, but I figured that would come soon enough – how could it not???

That’s when I realized I had a problem. I had a Superman complex. Wikipedia defines a Superman Complex as an unhealthy sense of responsibility, or the belief that everyone else lacks the capacity to successfully perform one or more tasks. Such a person may feel a constant need to “save” others.

I felt this enormous sense of responsibility that if there was a project using social media, I needed to know about it and my team needed to be involved. If I heard about a project where we were doing any sort of public outreach, I felt like I needed to butt in and help them integrate social media. If there were people working on a knowledge management strategy for a client, I had to get on the call and talk with them about social media behind the firewall. I felt like I needed to be there to ensure that we had the absolute best people working on these projects, that they were armed with the best intellectual capital we had and that they were consistent with the overall approach to social media that I had established. When a project’s social media efforts fell flat, I felt personally responsible. What did I do wrong? Why didn’t they get me involved sooner? Why wasn’t one of my people working with them already? Why didn’t they just ask for my help?? Now, remember, I work at a firm that generates upwards of $5 billion in annual revenue. That’s a LOT of projects to keep an eye on.

My team and I quickly found ourselves drowning in reactionary meetings just trying to keep our heads above water. We were becoming a social media help desk. My Superman complex, helpful at first, had become a detriment. I soon realized that my small team, based in our Strategic Communications capability, was never going to get the budget, resources, and authority needed to manage EVERY social media initiative for the entire 25,000+ employee, $5B company. My Superman complex had led me to believe that I could fix everything, regardless of the challenges that had to be overcome. Our recruiters aren’t using social media as effectively as they could be? No problem – I’ll hop over there and give them a briefing! Intelligence analysts struggling with how to analyze social media in the Middle East? I’ll be right there! Instructional system designers stuck in a rut? Give me a few hours and I’ll get them up to speed on social learning! I saw opportunities EVERYWHERE to fix things. I needed to be a part of that proposal team. I had to attend that meeting. I had to review that strategy. I had to give that presentation.

Fact is, I didn’t have to do any of that. What I had to do was stop. Stop and realize that by trying to fix everything, I wasn’t fixing anything, and in some cases, I was actually making things worse:

  • People were lacking incentives to develop their own social media skills because they could just rely on someone from my team to swoop in and help
  • We were too focused on just equipping people with the social media fundamentals that we weren’t able to focus on diving deeper into some of the niche areas of social media
  • We were becoming “social media experts” instead of communications professionals who understand social media, pulling all of us away from our core business area and into all kinds of discussions that may have involved social media, but had nothing to do with communications

If you find yourself developing a social media Superman complex (or need to manage an existing one), try the following:

  • Know your role. Do others in your organization expect you to have a hand in EVERYTHING related to social media or is that a responsibility you’ve taken on yourself? Understand what’s expected of you and meet those expectations first before trying to solve all the world’s problems.
  • Let others learn. Sometimes people in your organization are going to fall. It’s ok – they’ll learn and do better next time. Focus on the people and the projects you’re responsible for first, do what you can help people in other departments, but don’t let them steal your time and focus away from your core mission.
  • Develop your team and set them free. You can’t be everywhere all the time. Spend some time developing people on whom you can trust, equip and empower them to succeed and then step away and trust that you’ve developed them right.
  • Accept that there is no one way to “do” social media. Social media are just tools, and different organizations will use them for different purposes. What works in the Department of Defense may not work in the private sector and vice versa.
  • Respect other people’s expertise. Sure, you may know social media better than anyone else in the room, but also realize that you’re going to be working with people who are experts in their chosen fields too. Successful social media initiatives require both old and new school expertise.
  • Assess the situation. Don’t assume that because someone isn’t using social media that they need your help – they may not have the budget, internal expertise, client support, or a whole host of other reasons for not using social media like you think they should.

Social media Supermans bring a ton of benefits to your organizations but they also run the risk of burning out, alienating their colleagues, and creating a culture of dependency. Understand and embrace the balance between Superman and Clark Kent.

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Steve Radick

Esther – you’re absolutely right. Someone else brought that up to me on our Yammer network – this isn’t restricted just to social media, but that’s where my experience lies. It’s important to recognize this complex in all aspects of our lives.

Corey McCarren

It can definitely be hard to give others control of something you were designated to do and are qualified for. People are smart though, you can bet that there’s someone who can fill the social media role on most teams, just as with almost anything else.

Joseph Porcelli

Hey Steve,

Thanks for the authentic share, I really appreciate it!

I’ll admit, I too have been infected by the superman complex, and yes, I’ve burnt out, alienated my colleagues, and created a culture of dependency. You’re suggestions are right on.

One thing I’d add, and this is for the ego and spirit, and it’s one of my favorite quotes, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” ― Maya Angelou

Corey McCarren

Awesome quote, Joseph. Making employees feel supported and not managed is an important part of being a, well, manager. I have no problem working under people, and doing what I’m asked, but I’ve had previous employers who you’d think their job was to make me feel insignificant. Having faith in people to learn to do it correctly with friendly guidance and constructive criticism is a great way to make them feel supported. The best thing to do as a manager is to make everyone you’re working with feel like they’re part of your team, whether it’s for an hour or a year.

Andrew Krzmarzick

The antidote for the Superman Complex is still kryptonite (aka failure)! And there are people looking to put it in your path to knock or slow you down. Of course, it also just naturally happens, as you said, when we try to do too much.

But I’d say that most super peeps are best served by choosing to let go of their super powers before they have to confront kryptonite. It’ll make them more relatable and enable those around them to be much stronger in the end.

Steve Cottle

I really enjoyed this post and would agree with Esther that this is translatable across a whole slew of roles. When you develop a proficiency or expertise using a tool, it become very easy to that tool as the solution to every problem (“if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”) and have most confidence in your ability to determine right way to wield the tool. I think your list is a great way to help think through the situation and determine when/where/how to involve yourself.

Dory Dahlberg

What a relevant and timely post! I have recently been feeling the same Social Media Superman complex growing, but didn’t have a name for it. Now that I can identify it, I feel better equipped to address it head-on. Great help!

Joseph, thanks for reminding us of that quote. Its one I referred to in my old days on the Help Desk. Back then I heard quite often, “thanks for not making me feel stupid.” People don’t remember that I fixed their issue or answered their question, but they do remember that I treated them with kindness and understanding.

Naveen Krishnamurthy

Great read, thanks for sharing! We have come across this with clients in our organization and the most difficult hurdle in going from education to transition has been finding the appropriate individual(s) to pick up the baton. To this effect we have noted that the personalities of our target transition candidates have sometimes been the best indicator of who is the appropriate person(s) to take on social media related responsibilities. Especially those around engagement and community management.

Steve Radick

Thanks for the kind words everyone – I didn’t realize this was strike such a chord with everyone! I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one who has experienced this! @Laura – that’s how I started to – well, if I don’t help out here, they’re just going to mess it up so I’ll give them a few hours here and there to help out. Well, that turns into 10 or 15 hours and then they tell other project teams and then those turn into 10 or 15 hours and so on and so on. At some point, you just have to focus on what you can control or you’ll always be chasing perfection and you will never catch it.

Andrew Mullen Scott

Thanks for the great article, Steve! I’m a fanboy of Superman and the new social media guy at a $1B company. This is a good reminder to keep from becoming my own “Kryptonite.”