• Barbara L. Ciccarelli, PhD

Let People Learn for Themselves and Everyone Can Be Empowered

Are you hesitant to share with others when things aren’t going well for fear of unsolicited advice?

When you do share, does it seem as if the advice giver is more interested in showing his/her superiority or claim to a certain knowledge than easing your woes?

Do you thank them, say nothing in response, or call them on it? and how does is it different if it is your child, romantic interest, spouse, or boss?

If any of the above sounds familiar, you might be in the hands of what is commonly known as “the fixer.”

There is nothing worse than when someone starts lecturing to you about solving your problem, something that they think you can improve on, or perhaps better said, that they think they can improve for you. There is also what they think is helpful advice which seems condescending because they assume that they know better than you do, know better how to handle YOUR situation. And then it is complicated because you are not supposed to complain because they are only trying to “help” you.

You could say

“[p]eople with a fixer mentality are sort of like a white knight, often gravitating towards those they can rescue, and leaving a moral debt behind.”

In other words, they want you to feel like you owe them for fixing or helping you and in the meantime emphasizing their superiority over you. The outrageous thing is that half the time they don’t even understand or engage with you seriously about your problem. You have to wonder about their investment.

Another aspect of the fixer, besides basically masquerading controlling others as helping them, is the idea the fixer has that no one can help THEM. In fact, the fixer’s motto is, “If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself.” Now everybody knows someone who has said this more than once. We all know these people. The funny thing is that often it seems that they construct the very scenarios that they think demands that they do things themselves. In other words, their unrealistic expectations for others is what makes them think that only they can achieve the required excellence.

The truth is that fixers can only truly obtain excellence once they start acknowledging the excellence of others. What this means is that the fixer is stomping on the potential of others in order to one up and show that their standard of excellence exceeds that of everyone else. In the process of pursuing control, they forget about the benefits of interacting or socializing, so what they need to do is learn how to give up trying to control everything and everyone.

At the same time and on the positive side, there is something to say for the fixer’s way of challenging people to a higher standard of excellence than they think they can achieve as long as it is about their potential and not the fixers. As a leader,

What you say and do carries more weight. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s only a bad thing when it’s disempowering and demotivating others from finding their own voice.”

The fixer mentality might also be familiar to you if you, like many of us, have taken one of the personality or team role tests to get or keep a job. A Harvard Business Review article argues for the relationship between personality and team performance. Personality, according to the authors, affects:

  • What role you have within the team

  • How you interact with the rest of the team

  • Whether your values (core beliefs) align with the team’s

These psychological factors affect individual and team performance and determine why people work together well.

One might associate the fixer with the leadership or organizer role or maybe even the driver. You might ask why some companies from some cultures favor the fixer in their organization. If you keep in mind what I’ve said earlier, you have to ask, do companies like the leader that makes decisions for everyone else and dominates or controls or one who rules from the bottom up in a more egalitarian way. Erin Meyer writes in The Culture Map about what is and makes a leader. In her chapter, “How Much Respect Do You Want: Leadership, Hierarchy, and Power,” she writes,

What does a good boss look like? Try to answer the question quickly without giving it much thought. When you picture the perfect leader, is he wearing a navy Armani suit and a pair of highly polished wingtips, or khaki trousers, a sweater, and comfy jogging shoes? Does she travel to work on a mountain bike or driving a black Ferrari? Is the ideal leader someone that you would naturally call ‘Mr. Director,’ or would you prefer to address him as ‘Sam’? (115)

With this in mind, she compares the qualities of the egalitarian with the hierarchy driven leader. The boss for the egalitarians, she writes, is a facilitator among equals, and the hierarchical boss leads “from the front” with a concern for status. Influenced by Hofstede’s work, Meyer creates a scale moving from egalitarian to hierarchical for “leading” with the Netherlands on the far left under egalitarian, the US and UK towards the middle and China all the way to the right at hierarchical.

Another way of looking at the more hierarchical boss, and a more positive look at those who lean toward the fixer mentality is considering the Confucian concept of hierarchy. Meyer writes that

“it is important to think not just about the lower level person’s responsibility to obey, but also about the heavy responsibility of the higher person to protect and are for those under him. . . Those from Confucian societies have believed for centuries that this type of dual responsibility is the backbone of a virtuous society” (132).

Meyer writes that team members might follow well, and in return the leader must protect, mentor, and coach and “always look out for their interests.”

Another question is if certain situations or corporate climates in certain countries demand a certain approach more than others. Is the fixer or top down boss more desired in volatile environments where emergency decisions need to be made and a vertical hierarchy evolves or is fallen back on in a time of urgency?

You could pursue this line of inquiry with the current pandemic situation and how leaders are responding to it and governing. Are they mostly leading top down or have some chosen a different approach? Are there examples where the egalitarian or horizontal structure works better in a crisis?

I’m a firm believer that people like to learn for themselves and that at the core we are all DIYer’s. We want to create our own space called home, we want to create our own meals, we want to raise our children in our way, and most of all we want to invent our own selves.

I would argue that this is true in the corporate world as much as it is in education or for the individual. If people do not, then they are just not ready for some reason. When they are ready mentally, physically, spiritually, they will be open to new ideas and behaviors.

The story of the man and the fish is a classic and for good reason. How does it go then? “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” Yes, it is great to see someone as an example. That is how most of us learn, but don’t let anyone saddle you with a moral debt. Life is too short to have to deal with more emotional baggage.

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