Are You a Fixer? How to Know When Helping is Hurting

Are you a “Fixer”?

By age 11, Maria was writing checks to pay the family bills, by age 14, she started her first job, and by age 19, she owned her first home. Due to the unpredictability in her upbringing from her father’s alcoholism and her mother’s mental illness, Maria said “I’ve been an overachiever, partly because whenever there was conflict in the family, I took charge to ease the chaos.”  When she became a teenage mother, she made an inner resolve, “I don’t want to be like my parents.” She made the conscious choice to change her family conflict pattern, which included becoming aware of her role as a “fixer” of other’s problems. 

The “fixer” role is often the person in the family who takes care of other family members who are underfunctioning. Meaning, they’re not living up to their capabilities. You can be a “fixer” in a variety of ways from financially rescuing family members who make poor money decisions, picking up the pieces when others don’t follow-through on their commitments, even bailing people out of jail. The common denominator of a “fixer” is doing things for people they’re capable of doing for themselves.

The role of a “fixer” doesn’t just happen in families. You can also take on the “fixer” role at work when you cover other people’s mistakes, make excuses for an employee’s disruptive behavior, or attempt to bring harmony when employees aren’t getting along. As you might imagine (or you don’t have to imagine because you’re living it), being a “fixer” can be exhausting and, if you let it, consume much of your valuable time.  

One of the challenges in removing yourself from the “fixer” role is recognizing when you’re being helpful as a contributing team player or taking on too much responsibility that prevents people from being responsible. A way to distinguish the difference is through the “Get Your Own Kleenex” test. 

The Get Your Own Kleenex Test 

Shortly after I was hired in my first leadership position, I encountered office dynamics of silence and secrets. I was excluded from meetings and information, which prevented me from fully performing my job. Despite my attempts to get direct answers from my boss and feedback about how I could improve, the lack of communication continued. In order to deal with the stress and grow as a leader, I joined a therapy group composed of other professionals (doctors, teachers, nurses, lawyers, and project managers) who valued personal growth. We developed a special bond of support and encouragement by being transparent about work and life struggles without being “fixers” to one another. 

Besides the typical group rules of confidentiality, etc., we followed a rule of getting your own Kleenex. We were free to express emotion, but if someone needed a Kleenex, he or she needed to get one from the box that was easily accessible. 

The reason for this rule relates to the “fixer” role. When people show emotion, it’s common to pass them a Kleenex without them asking for one. It’s considered courteous, a kind gesture. 

The “Get Your Own Kleenex” rule stops “fixers” and those with a tendency to overfunction when others don’t fulfill their responsibilities. It also allows for those who lean toward underfunctioning to be responsible for themselves. 

Our therapist said in essence, “The Kleenex are available if you want them. It’s your responsibility to take care of yourself.  I won’t do something for you that you’re capable of doing…even if it’s as simple as getting a Kleenex.”

This simple group “rule” taught us several valuable lessons:

  • How to be present with someone who is showing emotion without fixing
  • Noticing the urge to want to help and take charge (pass the Kleenex)
  • Feeling emotions that may be uncomfortable, including silence
  • Being responsible for handling your own emotions (getting your own Kleenex)

Another group “rule” was no advice-giving. Since many “fixers” tend to readily give advice, this rule helped us to notice the tendency to take on other’s problems.  It also allowed space for those who tend to underfunction to figure problems out on their own without being rescued by the “fixers” in the group.

The Dysfunctional Dance 

 Do you recognize yourself as a “fixer”? Do you tend to take on other’s problems and do for them what they’re capable of doing for themselves? Those who are “fixers” and those who tend to underfunction basically have the same problem: They need one another. If you have one, you have the other. The “fixer” needs the one underfunctioning to not be responsible, and the underfunctioner needs the “fixer” to take care of them.

As a leader, if you resonate with being a “fixer,” you are doing your employees a disservice. You are teaching them to underfunction.

As a leader, if you are underfunctioning where perhaps your employees are picking up the pieces for you and covering for you in some way, they are doing you a disservice. They are teaching you to be irresponsible.

Abraham Lincoln said “You can’t help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.” 

Once Maria recognized she was the “fixer” in her family and she was doing for them what they could and should do for themselves, she started removing herself from this role. Overtime, she invested more attention and energy in her husband and kids and allowed her extended family to be responsible for their own choices and life.  Now as a CEO, her team has similarly benefited as a result of her making this shift at work. 

When a team or organizational system is out of balance, it becomes a breeding ground for resentment, anger, gossip, and many other dysfunctions. The goal as a leader is to create an environment where everyone functions to their full capabilities.

Ready to Release the “Fixer” Role?

If you resonate with the “fixer” role, you’re not alone. Many caring and competent leaders are “fixers” and have learned how to establish boundaries and stop rescuing others. Allowing employees who are underfunctioning to experience natural consequences frees you up to fulfill your other work responsibilities and to fulfill your organizational mission. Schedule a complimentary strategy session with Bonnie today to learn how to remove yourself from the “fixer” role.

About Bonnie Artman Fox 

Bonnie Artman Fox is passionate about uncovering the unexpected ways conflict can make teams stronger and more cohesive. As an Accredited Boss Whisperer®, she specializes in coaching leaders to replace abrasive behaviors with tact and empathy. The above blog is an excerpt from her soon to be released book “How Did My Family Get In My Office?!”

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