Is Help Helping? An Issue of Agency

Last week ended with me absorbing a lot of information from a lot of experts. I had my “Culture Change” hat strapped on tight as I listened and inquired with consultants from various fields. Each individual had their own lens as there were some variations in their fields of work but they all addressed change to some degree. The issue of helping change surfaced several times but perhaps it was more of an issue of which method of helping is most appropriate.


Kevin Grigsby was kind enough to share 45 minutes of his Wednesday evening with me talking about his personal experience working with cultures specific to healthcare organizations. His expertise spoke to understanding the complex environment that exist an academic health center. One interesting note was around an organization’s ability to properly articulate what it is they are intending to do but not succeed at implementation. Dr. Grigsby likened it to how there are a lot of resources out there that explain how to eat healthy, and people know how to eat healthy, but those same people don’t always eat healthy. He continued in emphasizing there is a huge difference between knowing something and enacting something. This resonates with previous projects I have worked on where workshops produced ideas but those same ideas did not get moved into action. Dr Grisby introduced the importance of including proper leadership to help maintain momentum. He referenced Liz Wiseman’s theory of Multipliers, recognizing the importance of individuals who are influential leaders within a group. These leaders are great assets in continuing work that has moved beyond the planning phase.

Photo Credit: Mark Viggiano

My Thursday included a day-long session at Cranaleith with Peter Block. This was an opportunity to explore the meaning of community with an expert consultant. The day involved breaking into groups of three and then reconvening to share learnings from discussions. There were two main take aways of the day. The first take-away was about the value of formatting a workshop that allowed people to break into small groups and then come back and share learnings. This format was very effective in keeping people engaged without straying from the agenda.

The second take-away was around the issue of help. Throughout our day with Mr. Block, we shared personal issues with peers but were instructed to not volunteer “help.” To clarify, our instructions were not to offer advice on how to deal with a certain situation. Rather, we were simply instructed to listen, and ask guiding questions like “why does that matter?” This then allows for the individual who is struggling with an issue to maintain a sense of “agency” over there dilemma. This same concept is reinforced in other fields like wellness coaching. This “non-helping” approach is more effective at allowing people to properly understand an issue and develop their own approach to address it.

Photo Credit: Mark Viggiano

Friday, Saturday, and Sunday were consumed by an intense, 3-day, group workshop. I was an observer as Dr. Jeffery Wolper and Dr. Flora Taylor conducted a variation of a Tavistock method group learning. This is an intense experience for the participants, consultants, and observers where a vacuum is created to allow individuals an opportunity to examine both group behavior and personal individual behavior within that group. I greatly appreciated the opportunity to observe this experience and it was amazing to see two themes I discovered over the previous two days pan out in front of me here. The role of leadership and importance of not helping emerged very clearly as the group struggled to understand and define their purpose. The consultants simply shared their observations with the group to guide the participants to allow personal discoveries to be made.

These event strengthen my belief on the importance of agency. From these experts, its seems much more effective to show people the tools that are available and allow them to use them instead of doing the work for them. This seems wonderfully relevant for my thesis. The curent approach to apply innovative problem solving imposes new people into projects that then get moved forward. This leaves the original employees to watch there issue get championed for them. Sure the result could be a solution that has solved an issue applying innovative thinking, but the employee will not likely retain the new thought process.


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