I am all about empowering people and I do everything I can to ensure people always leave any work I do with them feeling more empowered, hopeful, enabled and energized than they came in.
The dictionary defines empower as:
Make someone stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights.
It takes different approaches, methods and conversations at different times to empower different people.
Sometimes you have to reinforce what people are naturally strong at and what they are doing well in order to empower them. Sometimes, this means reminding them of how great they are.
However, at other times you may need to shake people up and help them confront their gaps, shortfalls and issues, in order to remind them not to sweep issues under the rug.
The same is true when dealing with team culture. Sometimes you need to acknowledge and promote the strengths of the team and at other times you need to support the team to confront its issues and gaps.
Many leaders are not comfortable or good at dealing with issues, so they prefer to avoid them and only deal with the positive things.
There are a few basic reasons for this, such as:
It is too confronting. Even if the leaders didn’t create the issues, it is their unwritten duty to take responsibly. Leaders know that their people will typically associate the issues with them, so many of them take it personally and become defensive. When it comes to owning the issues and taking responsibility it is too challenging for them, so they simply avoid it.
They don’t know how. So many leaders have scars and traumas from past incidents where they tried to resolve conflicts and challenging issues honestly and openly in a team meeting, and these meetings turned into unproductive bitching sessions. As a result, they cringe every time they have to deal with another big issue, so they simply avoid it.
They believe that avoiding issues works. Many leaders actually believe that by acknowledging or bringing up the issues they augment them, rather than put them on the table to be addressed. They also believe that if they talk for long enough about the positive things these topics will grow and the negative things will disappear.
But, unfortunately, that is not the way it works.
Yes, sometimes less significant issues can dissolve by themselves when you leave them alone. However, this is a rarity when dealing with issues that are meaningful for people. For the most part, when you have deep rooted conflicts, as well as alignment and trust issues in your team, they don’t tend to go away by themselves.
In fact, when you ignore or avoid negative dynamics and issues they tend to grow beyond proportion and gain a life of their own. Over time the unaddressed and unresolved issues form an undercurrent platform that cultivates cynicism, resignation and passive-aggressive behavior, and this dominates the culture.
When leaders talk about promoting and building upon the good things like teamwork, trust, cohesion and accountability people roll their eyes because they know that this is not the way their leaders behave.
When leaders come across as only being willing to focus on positive things and not the issues they create a compliant and inauthentic culture around them.
Employees who feel they can’t discuss the issues or provide honest negative feedback and criticism to their leaders or to other people or groups, just take their frustrated feelings underground.
And, if someone musters the courage to tell leadership ‘that the emperor has no clothes’ they are likely to get the wrath of passive-aggressive reaction. I have seen it happen too many times.
Every subtle or blunt negative reaction only sends an even stronger message to the troops, that if they want to keep their jobs, they should shut up, be careful and play the corporate game. Most leaders who behave this way don’t even realize the negative impact of their leadership philosophy and behavior on their people because no one employee in their right mind is likely to take the risk of telling them how it really is.
In order to promote and build upon the positives and strengths, you have to first ensure there is genuine permission, freedom and openness to discuss and address the weaknesses and issues too.
Developing people and teams always has to be done in a powerful context of respect and empowerment, not criticism and ridicule.
However, if you create an authentic environment in which people and teams can discuss both what is working and not working, there is so much that they could learn and benefit from both sides of the equation – from improving their natural competencies and strengths, as well as developing new competencies and strengths that excite them, benefit them, and they could become good at.
Only in this type of authentic and unrestricted environment can you build a strength-based culture.
To succeed you have to be a courageous leader!