Stop Fixing and Start Learning


One leadership style that is both praised and criticized is the “fixer.” When the situation looks mostly hopeless, we need someone who can minimize the damage and help restore some level of status quo. Yet no organization desires to be in that situation and certainly not to live in that state of affairs. Fixers excel at identifying root causes and mobilizing resources rapidly to help people and organizations move to a position where they can begin to play an active role in their rescue.


Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert in When Helping Hurts, illustrate the devastating effects when poverty alleviation efforts fail to recognize the difference between providing relief and supporting rehabilitation and development efforts. In other words, when fixing does more damage than good. The authors demonstrate the failed strategy of doing for others what they can do for themselves.  With poverty alleviation, the motives are almost always good. People are living in horrible conditions and those with financial means should share their resources and lessen the suffering. However, the message to those living in poverty is often that they lack the ability to help themselves.


Poverty like poor performance at an individual or organizational level usually stems from a combination of individual and system flaws. How the leader identifies the root causes determines the course of action. Too often leaders narrow in on  the individual’s contribution to the problem and fail to see how processes and approaches and even culture are drivers as well.  Addressing the system challenges not only greatly increases the likelihood of success but also sends a strong message to the individual that you are creating a greater probability for them to succeed.


Poor performance and poverty are most difficult to solve when they possess a persistent nature.  A series of setbacks can be devastating to one’s esteem and confidence. Additionally, individuals find themselves often with fewer resources to climb up an even steeper hill. Helping people to see the gifts they possess and encouraging their use is a critical early step.  Corbett and Fikkert discuss the use of “asset mapping” rather than “needs assessment.” Similarly in performance coaching, the conversation needs to focus on strengths and talents and not just on shortcomings.


Matching an opportunity for significant improvement by using your natural and developed talents changes a person’s perspective. For the materially poor of the world, they may never have been asked to consider their abilities and resources. This is an important first step in behavioral change. 


An asset based approach to poverty and performance challenges only occurs when leaders don’t act like “fixers” though they may feel it is the best and only course.  Leaders much first be learners.  In doing so, they change the direction of the conversation and engage everyone in creating a common understanding.  For leaders who need to solve problems quickly this creates a challenge. The reality that most poverty alleviation programs have not succeeded and most individual performance challenges persist could suggest the “fixer” approach is not working.   Slowing down to create not just understanding but participatory buy-in has been a missing element.


If we dig deeper, we realize part of the problem has been a lack of humility from the fixer side as well as a lack of respect towards the people with the problem.  When we are in “fixer” mode, we tend to exercise less empathy.   We also are less likely to see our shortcomings because the task at hand is to help the people with the obvious problems.  


There are painful moments in reading When Helping Hurts,  as the authors share several case studies where well intentioned efforts provided unproductive or worse, sent wrong messages and created an even greater sense of dependence. Both poverty and performance challenges within organizations are difficult to solve. Both could benefit by leaders  stepping into those situations looking to see more capacity in others and room to grow and learn in themselves.