2.2: What is the Difference Between Empowering and Enabling?


Here it is! The second part of our three-part series. We’re focusing 100% on the most googled blog topic we have ever covered – what’s the difference between empowering and enabling.

If you missed 2.1, the first update, here’s a mini recap for you.


Accountability with Care Leaders:

  • Help each team member take personal responsibility for his or her behaviors, actions and results.
  • 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. That’s enabling.

As a reminder, the negative outcome for you as a leader when you enable your people vs empower them is:

  1. They don’t think for themselves.
  2. They don’t have to worry about being wrong or taking risks.
  3. They don’t have to worry about displeasing their boss.
  4. They don’t have to be accountable for their actions.
  5. They just have to ask you what to do, and you tell them. Easy!

The three most effective actions to shift from enabling management to empowering leadership:

  • Have clearly defined mutual expectations
  • Stay on the ask side vs. the telling side
  • Make it all about the other person

Asking versus Telling

In this part of the series, we’re covering how to stay on the ask side versus the telling side.

We won’t sugar coat this one. This can be very difficult. In fact, we often hear from our clients that this the hardest thing to practice as a leader in our Accountability with Care system.

Take Sarah from our example in Part 1. Her boss just said “get it done” in so many words then shut the door.

As a boss, it’s your first instinct to just tell your employees what to do. That’s what you’re there to do right? Boss people around?

Your people come to you with a question and you give them an answer. They don’t know what to do so you tell them. What makes this so hard is that most of the leaders we work with are doing it and don’t realize it. They think they’re helping and being supportive by telling their employees what they would do or how they would do it.

How can a person grow if you tell them what to do and how to do it? If you help your kids with math homework by giving them the answers, they WILL fail their next test. Same with employees.

As a default mechanism leaders want to tell people what to do and how to do it. Coaching, on the other hand, is about listening, asking questions and patiently guiding people to discover the answers for themselves.

So what does this look like? What are some examples you ask?

Tell: “Here’s what I need you to do – Task Y”

Ask: “How can I help you with Task Y?”

Tell: “I need it ASAP”

Ask: “When can you have this to me by?”

An employee comes in and says “Boss, I don’t know what to do”*

Tell: “Well, you need to x, y, z”

Ask: “What are you confused about?” or “What are you not clear on?”

Employee – “I’m not going to get this done by the deadline.”

Tell: “You said you would get it done and it needs to get done. Work overtime if you have to.”

Ask: “What is in the way of you completing the task?” “What could we do that would help you complete it in time?”

Asking is Empowering

You’re putting the employee in the driver’s seat. You are supporting them to find the answer that’s within them. Or you are learning what is really behind them not understanding and what it will take for them to understand. You’re coaching!

When they answer the first question, what’s a follow-up question you can ask? Be careful about asking once then telling.

Employee – “I’m not going to get this done by the deadline.”

Leader – “What’s going on? What is in the way of you completing the task?”

Employee – “I just have too many other things to do right now.”

Leader – “What do you have to do and how have you prioritized your work?”

Employee – “Well, Task X is due tomorrow and Task Y is due next week and I’m not even close to being finished. I’m worried I can’t get them both done.”

Leader – “It’s okay, we can figure this out together. Based on the deadlines, what can you prioritize in the next hour? What can you prioritize by the end of the day?”

Employee – “Oh, well I could put x, y, z off until Monday. That would probably free me up to finish task X by tomorrow.”

Leader – “That’s a great idea. How else can I help you?”

Bam! Solution without telling them anything. They’re now walking out of your office, feeling respected, confident and empowered. Their productivity will go up too because there is clarity and a path forward. They just needed your leadership to see that.

It’s important to remember that when you shift from telling to asking, “I don’t know” is not an acceptable answer. There’s always a reason. They need training. They were never taught how to do it. They have a very sick child at home and are up all night with them. They are scared to fail. There are about a billion reasons and as their leader, it’s imperative that you take the time to ask and listen.

This again segues us into our next point on empowering versus enabling – make it all about them. More to come on this topic next week!

How can you remember to ask instead of tell? A rubber band on your wrist? We’d love to hear your ideas! Email us at