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Leadership, Power and Empowerment

What leaders should really be doing if they want to empower people, and five coaching questions that help

Actually, I don’t really believe you can empower anybody else, I think they have to do it for themselves. If you’re lucky as a leader, there are times when you might just be able to create the conditions that make it possible for someone to empower themselves.

I love the quote in the picture above. For me, it says almost everything about how leaders should go about creating those conditions – give away your own power.

I reckon there are two crucial ways that leaders ought to be giving away their power, if they do want others to empower themselves:

  1. Give people “Agency” – that is, the ability to take action or exert power
  2. Give people “Choice of Attention” – that is, the freedom to decide where and how they direct their focus and efforts.

I’ve done plenty of leadership roles myself and I can tell you, when things really matter, when the outcome is an important one or when there are big things at risk, giving away power in those two ways can be absolutely terrifying!

It’s also the only way to absolutely get the best out of others, to stop feeling that you’re the only one who works at 100% and to grow beyond the limits of your own abilities.

If you’re a leader who would like to begin giving away more of your own power, so that you can get the absolute best from the people who work with you, have a ponder on these coaching questions:

  • Where could you give people more Agency and Choice of Attention straight away, without having to really worry too much about it?
  • What would be the benefits to you and your organisation, if the people around you started to be more self-empowered?
  • If you did give away some more of your power and it works, it gets the results you want, how would you feel about that?
  • What’s your greatest fear about giving away your power, about giving people more Agency and more Choice of Attention – what frightens you about that?
  • Thinking about the fears you identified in that previous question, what kind of new, additional or different kind of power do YOU need, so that those fears evaporate or turn out to be groundless?

Empowering Beliefs (part 2)

Why asking yourself ‘why’ never works – How the search for meaning steals your power

One of the great strengths of the way the human mind works is our ability to make meaning of the world around us. This happens all the time, mostly unconsciously and starts at a very young age.

You’ll have seen how young children never seem to stop asking questions that seek to understand the meaning behind things: Why is that tree green? What does that lady wear such a big hat for? Why aren’t there any more dinosaurs? You’ve probably got a few favourite examples you’ve heard yourself!

I think there’s a clear advantage to us as humans to be able to do this. As we were evolving as a species, being able to interpret and understand the world around us, to know what certain events and significant moments mean, would have been of great help. We see food that is an unusual colour and we know it probably means it’s unsafe to eat. We notice smoke and understand that it means fire is nearby. Loud and sustained shouting may mean that a violent confrontation is taking place. Three or four people heading-off in a different direction to us might mean that they know about a food source.


This pattern continues through our lives. We notice something important, or a significant event happens, and in order to make sense of it, we interpret or attach meaning to it.


And it’s also useful that this meaning-making process mostly occurs unconsciously. Imagine if you had to stop and think about everything all the time in order to understand its meaning. There wouldn’t actually be enough time left to do anything with the information! It’s important that our minds have these kind of shortcuts so that the meaning of everyday events and interactions with others isn’t something that we consciously need to analyse and interpret. Otherwise it could quickly become overwhelming to do so.

But problems can arise when the meanings that we give to significant events or moments become like rules or automatic shortcuts. When we start to believe that X always means Y. Or when we automatically interpret X as meaning Y, when a wider view of the situation or a more complete weighing of the evidence might suggest a different meaning.

In those cases, this ability to look for the meaning behind things can become a hindrance not a help. When we’re looking for the meaning behind an event or interaction and it’s not making sense or it doesn’t fit the usual pattern we’re expecting – to continue searching for it can be particularly disempowering.

Here’s some simplified examples of real-life meanings/interpretations that typically come up for my coaching clients at work:

  • My colleague never smiles at me; she doesn’t like me.
  • My team member was late for our appointment; he has no respect for my time.
  • The Board haven’t responded to my email; they can’t be interested in my idea.
  • I always feel out of place in our Executive meeting; I ‘m not the kind of person that belongs here.
  • I can’t seem to get everything done in the time available; I’m just not disciplined enough.

You can see that the pattern for this kind of thinking goes like this:

  • This thing happened; I interprete it to mean that…

This pattern becomes a problem, as I’ve said earlier, when we assume that “this” always means “that”; or when a wider view would suggest something else. AND – it becomes a really disempowering pattern when we put our focus on finding the meaning itself, but the meaning isn’t actually what’s important.


A great way to uncover whether or not you’ve got into a disempowering view of these events, is to check out if you’re asking yourself those kind of “Why” questions:

  • Why doesn’t she like me?
  • Why doesn’t he respect my time?
  • Why aren’t they interested in my idea?
  • Why can’t I be more assertive in the Executive meeting?
  • Why can’t I be more disciplined with my time?

These kind of “Why” questions are a potentially useful indicator that you’ve slipped into a disempowered mindset. In a way, it’s a kind of return to being like that little child, trying to make sense of the new and huge world around them. And wanting a grown-up to explain it all to them.

