When Your “Help” Leads to Harm


In your professional life, your interactions with others directly affect the success of your business and your own personal wellbeing. In every exchange, you have choices: You can perpetuate bad habits or you can foster growth.

Do you enable or empower others? Technically, these two words are synonyms: they both mean to grant power to another. But the connotations could not be more different. One leads to stagnation, helplessness, and burnout. The other leads to independence and transformation. How can you tell the difference and make smart choices?

Often, the term “enabling” is used in the context of toxic relationships or addiction. An “enabler” provides the means for another person to continue in unhealthy behaviors. For example, someone who enables an alcoholic might clean up after him (or her), buy him alcohol, make excuses to his boss so he can keep his job, etc. But this type of behavior can happen to a lesser degree in any relationship or interaction, including on the job. Do you find yourself overlooking poor performance, making excuses for team members, working extra hours to make sure things are “done right,” or constantly providing answers? You may be setting yourself up for a downward spiral. 

Enabling keeps a person comfortably where they are. Empowering promotes the person to new levels of growth, fulfillment, and power. Especially if you are in a leadership position, developing others is part of your job description. Their growth is their own responsibility, but empowering growth is yours.

Here are some differences between enabling and empowering others. Which do you see the most in your company culture or your own actions?

  • Enabling “helps” others. It assumes they cannot help themselves. Empowering supports others. It assumes they are capable.
  • Enabling gives answers. Empowering gives tools and resources.
  • Enabling rescues. It short-circuits the learning that comes from natural consequences. Empowering liberates others from destructive cycles.
  • Enabling reduces accountability and responsibilities. Empowering promotes independence.
  • Enabling feels draining and frustrating. Empowering fills you with excitement and hope.

The main difference between enabling and empowering comes down to power. Who holds the power in the relationship? Ironically, when enabling is present, both parties in the relationship feel powerless. The enabler feels trapped. There is no alternative. They “have to” help the other person, which leads to resentment. But there is an unspoken feeling of false power that comes from being the “helper,” too. You are the good one, the strong one, the responsible one, the wise one, the caring one, the morally upstanding one, the smart one… It’s your identity—the way you see yourself—that keeps you trapped in that enabling relationship. If you give up enabling others, you have to give up that identity, too.

By its very definition, empowering another person means you give them power. It doesn’t mean you use up your own power to promote them; you remind them of their power, authority, and capabilities so that they can promote their own personal growth, career development, and wellbeing. Both parties feel powerful. The obvious benefit is that when you empower others, you find yourself surrounded by strong, capable, independent, responsible, resourceful, powerful people.

There’s a downside though. There’s no personal glory in empowering others. Don’t get me wrong—it’s a wonderful feeling to see people live up to their potential and know you supported them in it. It’s my favorite part of being a coach. I get an indescribable thrill when I see clients overcoming obstacles, reaching milestones, and changing their lives. Yet those are 100% their wins. I support them and celebrate them and feel glad I contributed, yet a huge part of empowering others is being willing to step out of the way.

It takes a great deal of security and confidence to stop enabling and start empowering. You have to trust that your merit stands on its own; you don’t need to borrow success from others that you’ve “helped.” You have to trust others to make their own decisions and face their own consequences. You have to trust that you’ll be okay whether others around you fall face first in the mud or whether they blast on past you and achieve more than you ever thought possible. Both can be equally upsetting if you’re feeling insecure.

Human beings have more potential than you can wrap your brain around. We limit ourselves and each other constantly. Even the “idiot” in the cube next to you who doesn’t seem to know his head from a hole in the ground has a remarkable and astounding brain—you just can’t see it at the moment. It’s not your job to “help” others live up to their potential. As Anne Lamott says, “Help is the sunny side of control.” But you can contribute to a healthy work culture, a positive community, and your own sanity by ending the habit of enabling and choosing to empower instead.

Change your communication, change your life. 

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