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Do You Empower or Overpower? And Do You Know The Difference?

08 Apr Posted by in Business | Comments

I have a six-year-old boy, and from the moment he was born we have been battling each other for control, and some days I’m not really sure who is winning. Best example? Potty training. If there was anything that challenged my sanity and put my mental acumen to the test – it was trying to get that toddler to use the potty.  We tried cute videos and songs about how everybody poops. We drew pictures of superheroes in urinals, and convinced him that the big red fire truck that just passed was taking the firemen to the potty. We tried bribing him with candy, toys, and a timeshare at the beach. When that didn’t work we tried shame, and stories of him being the only guy on the football team wearing a pull up. I actually told him little kids who don’t go potty end up in hell. I know – it was a weak moment.

Nothing worked. The more we tried to force him, the stronger his resolution. I finally admitted defeat – me, with the college degree – me, the author of four books – me, with the courage to get up in front of thousands and perform on a stage – had finally acknowledged that I could not get this little person, who insisted on wearing his underpants on the outside of his jeans, to do what I wanted. Finally I looked him in the eye and said, “Son, I give up. I’m tired of trying to make you do this. So I’ll stop. I believe in you. You can do this. When you are ready you will find the strength. Luke, I am your father.” (I’m a tad dramatic.) But the point is that I stopped trying to overpower him, and started empowering him instead. And one day he just walked into the bathroom carrying his favorite superhero magazine, announced that he needed a little privacy, and shut the door. Game over.

No, this isn’t a lesson in potty training – I’m actually making a point about how we deal with others in the workplace. We can bully them and use our power over them to force them to do what we need them to do – or we can encourage them, build them up, and empower them to want to do what we need them to do. And who do you think will work harder for your bottom line? As a motivational speaker I have learned ten times over that the key to getting the most out of people, is to bring out the best in people – empower not overpower. Sure, you may get your way by being a bully – but not for long.

The workplace is facing a shortage of qualified employees and entering into a competition to keep the ones we have. So now, more than ever, the challenge is not simply to retain employees but to get them to want to retain us. To create a workplace that is fun, productive, and free of stress and disunity. We want our employees to deliver – to exceed our expectations – to represent our organization with pride and passion and purpose. But are we willing to do what it takes to get there? Leaders who manipulate and abuse their power only create teams filled with distrust and disloyalty. This kind of team will not work for you but against you. Leaders who affect and empower will win every time.

I went seeking answers to what empowers people in the workplace. So I posted a question on LinkedIn. I chose an industry and asked them one simple question: What makes your job hard? To date, it is one of the most active discussions in the group, and answers keep pouring almost a year later. Here is what I learned.

People want to be asked. They will tell a stranger what makes their job hard and feel better, simply because they got a chance to talk about it. No, it’s not whining to talk about the obstacles you face in the workplace –as long as you address them instead of just talking about them. I can’t help but think that if they were used to being asked this question by their bosses, they would not have responded with such force to me.  Do you ask your employees to share the challenges they face? Do you care? And even more – do you LISTEN?

People want to be heard. Just asking them isn’t enough. They want to know that somebody heard them – that their voice mattered – that being asked was not just an empty exercise. Do you listen to your employees when they tell you the challenges they face? Do you listen without thinking about your response, or what you are going to have for lunch? Do you show them you listen by responding to their comments with, “So what I heard you say…..” and repeating it back to them?

People want to be validated and appreciated. They want to know that you care – that you think their contribution is important to the bottom line – that you couldn’t do your job without them. Do you appreciate your employees? Do you tell them? Do you show them? More than just once a year?

People are not lazy and trying to take advantage of you. Not most people anyway. Not one answer was about having too much to do, or not understanding the job. Even though most of the responses dealt with having to deal with difficult bosses and co-workers – the real root of the issue was that they didn’t feel appreciated. When people feel appreciated, they can deal with difficult people much better. Have you tried seeing your employees as partners rather than means to an end? Have you tried bringing out their best instead of assuming their worst? Have you considered that if you serve them, they will serve you?

People are afraid to set boundaries and ask for what they want.  They were telling me things that they should be telling their bosses – discussing boundaries that should have been discussed at the job interview. Many people are afraid of confrontation, or rather the results of confrontation, and so they vent outside the workplace instead. Conflict needs to be addressed in a healthy manner – face to face. Create a workplace where people feel safe to address conflict, and set healthy boundaries that are communicated and enforced. How do you handle conflict in the workplace? What means do your employees have of setting, communicating, and enforcing boundaries?

Women are different from men. Deep, I know. You didn’t need me to tell you that. But in all fairness, I want to note that the industry I polled was predominantly female – and so were the responses I received. Which may indicate that women have a great need for validation and appreciation. It may indicate that women are more relationship oriented and job performance is more closely tied to how they feel about their contribution. It may explain why a man reading this article might think this is all hogwash – unless he works with women – in which case these words might finally save him. Or maybe men like to feel validated and appreciated too, they just don’t talk about it – or maybe they do. At the very least, consider that the opposite sex often communicates and is motivated by something different. What are you doing to find out what motivates your employees? Are you assuming that what motivates you motivates them?

It’s not job skills that make your employees better. Sure, skills matter, but attitude matters more. Not one person who responded to my question had difficulty with the scope of work. Not one complained that the job was too hard, paid too little, or had poor benefits. Not one said they wished they had a better computer, or a faster system, or access to more information. Sure, those things matter, but they weren’t at the top of the list. I learned that it’s not having the right tools that make your employees work at their full potential. It’s not about money. And it’s not about good systems and processes. Though all of these play a part. But more than all of this is the need to validate and appreciate our employees. To ask, listen, respect their opinion and their ideas. So how will you empower instead of overpower?

The workplace is a place to conduct business. You would think that’s a no-brainer, but I am amazed – no appalled – at what bosses are asking of their employees. I know, I know, it’s your company and you can do whatever you want, it’s your right. But should you, just because you can? Should you ask your employee to wash your dog in the parking lot? Should you ask your employee to take your wife to her Tai Chi class? Should you ask your employee to please cut the tag off the back of your new thong while you are wearing it? (No, I didn’t make that up). Should you ask them to break the law? Should you use your power to ask people to do things that make them uncomfortable – that they never signed up for? Just because you can? Shame on you.  If you are not going to treat your employees with respect and dignity – then you have asked for everything you get.

The choice is yours – overpower or empower. It’s up to you. You will live with the results, one way or another.

For more about motivational speaker Kelly Swanson go to

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