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Don't Rescue: It Prohibits Thinking!


We love heroic tales, don’t we? We love to hear stories of heroes and have a high regard for them. This is something that spans all cultures. Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, did comprehensive research on mythological narratives from ancient and modern literature across the world’s cultures to conclude that all good stories follow a “hero’s journey pattern.” It's just what makes for a great story. The unlikely hero is faced with a challenge that he or she does not seek but feels compelled to complete. They have a few challenges/disasters, learn from those challenges and experience deep change, fight the “enemy” and win, then return home to a normal, yet somehow, changed life. If the stories we’ve been living with elicit so much reverence for the hero, it's no wonder we engage in and get excited about being heroic. I, myself, love being heroic! It's even part of my daily affirmations. In fact, it's number one! “I am a hero! I have strength for two and create other heroes in my wake.” But as with all good things, there can be too much of it. And that’s what this next step is all about. Going overboard with your heroism actually prevents opportunity for your people to do some of their own thinking. 

A more thoughtful hero: is it about me or is it about them? 

If we really want to teach people how to think, they must be able to have an experience. Experiencing tough situations, working hard to get a result, and facing new or difficult tasks is novel to the brain and causes the brain to pay closer attention. When we do the same things over and over again and are exposed to a limited number of new experiences, we become stagnant and our brain goes into coasting mode. For your people, having experiences is all about being encouraged, experimenting, and increasing their thinking ability.

Don’t take the monkey! 

I first came across the concept of the monkey when reading The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey, by Ken Blanchard. (Ken gave credit to William Oncken, Jr. for the concept.) I highly recommend that you read this short, yet powerful book, but here is the concept in a nutshell. Most managers want to be helpful (a hero!) to their people. It's actually human nature to want to help. When another human asks you, “Can you help me out?” it's painful for you to say no. Since managers are also human, they get in a trap of helping their people too often. In this book, we call it “Rescuing” because the manager has a mindset that the employee needs them or they’ll drown. What ends up happening (spoiler alert for Blanchard’s book . . . apologies) is that the manager becomes the dumping ground for all the hard, uncomfortable or unpleasant tasks. They pile up on the manager’s desk or to-do list and go undone, causing the manager to either work longer days or have more stress. Blanchard and Oncken, Jr. call these tasks “monkeys” because they multiply, cause chaos and it's hard to shake them! When I’m teaching Accountability Activator Workshops, I often hand out toy monkeys for the bosses to take home to remind them not to rescue people by taking their monkeys. Here is an illustration of this non-recommended monkey-taking in action! 

Sam has come to you for coaching. He’s concerned because a client is upset and he’s afraid the client will leave. After co-creating the action together (he decided that offering the client a revision to the contract and requesting increased cooperation from the client’s team would be the best solution), Sam’s next step is to make a phone call to the client to propose the solution. But, you, the boss, start to get nervous. Sam has never made a big phone call like this. You have; you’ve had dozens of phone calls like this and you’ve learned the fine art of finesse, listening, empathizing and negotiation. You could say that these are your best skills! And this is a big client. During your coaching, you offered Sam a few different ideas and you’re pretty sure they soaked in, but you are still hesitant for some reason.

Let’s pause the story right here to examine what is going on in your brain. The brain is a complex organ, but here are some highlights you should be aware of in these situations. 

  1. Your fear center (amygdala): This is the part of your brain that protects you from pain and suffering. This part of the brain will encourage you to choose the most successful solution with the least risk to your physical well-being. The story you tell yourself, even if it’s subconsciously, is that, “If Sam messes this up, the client will leave, I’ll get fired, I won't get another job, I’ll lose my paycheck, my house, my kids will go hungry and I’ll end up living in a van down by the river!” Even when you intellectually know that’s not true, your brain, if left unrestrained, will plant these thoughts in your head to protect you from physical harm. Gratefully, our prefrontal cortex (the logic center) has evolved to partner with our amygdala and we can consciously acknowledge the protective thoughts, then act rationally.

  2. Your efficiency center: We are efficient creatures and naturally prioritize the present over the future. This part of your brain will encourage you to take the shortest route to success. Because we have evolved to conserve energy, our brains tell us stories that sound like this: “It's easier for me to just do it myself. I know the client really well and this will sound better coming from me. I don’t want to distract Sam with preparation for this difficult conversation, he has other things to do. I don’t need to prepare at all so this will be faster for everyone. I need to call the client anyway about this other thing, so it will actually save us both time. I’ll see the client next week at the trade show anyway, so I’ll talk to them then.” Oh, the way we tell ourselves stories!

  3. Your ego center: And this may be the trickiest to acknowledge . . . forgive me if you feel you need some life coaching after this section . . . here’s the truth. You may love to rescue your people because it feels good to you. It feeds your ego to know that your people need you to save them. Your brain may also be telling you stories like, “The helpful thing to do would be to put Sam out of his pain. It would be so nice of you to do this for him. It will really relieve him of having to be in a tough conversation. You are a good person to help him in this way, he’ll be so grateful and probably remember this moment for the rest of his life! You are really valuable here, no one can do this as well as you can. It’s a good idea for the person who is best at the task in the company to do the task. This is exactly what a good boss does for their people. This is what a great company looks like, helping each other out. We’ve built a great culture of teamwork.” And finally, “This is job security. Having me around to do these hard tasks means that I’m valuable.”

