When Enabling Meets Empowering


The best company cultures have a great balance of being high support and high challenge. I discussed this topic recently with my team, and the further we delved into the conversation, the more I realized that this phenomenon applies to almost every area of life. However, it’s often identified by different terms—enabling and empowering.

When you look up the definition of each word, enable and empower, you find that both have positive definitions. However, enabling has taken on a more negative connotation which people associate with supporting someone so much that it ends up being detrimental to them. Empowering means almost the exact same thing, but we associate this more positively. We empower someone when we encourage and equip but also challenge them to play their part.

The best environments balance enabling and empowering; they offer high support with high challenge, which produces the best results in their people and for their people. Let’s look at a few examples of how this plays out in the world around us.

There are government models that are high support but not high challenge—we call this socialism. They want everybody to get something, but they don’t challenge them to earn anything for themselves. It doesn’t work. On the other hand, governments that are high challenge without being high support are dictatorships. These governments drive and force action without any positive incentives. The best governments enable and empower—true capitalism works in this way. It’s high support in that it creates an environment that is great for people to do business, but it’s high challenge because it is up to the people to make it work. When individuals succeed, they reap the benefits.

Let’s apply the same thinking to raising kids. If you are a parent that is only enabling, you are always encouraging, but you never make your child earn anything. In its worst form, you produce a dependent individual, completely lost and unable to function as a responsible adult. Dr. Tim Elmore, president and founder of Growing Leaders, says to these parents, “A lot of times, we want to prepare the road for our children, but we need to prepare our children for the road.” Other parents are high challenge without high support. These parents push their kids and want them to achieve in the classroom, on the field, and among their peers, but they don’t provide the love they need. It’s clear that the best parenting is both high support and high challenge. It’s not easy, but when parents find this balance, they raise kids who live well in their years at home and beyond.

If this is true in government and in family life, it is equally as true and applicable to work environments. It’s incredibly challenging to create a company culture that enables and empowers its people. Chick-fil-A would say it this way: We value results and relationships. A high challenge work environment is what most people traditionally expect. It’s the high pressure, corporate environment that’s only about results and does not care about the individual, which leads to burnout and disengagement. The flipside is a high support environment that isn’t high challenge. This often happens on non-profit or church staffs where people feel cared for and loved, but the organization doesn’t always get the results it needs because it fails to hold people accountable.

At different points in leading an organization, I feel like I’ve swung to either end of this spectrum. There are times when I’ve been good at loving people but haven’t been good at holding them accountable. Then I see the budget or the deadline approaching, and I swing to being high challenge without the support that people need.

This blog is a challenge to both me and you. We must support and challenge, valuing both results and relationships. Don’t get caught in the extremes of being an enabler or an enforcer, but focus on empowering and equipping individuals to succeed.  

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Today, business means more than just mere products and services. Your organization needs to stand for something. Branding is what you tell the world; leadership is how you make it come true.

No one knows this dynamic better than Kevin Paul Scott.

Companies turn to Kevin for advice on how to up the meaning-quotient in their businesses, so that employees and customers alike champion the business as if it were their own.

Let Kevin come and teach your group about how to build a business and communicate corporate values in a way that resonates with consumers.

His speeches include:
• Building a Business with Meaning
• Leading When the Majority is Wrong
• In Changing Times, Hold to Unchanging Principles
• The War for Talent: Recruiting and Retaining Top Tier Talent
• Essential Exchanges: What You Have to Give Up to Go Up