How My Inner Fixer Thwarts Empowerment (and what I’m doing about it)

Tomorrow, on our official “Wednesday Leadership Article” day, I’ll be sending out a piece that has a more nuts and bolts, immediately applicable approach to understanding how to empower someone or get empowered.  Please stay tuned for that!

Today, I’m adding to the collection of stories we’ve been sharing that highlight different perspectives on empowerment from individuals within our organization.  A few of them told stories about their journey to empowerment – how they recognized where they were or what was standing in their way of getting there.  I’ve got my own struggles with empowerment, even though I believe in it whole-heartedly, and felt inspired to share mine as well.  That’s what the following article is all about.

As always, if you liked or disliked something you’ve read, or it sparked a cool idea or epiphany, please send me a note or comment with your feedback.  It could be on this (or any) article or the whole series.

Thank you for your time and interest!  -Becky

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How My Inner Fixer Thwarts Empowerment (and what I’m doing about it)

by Becky Lemon, 4/30/19

Often, especially lately since we’ve got such a focus on it within our organization, I feel like I live, eat, and breathe concepts surrounding empowerment.  I’m frequently learning about it and talking about it with others, I can define it several different ways, I’m steeped in the mechanisms of empowerment, and I can coach people through issues they’re having with it.  Empowerment and I are like two peas in a pod, still, when it comes to actually empowering people, I struggle.

Here’s the deal: I get in my own way when it comes to empowering others, and I can mess it up in a variety of situations.  The biggest one that comes to mind?

When people share their problems with me, I tend to give them advice whether they want it or not.  

In our organization, because of my title – Director of People and Culture – and responsibilities as a leadership coach, I’m identified as a resident “expert” at people situations.  If leaders need guidance when tricky people-stuff comes up, I’m a natural resource for them. For years, after I listened to and understood their situation, I gave advice or suggestions on how they could move forward.  This relationship felt satisfying – I got to “help” (which is very important to me and my ego), and they received the help they sought. We both played the status roles that we were comfortable with – they “asked up” when they were stuck and I handed down a thoughtful prescription for what would reasonably unstick them – and there was quick resolution for something that had caused them stress.  Harmless, right? Not really.

While I never considered myself an expert (and still don’t), I recognized my role as the person with the most power who spent the most time studying and talking about tricky people-stuff.  I fell back on old models that said because of that role, everyone is set up to think I probably have the best answers, which made me think that I should share them when asked to.

I believed I was helping leaders by telling them what they could/should do, though what I was doing, unintentionally, was often having different and undesirable effects:  

  • When I suggested (or, ugh, spelled out) how they could respond to the situation they were in, I was actually fixing things for them and thus denying them the chance to follow their instincts and learn from their mistakes and successes.   
  • I also always assumed that they wanted me to tell them what to do (they were asking for help after all!), and didn’t recognize that sometimes what they really wanted and needed was tools or information that could help them figure it out for themselves.  
  • Whenever I crafted a plan for them or gave suggestions that they followed, we all lost out on their voice and the possibilities they saw for getting through the situation.  I showed a bunch of people how to be mini-Becky’s running around speaking in my voice, when I should have been encouraging theirs.

If we kept any of these dynamics going, I retained the “expertise” and they had little chance to grow their own people-stuff muscle.

It’s taken a few years of experience, some coaching, self-reflection, and candid feedback from people that I’ve “helped” to see that my instinct to give advice or map out someone’s behavior when they’re talking through problems isn’t always a great one.  I’m still tempted to do it, and I still catch myself in the act. I’m learning that I have a powerful need to feel useful to others, and that I attach my self-worth and value to how much I’ve been able to heal other people’s pain; I believed I could satisfy all of that by using my skills and knowledge to fix people’s problems.  I’m taking steps to change this story, it’s going to take some time.

I’m also seeing that my inner fixer is at odds with my interest in empowering others, and am trying to recognize what’s going on when I wind up taking over the problem solving, decision making, and control in those situations.  I’m trying to intentionally change those behaviors and am focusing on how I can inspire people to connect with their own power instead. How does that look? When people bring to me the people-stuff they’re struggling with, I try to ask more questions and make fewer statements.  I dig into what it is that they’re really looking for. I assess the situation from a bigger perspective – is my advice really needed here, or is this an opportunity to serve as a guide as they explore their own path? I challenge myself – is what I’m about to say or do feeding my own ego’s need to fix or will it contribute to their growth and empowerment? Ultimately, I seek to actually help them by supporting them as they find their own process of responding to tricky people-stuff instead of managing it with mine.  

I know enough about leadership and power to know that I’m the one who has to make the change from fixer (manager) to empowerer (leader).  I’ve got to create an environment where leaders who are seeking support from me feel safe to explore their own roadblocks and ideas when it comes to working through tricky people-stuff, and to challenge me when it feels like I’m taking over in a way that isn’t helpful to them.  I’ve got to share with people that this is the path I’m on and ask for their feedback as I try to show up in a different way. So, here I am. What do you think?

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