A few years ago I attended a 5-day workshop facilitated by a great man, Max Clayton.
Max’s facilitation process was wonderful, wise and at times incredibly confronting for me. There was one space in between workshop sessions where Max, who at that time wasn’t well, was moving chairs around.
I offered to help. Max said something like “helping is your problem, not mine”. It doesn’t sound like much but it’s shaped my leadership and organizational change work since then.
Why helping doesn’t help
- Helping creates a power and control dynamic, the helper and the helpless
- The helpless don’t actually have to do anything, that’s the helper’s job
- Helplessness gets embedded through learned behaviour, thinking and organisational systems. Symptoms are:
- people not stepping up as leaders because of the energy required to help everyone (in the education arena this was reflected in the number of school principal vacancies)
- policies assuming the worst case scenario and try to cover all eventualities
- new ideas generated by the leadership cohort, rather than being generated throughout the organization.
Shifting from helplessness
Martin Seligman has explored both learned helplessness and ways to address this through positive psychology. The University of Pennsylvania website has some great tools etc to explore.
Positive psychology and its associated thinking tools which aim to build happiness are applicable to us as individuals, teams, organizations, and communities.
3 ways to be a better leader (and not helper)
- Find your own strengths and use them to create better engagement with those around you. You should also celebrate your strengths and greatness – see Martin Seligman’s website at www.authentichappiness.org.
- Recognise and reward the strengths of the person you’re leading or coaching. It’s so easy to respond to the “F” results and “fix” them, rather than the “A’s” (See Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch which I’m still reading – p47 – and yes I know I mentioned it yesterday but it’s really interesting).
- Be mindful of your assumptions. Before you start a leadership or coaching conversation, be aware of what you are assuming about the person you’re meeting with ie am I helping because I’m assuming this person is weak in this area? Write these assumptions down as a pre-meeting exercise.
Heath, C and Heath D (2010) Switch: how to change things when change is hard Broadway Books, Random House Group Limited, Chatham UK
Seligman, M.E.P. (1998). Learned Optimism. New York: Pocket Books (Simon and Schuster).
Gillham, J.E. (Ed). (2000). The Science of Optimism and Hope: Research Essays in Honor of Martin E. P. Seligman. Radnor, PA: Templeton Foundation Press.
Seligman, M.E.P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
Peterson, Christopher & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues A Handbook and Classification. Washington, D.C.: APA Press and Oxford University Press.