In those situations, we need to stop searching for the meaning we expected to find. We need to stop taking that automatic shortcut. Fortunately, there’s very easy way to do so. Here’s how.

For the reasons described above, us coaches very rarely ask “Why” questions of our clients. In fact, if your coach asks you a “Why” question, it’s quite likely that they think they’re spotted an unconscious meaning or interpretation of yours that is not helping you – and they’re trying to uncover it more fully.

Instead of trying to figure out the “why”, your coach will help to look beyond that automatic search.

Let’s take that first example from above. Instead of asking about: “Why doesn’t my colleague like me?”, your coach will help you shift your focus to something much more empowering – a bit like this:

Coach: What do you actually want in this situation?
Client: All I really want is a good enough relationship with her so I can do my job effectively.

Coach: What evidence would you need to see or hear to know that your working relationship was good enough?
Client: Mostly it would be that she answers my calls or gives me time when I need help with issues in her speciality.

Coach: If you didn’t have that straight away, how would you go about getting it?
Client: Actually, and this has worked in the past, I’d either book time ahead with her, or check if it was OK to go directly to one of her team members.

Coach: And how do you feel now about her not smiling at you?
Client: Well, I know that smiling and being seen to be friendly is important to me; so that’s what I’m going to do myself. I’ll never really know if she likes me or not, but that isn’t what’s important here.

This is a much more empowering and useful way of interacting with the world. So next time you find yourself focussing on the “Why”, try this sequence instead:

  1. What’s actually Important to you
  2. What tangible Evidence do you need so that you’ll know when you have that important thing
  3. What Strategy (the how) will you use to get what’s actually important to you.

Mentors Exercise for Dealing with Challenges

Three amazing people you can have on your side whenever you’re facing challenge, uncertainty or fear

Serious question – Can you imagine what it would be like if there were three absolutely brilliant people, with different but complementary abilities, who you could call on for advice at any time and who’d know just what you needed to hear?

What difference could that make…


This is part of an exercise I use with people when they might be facing something challenging, unknown or scary. And they need to recapture or uncover some of their innate resourcefulness to deal with it.


Take a look at the diagram above;

and then follow these easy steps:

  1. Identify the challenging, scary or unknown thing
  2. On a scale of 1-10, where 10 is high, just how challenging or scary is this thing at the moment?
  3. Place it on the floor in front of you, like in the diagram. Don’t get so close to it, that you feel uncomfortable; back-up if necessary
  4. Think of a person who is really, really Effective, just great at getting things done.
    It can be a real person you know, somebody you have heard about or know of but haven’t met in real life, or a character from a film, a book, a game or a TV programme
  5. Get your (imaginary) Effective Mentor to stand in their spot, as per the diagram, so that they are behind you and slightly to your left. In your mind’s eye, get a good sense of what they look like and how they stand.
  6. When you’re ready, move onto your Effective Mentor’s spot, and pretend that you are actually stepping into their body
  7. Do what you need to do, to get a real sense of what it’s like, to be this person who is so effective, so good at getting things done
  8. When you have that sense, look over at the You spot and imagine a version of yourself still standing there, facing this challenging/scary/unknown thing
  9. From inside your Effective Mentor, you’ll notice that you have some advice or support that you’d like to offer to that version of yourself. Go ahead and say that, out loud if you can.
  10. Step back onto the You spot and take a moment to hear that advice

  11. Now think of a person who always seems really, really Fulfilled. Someone who is happy with themselves. Again, it can be a real person, someone you know or know of, or a fictional character of some kind
  12. Get your (imaginary) Fulfilled Mentor to stand in their spot, as per the diagram, so that they are directly behind you. In your mind’s eye, get a good sense of what they look like and how they stand.
  13. When you’re ready, move onto your Fulfilled Mentor’s spot, and pretend that you are actually stepping into their body
  14. Do what you need to do, to get a real sense of what it’s like, to be this person who is so fulfilled, so happy with who they are
  15. When you have that sense, look over at the You spot and again imagine a version of yourself still standing there, facing this challenging/scary/unknown thing
  16. From inside your Fulfilled Mentor, you’ll notice that you have some advice or support that you’d like to offer to that version of yourself. Go ahead and say that, out loud if you can.
  17. Step back onto the You spot and take a moment to hear that advice

  18. Now think of a person who always seems really, really Empowered. Someone who lets nothing stop them and doesn’t wait for permission. Again, it can be a real person, someone you know or know of, or a fictional character of some kind
  19. Get your (imaginary) Empowered Mentor to stand in their spot, as per the diagram, so that they are behind you and slightly to you right. In your mind’s eye, get a good sense of what they look like and how they stand.
  20. When you’re ready, move onto your Empowered Mentor’s spot, and pretend that you are actually stepping into their body
  21. Do what you need to do, to get a real sense of what it’s like, to be this person who is so empowered, who doesn’t let anything stop them and who doesn’t need to wait for permission
  22. When you have that sense, look over at the You spot and again imagine a version of yourself still standing there, facing this challenging/scary/unknown thing
  23. From inside your Empowered Mentor, you’ll notice that you have some advice or support that you’d like to offer to that version of yourself. Go ahead and say that, out loud if you can.
  24. Step back onto the You spot and take a moment to hear that advice.

