Incito Leadership and Executive Coaching


When Helping Isn’t Helpful

Lifesaver symbolic of business relationship drowning

Over the last few weeks, I’ve found myself talking with many clients about something we call the Drama Triangle.  My clients are genuinely trying to help their teams work through relationship conflicts with peers in their team or other business areas, stepping in to take on tasks or avoiding delegating because they feel their team is already too busy or they can’t afford for any mistakes to be made.  For some clients, it has been a pattern for them and a few team members, and for others, we’ve uncovered it is a pattern throughout the entire organization. 

The challenge in helping in this way is that the leader steps in as a Rescuer but ends up becoming a “monkey in the middle” of relationships in conflict as the go-between instead of enabling and supporting the two in coming together to resolve the issues themselves.  Or, the Rescuing leader ends up overburdened with too much work and is teetering with burnout.  The team members get short-term results because they don’t have accountability to solve their own issues, but long-term suffer by missing out on development, strengthening relationships and building their capacity.

The bigger picture impact is that you allow others to assume the role of Victim and Persecutor.   As Rescuer we show up as though we are better, stronger, smarter, or more together than the Victim. The Victim begins feeling "looked down upon," resentment builds and some form of retaliation inevitably follows.  The Persecutor doesn’t end up having to face the real impact of their behaviour and is enabled to continue. At that point, the Victim moves into a Persecutor role and like a not-so-musical game of musical chairs, all players sooner or later rotate positions … You as a Rescuer can take on the Victim role having spent so much time away from your other tasks “helping”.

How do you recognize that your helping might not be helpful after all? 

You might be rescuing if you find yourself saying some of these phrases:

  • I was just trying to help

  • I can’t tell them how I really feel because it would hurt their feelings

  • I should be doing more

  • It’s all up to me

  • It’s just easier to do it myself—no one else knows what I know

  • I’ll just do it myself and save them the trouble

  • They’ve already got too much to do—I’ll take care of it

  • I can’t seem to get a life of my own

  • What else could I do? I couldn’t just let them make mistakes …

  • I have no choice—the [person/group] is depending on me

So how can you move out of the Drama Triangle?

Stepping off the Drama Triangle requires taking full responsibility for our choices and working with others in a straightforward and honest way in order to accomplish the task at hand.  

  • Allow others to be responsible for themselves and solve their own problems

  • Identify and tend to your true responsibilities

  • Say “no” when you mean it; say “yes” when you mean it

  • Take responsibility for what you want and need

  • Insist that people ask you for what they want and need from you and make choices about how you respond.

  • Allow others to feel their feelings, do their thinking, make their choices, and speak for themselves

  • Give only when you are asked and agree to

  • Insist that others do their share in joint efforts

  • Set boundaries: “This is as far as I will go”

  • Practice detachment

  • Play the role of coach and sounding board instead of problem solver

  • Learn to gain a sense of self-worth in activities other than helping others

  • Insist on joint conversations if you’re support is needed as a mediator

It takes a great deal of vulnerability to step out of the Drama Triangle and into accountability with yourself and your team.  Doing so is where boundaries, strong relationships, engagement, empowerment and autonomy are born and it’s this long-term growth that is just the kind of help we all need.

Jenn Lofgren