At work, you’ll occasionally hear the words ‘enable’ and ‘empower’ used interchangeably, as in ‘we empower our staff to do their best and ‘we enable our staff to do their best. What’s the difference? Does it matter? Well, yes it does.
The difference between enable and empower
A quick google search makes the difference a tiny bit clearer with enable defined as “the authority or means to do something” and empower as “the authority or power to do something”. The difference is the word power and when applied to people and the workplace can create an enormously different environment.
Enablers in the workplace
When a person is an enabler they are someone who fixes another’s problems and who feels good about themselves when they help. An enabler perpetuates the myth that they know best and have the answers to the other person’s problems, giving help and advice as they see fit. This means they take responsibility for actions and personal power out of the hands of the other person and keep it for themselves. In a way, it’s a kind of theft, that disallows personal growth and individual expression, keeping the lid on anything that might threaten the control owned by the enabler.
What about an empowerer?
When a person is empowered they create an atmosphere that gives another person the power to take responsibility for their own actions. They develop and nurture their own communication skills to create open, honest, and non-judgmental relationships. They develop trust and create a rapport that is focused on helping the other person become more self-aware, more responsible, learn from their mistakes, and act and solve their own problems. Someone who empowers others cares about people and clearly demonstrates their belief in the ability of others to achieve great things for themselves.
These differences are most apparent when looking at the difference between a manager and a leader. Managers are accountable for their staff and take responsibility if things go wrong. They control resources, allocate roles, and review performance. In this sense, they have positional power and are enablers. However, we would argue that a manager should also be accountable for creating opportunities for growth, developing their staff to maximise individual and team performance. Managers that do this effectively shift towards becoming a leader and empowerers.
Empowerment starts with a large E, enablement starts with a small e.
Managers who consistently use enabling behaviours such as offering advice, helping to do another’s work, and being the person who has all the answers are ineffective. These behaviours not only limit growth and reduce opportunity for their team, but they also diminish personal responsibility to act, learn and improve from mistakes. This is where the power of coaching can help; a manager who develops a coaching style builds on their empowerment skills and reduces enabling behaviours, becoming more of a leader than a manager. Effective leaders know the difference and make sure they don’t confuse the two types of conversation.
Shifting the enabling mindset
Unfortunately, many managers find it more comfortable and natural to enable their staff rather than to empower them, which is understandable - giving advice is easy, and keeping control feels safe. But it isn’t in the leader’s job description to feel comfortable. Their role is to maximise performance which can only be done through raising personal awareness and encouraging responsibility for action and learning. These are all empowerment conversations. Of course, leaders are required and expected to give at least some direction and advice, supply resources, and take decisions to enable their staff to do their jobs. However, I would argue that their main role, their purpose, is to get the best possible performance they can from their team, and to achieve this they must create opportunities for personal growth and development, for learning, and for trying new things.
Coaching creates leaders
Coaching creates the space for these conversations to happen, shifting power and responsibility for action and learning onto the individual, where it belongs. Coaching is the path by which individuals and teams discover their innate talents and exert these to the full. When leaders coach, they empower people to develop independent thinking, self-reliance, and to take personal responsibility for themselves. This creates an environment of trust, mutual support, and learning. It is the foundation of successful, joyful workplaces where high performance is a natural by-product of empowered individuals expressing their talents to the full.