Helpless is not useless

Updated: Aug 7, 2020

I first worked with this idea of feeling helpless not being useless when working with teams who felt a pressure to fix things and experienced a sense of helplessness when it took time to sort and solve problems. We mapped out the feelings of personal and professional satisfaction when things could be fixed. It went with some rivalry across professions and teams to be the ones who could make the fix.


One response to the feelings of helplessness was to push for action. The call was to do something - for someone to do something or try something new - since doing nothing made the feelings of helplessness worse. Doing things - doing anything, gave the impression of shared activity and progress being made. It was a way of warding off the helplessness rather than finding a genuine solution to complex problems.


The other response was to find someone to blame. The force of this blaming and shaming mechanism could vary in intensity and direction and specifically it could take on a powerful dynamic between teams. There was a personal face to the search for someone or something to blame, and a public face. In the latter case the prevailing organisational and wider societal culture had a strong tendency to look for a scapegoat. Whilst the emotional cost is high and the organisation functions less well, blaming and shaming restores order and gives a sense of narrative coherence.


Our mapping out of these patterns highlighted the importance of tolerating helplessness and sharing some of the vulnerability and uncertainty despite its lack of fit with professional and organisational identities.


To end up as the one being blamed was intolerable and there was a tendency to duck and dive to avoid the finger of blame. This further disorganised co-operative work between teams and individuals.


An additional response was identified of retreating to a silo of working alone, or working in just one team, where, at least we are, or I am, doing our, or my bit in our, or my way to our standards. Silo working can feel like good quality work and feel like fixing things but it is in isolation from the wider network of teams and contexts.


There is two page paper with a map of these dynamics with particular reference to the pressures on teams and individuals at the time of the current pandemic. It is available on my downloads page or with the following link. It can be a useful talking point for teams.

Helpless is not useless
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Download PDF • 327KB



To find out more about the techniques of 'Therapy with a Map' and 'Reflective and Relational Mapping' come back for my weekly blog and read my book.


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