There is a big difference between enabling and enabling – by Geoff Watts

The first definition that appears in my online search seems very positive and in-line with a lot of the leadership coaching that I do:

To supply with the means, knowledge, or opportunity (to do something); make able.

In order to encourage and nurture the growth of their people’s creativity, leaders are looking to create an environment where people feel confident and competent to take greater autonomy. This is essential in many organisations for two reasons, neither of which will likely be a surprise to you:

  1. The pace of change is so high that we often don’t have time for decisions to go up the management chain and back down again; more and more decisions need to be taken at the front line.
  2. The degree of complexity is such that, even if we did have time to escalate things, the person at the top is least likely to know the answer. Instead, the answer will likely need to be figured out through collaboration within a cross-functional team or emerge through experimentation.

While enabling these individuals and teams, leaders experience a mixture and often contradictory emotions.

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

There is a feeling of uncertainty and disorientation when thinking about their new role now but also a huge sense of pride when seeing the confidence and engagement that comes with an empowered team. That leader is also then able to focus more on strategically developing organisational resilience, which is key to surviving in a complex world.

This sounds good, right?

However, one issue that goes hand in hand with enabling others is another definition of the word:

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

To behave in a manner that facilitates or supports another’s abusive, addictive, or self-destructive behaviour.

This second definition of enabling has typically been associated with the world of therapy when dealing with addiction but there are some overlaps with the professional world. For example we can be addicted to our old work behaviours, or being rescued by our bosses or colleagues.

While some people have decided to use the word “empowering” in an attempt to side-step this paradox, I personally prefer to bring the paradox into conscious awareness so it helps me tackle it rather than avoid it.

This problem is one that has been faced for the last 20 years or so by ScrumMasters who have been tasked with helping to create self-organising, cross-functional teams as part of the agile framework Scrum.

The desire to “rescue” your people or “make things easier” for them is noble and positive. Indeed, if they are to become highly productive, removing impediments is surely going to help them. However, if they are to become fully autonomous then ensuring they don’t become reliant on your rescuing is essential.

Rescuing can be addictive too…check out an article I wrote a while ago on The White Knight Syndrome to learn more about why it can be hard to let go of your need to rescue.

So how do you know if you are doing the right kind, or level, of enabling?

It’s tough but I have found a few things that can help:

  1. Awareness and reflection. Once you are aware that this is a thing, you can consciously and regularly reflect on how you think you are doing. Was stepping in and protecting the team from that disruptive stakeholder appropriate or, in hindsight, would it have been better to coach them to feel comfortable handling it themselves?
  2. Feedback. Speak to them and ask them how much they feel they rely on you and what they rely on you for. Ask them to be specific about what they want from you when they ask for help and clarify the type or level of intervention they are looking for.
  3. Supervision. Having a neutral coach or supervisor can you help you talk through and reflect on your actions and the driving forces behind them. A supervisor can help you prepare for, acknowledge and then celebrate your successes while pushing yourself to further growth.

How have you managed to enable other people without increasing their reliance on you? I’d like to know.


Leadership Coach Geoff Watts is the author of five best-selling and award-winning books on leadership and coaching, a TEDx and global keynote speaker. Geoff has a 20-year track record of helping people from all sorts of industries and domains develop greater personal and organisational agility and resilience.

Watch this video where Geoff shares The Inner Boardroom technique

Read more blogs from Geoff Watts – Coaching The Uncoachable