I recently attended a fascinating and emotionally-charged talk by Samantha Soma at DareConf 2014, ‘How to stop rescuing people’. It strongly mirrored my experience of moving into a leadership role and I’d recommend anyone with a spare 30mins to watch it.

Samantha’s talk made me reflect on how I struggle to coach talented individuals; how I can identify when it’s going wrong and what steps I can take to remedy the situation.

Gold star syndrome

A new concept for me and a recurring theme throughout the sessions at DareConf, ‘Gold Star Syndrome’ is a fixation on finding validation for your work. I feel this is a result of early childhood values spinning the perception of working life away from the actual reality. As a child, especially during our school years, we discovered that when we do good things, good things happen to us. Remember how it felt to get that gold star in your spelling test or that A+ on an English essay?

That was great in school and even through to University but working life is a much more terse environment and getting positive reenforcement is much less common. As professionals, the majority of our work goes unnoticed - until there is a problem or issue to solve. Then we feel open to the stinging criticism but resentful that months of good work went unnoticed.

When we continue to search for a gold star or continually strive for perfectionism we, as individuals, become much more insular and isolated. We tend to avoid showing our work until it is 100% ready and put up a shield to protect us from any feedback, in fear of being made to look stupid or being called a fraud.


There is a considerable amount of research to suggest children who have bad experiences and manage to overcome them tend to grow up to become more rounded adults. By encouraging grit and allowing kids to solve their own problems, children learn they are empowered. They become more creative, more respectful, less dependant on others and display less problem behaviour.

This is also relatively easy to implement and can be as simple as involving children in a decision-making process. ‘What do you want to eat with dinner; carrots or broccoli’? This might progress to ‘What colour socks do you want to wear?’ or ‘Which swing do you want to play on?’

The concept of preventing yourself from controlling a situation is really key to successful coaching. Rescuing people by dictating an outcome requires one weak person and one strong person. This propagates itself so people drift towards being a victim or a rescuer. A much better outcome would be a group of confident, empowered individuals who are able to work together.

Provide tools not solutions

Even if they are unaware themselves, individuals we coach don’t want a solution to their problem. What they want is for you to help them find their own solution. To paraphrase a great line in Samantha’s presentation - ‘Our role is to give people a view of the life they want instead of giving them the life we think they want.’

And how can we start doing that? I have started to adopt Samantha’s principles and have been staggered by how effective they are in practice:

  1. Know your triggers - what words and situations make you race to help a colleague in distress? Are there patterns you can spot and say ‘Hang on I’ve been here before’?

  2. Maintain engaged detachment - this is tough and requires us to build and nurture a certain skill set; if all else fails remember ‘Not my circus, not my monkeys’.

  3. Appreciative Inquiry - there are lots of models and frameworks out there but in essence Appreciative Inquiry boils down to asking someone lots of questions and listening intently to their response, however difficult!

  4. Challenge them to reflect on what happened - before an individual can see past the problem, they need to acknowledge the problem and the events that lead them there.

  5. Ask them to articulate what they want to happen next - coach them through how this problem can be solved and what steps they might take to resolve it. This commitment helps to clarify any misunderstanding and sets a clear path forward for coach and coachee.

  6. Celebrate their success - a pat on the back (mentally or physically) can go a long way. Why should individuals receive feedback when there is a problem? Loop back with people and celebrate the small wins as much as possible.

Leaders are not lifeguards!

While not exactly child’s play, I hope you have read enough here to spot the danger signs and modify your approach away from the rescuer role that ultimately helps no one.

Effective leaders stop jumping to the rescue and start coaching people through a bad experience, empowering individuals by providing them with the tools to come to their own conclusions and solve their own problems.

Further reading