Knowing about and acknowledging these three points is often all it takes to start rescuing your people less. It's also powerful to recognize what is going on in the mind of your employee, Sam. So, let’s examine what's going on in his brain right now. 

Remember, the scenario is that you’ve just co-created an action and he’s about to leave your office to go talk to the client. 

If you choose to RESCUE him with a phrase like, “Sam, I’m going to see the client on Thursday at an industry event anyway, let me talk with her. I know her really well and maybe this will go over better when it's coming from me. She’ll know we are really taking it seriously.” Let’s look at what would be going on in Sam’s brain in this rescuing scenario:

  1. His efficiency center: His efficiency center is taking note of this rescue. Brains love to create patterns and attach meaning to these patterns. Brains take note of what works and what doesn’t work for efficiency. Right now, his brain is celebrating and remembering what worked. Essentially, it is saying to itself, “Yes! Getting my boss to help me with a solution is really efficient, I won’t need to do any additional work because he is going to do the work for me. I’ll remember this for next time.” The brain makes a connection that says, “Go to your boss next time you are stuck, and you won’t need to work as hard.” Keep in mind that these are rarely conscious thoughts; they are deep and subtle, yet very powerful.

  2. His pain center: His pain center is in relief! He was, at his core, fearful of having this interaction with the client. You just took that pain away. When we have a sense of relief, the chemicals oxytocin and dopamine (and several others outside the scope of this book) flood our brains and we connect the person involved in the interaction to the feeling. This rescue also seals in Sam’s brain that this other person (in this case, the boss) can help him feel better, happier, and take pain away. He’ll start to have feelings of admiration and adoration for this person. Sam may be thinking, “I love working here! I love my boss. My boss is the best. I’m so lucky to have a boss that’s so helpful. My boss is a good guy.” You may also hear Sam saying these words out loud, to you and others, as well. “Thank you so much! That would be really helpful.” So, what's wrong with these above scenarios in Sam’s brain? Everything seems so awesome! Well, it’s the next part that kills the thinking part of his brain.

  3. His ego center: Sam’s ego center has been attacked. In this case, we are talking about the psychological ego: the sense of self, or self-confidence. In order to become great thinkers and really have the Thinking Advantage, we need to believe that we CAN. Although Sam is excited about being efficient and pain-free right now, his ego center is saying, “My boss doesn’t believe in me. I’m not ready for this level of thinking yet. I’m still in training. I can’t do hard things. I should stick to the easy thing. It's going to be a long time before I can handle something like this on my own. If the boss had to do it for me, it must require boss-level skills that I just don’t have.” 

Then, Sam’s brain seals all of this in by concluding, “the best way for me to move ahead is to depend on my boss. He knows what to do and will do the hard stuff that I can’t do.” Next week, you’ll find Sam in your office again, because he’s been trained in being rescued. 

Now, let’s play this scenario again, this time observing what happens in the boss’s brain and Sam’s brain when the boss does not rescue. 

Remember: You’ve co-created the solution and Sam is just about to leave your office. You’ve offered him some guidance and asked enough questions for him to have had space to think about his approach and although he’s nervous, he’s ready to make the call. 

Your brain:

  1.  Your fear center: Without this great coaching you’ve provided for Sam, your pain center would be in full panic mode, but since the two of you co-created the solution and agreed on the best approach, you are in less pain than you thought you’d be in. You’re still worried and this causes you some stress. You don’t know what’s happening at each moment, but you can use the “Return and Reflect” step to help reduce this fear. 

  2. Your efficiency center: This one is elated! You didn’t add any tasks to your list! You are in full efficiency mode! (This is similar to the feeling you get after saying no!)

  3. Your ego: There is a lot going on here! Even if you are used to interacting with people this way, humans still tend to second guess themselves. You may hear yourself having thoughts like, “Why did I think Sam could do this on his own? He probably feels like I fed him to the wolves! I bet he’s so mad at me right now. Is that really a way to support your team? If he fails, will it make me look bad? We can’t afford for this to go wrong! What were you thinking, self?” 

Sam’s brain:

  1. His fear center: He’s feeling some healthy pressure right now, but it's supported by your good coaching. He’s in growth mode and since there is a bit of fear, he’s very focused. 

  2. His efficiency center: He’s totally focused here, too! He wants to succeed. He wants to gain a new capability that will make his life easier in the future. When we go into learning mode, our brains pay close attention to what works and doesn’t work. We release some adrenaline. This hyperfocus on doing well and learning something that will enhance our future is what happens when the part of our brain responsible for learning is lit up and ready for programming. Because you provided good coaching through conversation, you took advantage of the fact that talking enables the learning center. 

  3. His ego: There are huge benefits to his ego. His ego is thinking, “My boss believes in me. He thinks I’m ready to take on critical tasks. This is important to the company and I’m the one in charge. I must be really good at this. I can do hard things. I’m well-supported here. I’m critical to success here.” 

As we’ve explored in the above scenarios, when we don’t rescue our people, we enable them to have a learning experience. These experiences, especially when novel or new, create additional knowledge that really sticks and moves a person forward forever.

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