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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

  • February 6, 2022
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Why ‘Rescuer Syndrome’ is Killing Your Growth 

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A version of this article first appeared in Inc.com

Listen to Les McKeown read this blog post:

Are you killing your growth by constantly having to rescue your organization from self-inflicted problems?

One of the delights in working with growth-minded owners and leaders is that one rarely has to deal with ‘Victim Syndrome’. As a group, growth leaders tend to have a high degree of self-responsibility and rarely engage in pity parties.

Conversely, many growth leaders do suffer (painfully so) from what I call ‘Rescuer Syndrome’.

Leaders with 'Rescuer Syndrome' have an aversion to hiring genuine high performers. After all, if an employee is highly competent, how does the Rescuer ever get to ride to the rescue? - Les McKeown, Founder and CEO, Predictable Success

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‘Rescuer Syndrome’. is a pattern of behavior whereby a leader has a deep-seated need to fix things – so deep-seated, in fact, that they will sub-consciously create an environment in which others will fail, solely so they can ride to the rescue and ‘fix it’.

Think you or someone you work with may suffer from this debilitating mindset? Here’s how to recognize Rescuer Syndrome: 

1. It’s not micro-management

Micro-management is the opposite of Rescuer Syndrome: While leaders micro-manage because of a deep-seated fear of failure, those who suffer from Rescuer Syndrome actually want the other person to fail, so they can ride to the rescue.

This may seem harsh, but remember that for most Rescuers, it’s not about the other person – they’re not deliberately trying to make them fail – it’s about them – they need to create a situation in which they can ride to the rescue. Other people are simply ‘collateral damage’. 

2. It’s not fear of delegation

Some leaders find it hard to delegate to others. Not so the Rescuer. They will delegate, but they do so in a way that sets the delegatee up for failure (mostly by how they communicate, as we’ll see shortly). 

It’s easy to spot a ‘delegating Rescuer’: once they’ve delegated a task to another person, they begin a death watch – a skeptical running commentary from the sidelines that quietly at first, then more vociferously, predicts the upcoming failure that (subconsciously) they need to have happen.

(The unsuspecting delgatee will never hear this commentary – it’s usually either internal to the Rescuer, or shared only with their peers or boss.) 

3. It’s not ‘acting out’

We’ve all met the strong leader who needs to occasionally flex their muscles and prove that they’re as good at any given activity as everyone else:

  • The VP Sales who lands a whale of a contract to save the quarter's numbers; 
  • The Worship Leader who pulls an all-nighter to 'finally fix that acoustics problem'; 
  • The CEO who in a production crunch spends a morning on the factory floor hammering metal.

This is perfectly normal – who doesn’t like to show what they’ve got from time to time? – but the Rescuer has a deeper problem: a near pathological need to regularly pull the organization (or their part of it) back from the brink of failure.

So, how do they accomplish this feat?  How do you recognize someone with Rescuer Syndrome? Typically, they exhibit three characteristics:

1. They hire flawed people

Rescuers have an aversion to hiring genuine high performers. After all, if an employee is highly competent, how does the Rescuer ever get to ride to the rescue?

To avoid this, the Rescuer will find a reason (often, though not always, budgetary: “We simply can’t afford to pay what this person is asking for“) to hire individuals who look good on paper – or at least 95% so – but who have a fatal flaw, an achilles heel – one that will eventually allow the Rescuer to swoop in and fix their messes. 

2. They communicate poorly

Listening to a Rescuer give instructions is a revealing exercise in subliminal duplicity (I say subliminal because very few Rescuers are consciously aware of what they are doing).

On the surface, most Rescuers sound sane, logical, even charming, but stripped down, their communications turn out eventually to be incomplete, ambiguous and/or contradictory.

This ‘looks-good-at-first-pass’ type of communication is the beating heart of Rescuer Syndrome: An employee leaves their boss’s office thinking they have a clear, straightforward task to perform, but at some point – it may be 5 minutes, or 5 weeks later – they realize that a vital piece of information has been withheld, or fudged, in such a way that they cannot possibly complete the task to a high level of proficiency. 

3. They believe they have a ‘secret sauce’ that only they can implement

Listening to a Rescuer comment on the failures of others (failures, as we’ve seen, that they themselves have set up) follows a predictable pattern:

The failing employee has done A, B and C, when the Rescuer’s extensive past history, experience and judgment all make it abundantly clear that, dammit, they should have done X, Y and Z.

Only the Rescuer (in their view) can really see what needs to be done here, and now look what’s happened – it’s too late to mentor or coach the failing employee. 

Reluctantly (they’ll say), with sadness and even anguish, the Rescuer will have to step in and fix this.

And after it’s fixed, the Rescuer will sigh and pout and mope – ‘Why is it always down to me? Why do I always have to step in and fix things? Why is no-one ever capable of selling our product / keeping our customers happy / running our production line without me doing it myself?‘.

Here’s the (very) painful bottom line

If you’re working for a Rescuer, and you value true autonomy and the chance to shine, you need to leave. There’s no way to get out from under a Rescuer – so get transferred to another department or division, or find another job entirely. 

If you’re a Rescuer yourself (easy way to tell? If 60% or more of your employees are regularly screwing things up, it’s probably you who is the problem, not them), then remember one thing: If you need to keep fixing your organization, it will always be broken.

What about you? Have you experienced Rescuer Syndrome in your organization?

Let Me Know In The Comments Below!


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