May 4, 2021

When Helping is Unhelpful

This is the sixteenth in a series of short essays I wrote as part of the Ship 30 for 30 program. You can read all thirty essays here.

“Make sure you’re not being a rescuer,” my coaching supervisor told me.

I had just shared an anecdote from one of my coaching sessions with her. I forget the exact details, but I had been holding my client’s hand too much.

Sometimes we think we’re helping by doing things for someone when we’re actually disempowering them and denying them the chance to learn, grow, and do things independently.

I once read a scientific study that found birds whose parents helped them break through the eggshell during hatching were less likely to flourish in the wild than those left to make their own way out. The latter group learned to be self-reliant, while the former became dependent and struggled once they left the nest.

As a new parent, I fight this urge every day. When I see my son trying to reach for things or problem solve, I’m tempted to do it for him. But, while it is hard to see him struggle, I know I must follow the golden rule of parenting; don’t do something for your child they can do for themselves. Instead, let them know you will support them and help them figure things out if they get stuck.

That principle goes way beyond parenting. The manager who says to his staff, “Send it to me, I’ll take care of it,” is being counter-productive. They should decide what needs to be done, brief their team, and delegate work accordingly. This empowers people, shows you trust them, and encourages them to own their work. Support them when they need your help, of course. But don’t do their job for them.

So, next time you’re about to step in and help someone, remind yourself, “Don’t be a rescuer.” Offer your support, but let them figure out their own solutions.