At a recent talk I delivered, someone asked me a question, one I hear often: 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. It seems the right thing to do to create more equitable spaces, to have more voices heard. But … it’s complicated. And the fact is, it often doesn’t work.
For starters, when done out of duty or a sense of obligation, it’s transparent and disingenuous. And felt to be condescending and patronizing, as if those people with power are bestowing power to others.
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 or giving up is to tap into fear.
If you are in a position of leadership, your greatest fear should be that you don’t know what’s going on.
Projects are stalled, and it’s not reaching your attention. Well-founded doubts about decisions and strategies aren’t being shared. Complaints about managers aren’t being addressed.
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 the fact is, in a high rank role, people aren’t telling you the truth, or not the full truth.
And not because they’re deceiving you. But because they’re in self-protect mode. We all default to self-protect mode when we encounter someone with higher rank.
We don’t want to ask questions that could make us look stupid. We doubt our perceptions. Or maybe we doubt theirs, not trusting people in authority. Maybe we see things that don’t look right, but don’t want to be the bearers of bad news.
And if we do speak up, we hedge, fudge, and soften what we say to look good or please the other.
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, the silence means agreement. Or, as a colleague of mine jokes, leaders think agreement means agreement.
But fear alone won’t do it. Fear needs to be paired with curiosity. Because fear could also result in doubling down on the tried and true, playing it safe, seeking constancy, and not taking risks.
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 your viewpoint, your idea, and even yourself 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 your courage to learn, see, and hear the things that may force you to change.
Thank you for reading.
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