In Defense of Being “Helpful”

I want to write in defense of being helpful. And I want to distinguish it from rescue.

There have been times in working Flawless Consulting Workshops that I have heard being “helpful” disparaged a bit with a phrase like, “We don’t want to be helpful. We want to be useful.” Since we are in a “helping profession,” this has always rankled me just a bit.

The distinction I make is between helping and rescuing. Rescuing is part of what Stephen Karpman described as the “drama triangle” in the 1960s. It looks like this:

The emotional price for all involved in the triangle is anxiety, which is rarely helpful in any context. Since organizational development emerged to deal with the unintended consequences of industrialization, we as practitioners can get caught up in it.

If I view the client or “system” for which I am consulting as a persecutor, I run the risk of viewing some in the system as victims and want to rescue them. Sadly, this is a role I have taken on in the past when working internally for large systems. When I did, I was prone to lapse into cynical commentary like, “What’s the difference between [our company] and the Boy Scouts? The Boy Scouts have adult leadership.” That was neither endearing nor helpful. But I thought it was clever!

On an individual coaching basis, if I stay in the rescuer mode, I may not challenge the person with whom I’m working to deal with what they can choose to change. There is always something someone can do to improve their own circumstances. Reinforcing a feeling of powerlessness is not helpful.

Seeing situations as involving persecutors and victims reflects a mindset that leads to conversations that lack any sense of possibility. One way we can be helpful is to invite those with whom we work to see possibilities they either can’t or have chosen not to see on their own. It’s part of the “clear picture” we strive for in consulting flawlessly.

I have worked for—and with—bosses who are doing things that are ineffective, unproductive, and even damaging. I have yet to work for one that is intentionally doing that. This is where compassion comes into play. When I operate from the perspective that this person is doing the best job he knows how in this situation, I create a mindset for myself that lets me see more possibility to help the client self-discover more possibility for himself.

Early in my career, I worked with a colleague in Western Electric (then the manufacturing subsidiary of AT&T) who used the phrase, “God is in a helping relationship.” That stuck with me, and probably explains why I am troubled with phrases that disparage helping. The God I know wants us to learn and grow, and will not rescue us from our choices but rather help us learn from them. That’s the power behind the feedback statement model in Flawless Consulting that goes, “Chris, when you do ‘X,’ it has the following impact on your organization—and the result is ‘Y.’”’ To my frame of reference, that simple, direct statement is being helpful.

Later, in another part of AT&T, I encountered Robert Greenleaf’s work on servant leadership. The “servant” part of that phrase is sometimes misconstrued as connoting weakness or subservience. Greenleaf’s behavioral test of a servant leader is far more rigorous, “Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?” This, in my view, could also be the test of a flawless consultant.

To do this, we must stay out of the “drama triangle.” How can we help vs. rescue? I think we can do this by presenting valid data and leaving the client free to decide, being open to the giftedness and possibility in each client and, as we teach in Flawless Consulting, letting go of our personal investment in the outcome.

Jeff has been affiliated with Designed Learning for more than 20 years.

Having held leadership positions in marketing, sales, organizational development, and HR, Jeff brings years of large-system experience in internal consulting to his work with Designed Learning. Jeff believes that when the human spirit thrives, organizations thrive as well.