Someone asked me recently, on a podcast, a question I often get: How do I empower others? How do I get people with less rank to take ownership? How can I make space for others?

Empowering others. Holding back. Making space. This seems like the right thing to do to create more equitable spaces and have more voices heard. 

But … it’s more complicated than that. And the fact is, it often doesn’t work.

For starters, when done out of duty or a sense of obligation, giving space or empowering others can feel transparent and disingenuous. Not to mention patronizing, as if people with power can bestow their power on others simply by not speaking.

Of course, most people don’t mean it that way. And the question itself is genuine: How do those in power make sure other voices are heard, create opportunities, and create the conditions for people to participate fully?

Better than holding back is to tap into your fear.

If you are in a position of leadership, your greatest fear should be that you don’t know what’s going on. That people aren’t telling you what you need to know. That people are agreeing with you out of fear, or to make you feel important, not because they truly agree with you. 

It happens all the time. Projects are stalled, and it’s not reaching your attention. Well-founded doubts about decisions and strategies aren’t being shared until something goes horribly wrong. Complaints about managers aren’t being addressed, and then suddenly there’s a lawsuit or PR nightmare.

And this should motivate you to do everything in your power to make sure that people can speak truth to power.

This is a much better motivation than duty or benevolence or even guilt. Because no matter how approachable you are, your high-ranking role sends a signal to others to hold back, massage the message, or go along with the status quo. 

People aren’t deliberately deceiving you or withholding information. Rather, they’re in self-protect mode. We all default to self-protect mode when we encounter someone with higher rank.

Asking questions could make us look stupid. Sharing our perceptions or ideas, especially if no one else has voiced them, is risky. I’d rather go along with the boss or team than be the bearer of bad news. And, anyway, don’t people in power know better? 

So if you’re in a position of leadership, you should be very afraid.

You don’t have to hold back or make space. You just need to look around the room and ask yourself: 

Who’s not speaking and what do they really think?

What information is not being shared? 

What perspective are we missing?

However, for many leaders, silence means agreement. Or, as a colleague of mine jokes, leaders think agreement means agreement.

Fear is the start, but it’s not enough. You need to pair fear with curiosity and courage. Fear alone could lead us to double down on the tried and true, play it safe, seek constancy, and not want to hear from others.

The equation for empowerment is fear + curiosity + courage.

Fear awakens you to the reality that you’re missing things.

Curiosity drives you to ask, solicit, and seek out new perspectives.

And courage allows you to hear things about yourself, about your idea, and about your understanding that will challenge you.

You may find yourself feeling very uncomfortable. But that’s the ticket, the price of admission to growth and change.

So rather than try to give up your power or empower others, instead pay attention to your fear. Get curious. And build the courage to learn, see, and hear the things that get you out of your comfort zone and into the growth zone.