What’s the Difference between Empowering and Enabling?

As a leader in your business, your job is to help each team member take personal responsibility for his or her behaviors, actions and results. Your responsibility is to guide and assist them in working toward their professional goals, and to help them eliminate the barriers to achieving those goals. You’re there to empower them. You’re not there to do it for them.

The essence of my approach is empowerment. To empower is to give people power and authority, or remind them of their power and authority.

To enable is traditionally defined as “to provide someone with the resources, authority, or opportunity to do something; to make something possible or feasible.” At first glance, it sounds a lot like being a coach-manager, doesn’t it?

But the word enable is sometimes used in an inverted sense: to enable a person to do something that is not ultimately in their best interest. You may have heard the word used this way in relation to alcoholism. Spouses are encouraged not to “enable” their alcoholic loved ones by, for instance, calling in sick for them, or otherwise enabling them to keep drinking excessively. In this context, becoming an “enabler” is not something you want to do.

Some leaders enable people to remain dependent or lackadaisical. If, for instance, one of your team members handles a project poorly, and you re-do it yourself, you’re enabling them to remain unskilled. Instead of empowering them to grow, learn, or develop, you’ve done their work for them, and thus actually hindered their progress. Just think about what that’s costing you in dollars and cents.

I recently worked with an executive who told me he was only getting 60% production out of his admin assistant. If the admin assistant is, for example earning $50,000 annually, you can see you are only getting sixty cents on every dollar you pay out. Is that acceptable to you?

You may want to take a look at where the gap is and how much of the gap is centered around enabling them. It’s costing you.

Here’s an example of enabling. The CEO of family-owned business (let’s call him Jeff) engaged me, and in our first coaching session, he complained, “I’m working way too many hours.”

Of course, I said, “Tell me more about that.”

“Well, every day at 5:00 or 5:30 in the evening,” he said, “all my employees are walking by my office, waving goodbye to go home, and I’m stuck here until 8:30 or 9:00 at night. This is really getting old.”

As we talked about that, and I asked open-ended questions to uncover what was taking up so much time, Jeff explained, “Every morning, when I get to work, there’s a line outside my door.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“My managers are lined up, waiting to come in to talk to me,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“They need to know what to do.”

“Then what happens?”

“I tell them what to do!”

“Okay, what happens then?”

“Then the next day, we’re right back to where we started. Another line outside my door.”

As you’ve already gathered, Jeff was enabling his employees to remain dependent on him for all the answers. No wonder they kept lining up at his door.

  • They didn’t have to think for themselves.
  • They didn’t have to worry about being wrong or taking risks.
  • They didn’t have to worry about displeasing their boss.
  • They didn’t have to be accountable for their actions.
  • They just asked him what to do, and he told them. Easy!

But they were stagnating, and Jeff was exhausted.

Does this sound familiar to you?

In fact, does this feel familiar to you?

If so, stay tuned for my next post when I will give you the 5 Principles to shift from enabling to empowering.

In the meantime, check out my latest book, The Buck Starts Here: Why Leadership Accountability Is The Key To Less Stress, More Time & A Better Bottom Line. To get your copy, click here.