Employee empowerment vs. enablement — a leadership conundrum

By Vince Lombardo
Thursday, July 01, 2021

Vince Lombardo, President, U.S. Payments and Payroll Solutions

Vince has been with Heartland for 16 years, growing the company into one of the largest providers of payments, POS and payroll solutions in the U.S.

As a leader, there are important responsibilities that naturally come with the job. These responsibilities may vary depending on your role, but one of the assumed responsibilities every leader has is the development of those around them.

Personal growth and development is not an occasional thing. While each individual must accept responsibility for their own growth and development, they often look to their leader to provide opportunities to help them achieve it. Many leaders fall short, and this is often where the “leading vs. managing” discussion begins. At the core of every opportunity to foster growth lies the decision to empower or enable.

Simply put, enabling is doing something challenging for another individual, while empowering is teaching them to do it for themselves.

One of my best childhood friends lived in a house where his mother did everything for him. His sole responsibility was to be a kid and enjoy life. He was not required to do the dishes, laundry, clean his room or make his bed. The Lombardo household was the complete opposite. If the trash was full and I didn’t notice, there was typically some form of feedback from my mom or dad. I used to be jealous of my friend’s situation, wishing I had it that “easy.”

Then we went to college, and this amazing thing happened: I was able to keep a clean living space and take care of myself — laundry, cooking, cleaning, etc. while my friend was completely lost. He was living in a world where he struggled to function with basic everyday tasks. I was suddenly grateful for the upbringing provided by my parents.

Picture this: you receive a phone call from one of your teammates asking a question about whether a widget works with a certain system. They have access to a reference tool that easily answers the question and a support team they can call, yet they seek help from you. If you want to be like my friend’s mom and create people who are dependent, go ahead and answer the question. If you want to coach independent thinkers, teach them where to get the information and encourage them to seek it out for themselves.

The issue with the leader who enables is the scalability of their bandwidth. If you become the person your entire team depends on, your team can only be as big and productive as your work week can support. When you add middle management that copies this behavior, the same thing happens, just on a different scale.

Empowering people is the key to limitless potential. Empowerment gives people the tools, the power and the opportunity to think and do for themselves. When you empower people, you develop independent thinkers and doers, creating possibilities to achieve at any level they desire.

The leader who empowers is the leader who provides the path for people to discover their own ability.

When considering all of the situations we encounter with our teammates, you might realize how frequently this occurs. In fact, I bet that a sales leader encounters more than two or three dozen opportunities a day to ask questions or point people in the direction to solve a problem rather than simply answering it for them.

If you're wondering, “How do I recognize the difference between enabling and giving advice or coaching?” the answer is simple. If you are being asked to provide an answer, a solution or a recommendation, stop and ask yourself this question: Am I doing something for them, or am I giving them the tools to do it for themselves?

Within that answer lies the solution.

Next time your phone rings or your inbox dings with a need from someone around you, take the time to consider your answer. Make the choice to give people the power to become independent rather than giving the solution that makes them dependent. It is not only wise, but it is your responsibility as a leader to facilitate their personal development. It will make a huge difference as you build for the future.