  25. Now imagine that all three of your mentors are lined-up behind you. Perhaps you’d like them to reach out and place a supportive hand on your shoulders and back.

Remember the advice that each of your mentors had for you and know that you can access this inner resourcefulness of yours whenever you want to.

On that same scale of 1-10, how challenging or scary does that thing seem now?

Empowering Beliefs (part 1)

Empowerment: How to reveal the unconscious thought processes that can either really help or really hinder you

If you want to adopt ways of thinking and behaving that get great results and satisfaction (to empower yourself), or to help other people do the same, one very useful approach is to reveal some of the unconscious processes that can either really help or really hinder you.

In my kind of coaching, we call these unconscious processes ‘beliefs’ and I’m going to show you how to work with them to make sure that they are as empowering as you can get them.

This article takes a brief look at what are called ‘Cause-Effects’. These are the connections we unconsciously establish when we perceive that something consistently and predictably leads to something else. A shorthand I often use is “this causes that”.

Let’s explore some examples.

1. To start with, think of something that’s important to you in your work: _________________ ?

Suppose you say that: “Success” is important to you in your work.

Now that we know what’s important to you, we next want to know what your life experiences have taught you about how to satisfy that. First, we’ll ask:

2. What enables someone to have [success] _________________ ?

To which you might answer: “Hard work”.

Next, we want to know what would make someone take action, to actually take steps to satisfy their important thing. Using the example above, why would someone put in “hard work” in order to have “success”? We’ll ask this question:

3. What does [success] lead to or make possible _________________ ?

To which you might answer: “Security”.

Now we’ve got a really significant part of the pattern that your unconscious mind uses in regard to “success” at work:

Using this example, we can see that this person is unconsciously saying to themselves, something like this:

“If I work hard, I’ll be successful; and I want to be successful, because that makes me secure”.

4. From here, we can start to explore deeper.

First the “Enabling” part.

Here’s a few simple examples of questions that can really get breakthroughs in people’s thinking and behaviour:

  • Does hard work always enable success for you?
  • What else does hard work create?
  • What do you do when hard work isn’t enough?
  • Could success for you also come from some other factor than hard work?
  • What else do you need, to be able to have success?
  • What other reasons might you have for working hard?
  • Which other people are important for success?

And then the “Motivating” part:

  • Does success always lead to security for you?
  • Is there anything that’s more important to you than security?
  • How much security do you want?
  • What other routes to security might there be?
  • Does success ever actually get in the way of security?
  • What did you learn about yourself when you didn’t have security?
  • Who else is part of this?

The answers to questions like these will reinforce how working towards “success” is something that helps empower you and others. They’ll also help you to spot when that isn’t enough and to be on guard for how the unconscious assumptions that (in this example, hard work -> success -> security), can actually be disempowering or produce unwanted results and behaviours.


You can also use this approach for negative behaviours that you’d like to change. Put that behaviour in the “Important Thing” box and work through the process above.

Three Empowerment Techniques

Three simple ways you won’t have thought of to help someone empower themselves at work

OK, you might have thought of some of these, but they’re so simple, and so effective, that they often seem to get overlooked and are definitely worth repeating.

First things first, notice that it’s about helping someone to empower themselves, not doing it for them (which is actually disempowering). I reckon a lot of corporate programmes fall down right at this first hurdle, trying to spoon-feed empowerment to their staff instead of creating the conditions in which people want to take power for themselves. Perhaps that second option is just a bit too scary in some organisations?

1. Ask for their help

Nothing helps people realise what they’re capable of better than an opportunity to help somebody else. If you can do this in a way that is genuine, i.e. on something where you really do need their help, that’s good. If you can do it in a way that shows that asking for help is itself an act of strength, not weakness, even better.

2. Tell them what you see

This one is really so sweet and so powerful that it should come with a government health warning! People take themselves for granted. They forget about their good qualities and they focus on the things that they don’t like about themselves. You can change that in an instant with this way of giving people recognition.

Take a moment to remind someone about a resourceful quality of theirs that you have noticed them using. The format is really simple, but does take some guts to use. It goes like this: “I noticed that you were really [resourceful quality] during [recent situation]; that’s a great quality to have.”  Here’s an example of the kind of thing I’ll say to the barista in my coffee shop, just for practice:

I noticed that you were really calm and helpful with that difficult customer just now. That’s a great quality to have.

3. Be kind in their presence

Everybody knows by now that acts of kindness are contagious; when you see someone being kind you tend to pay it forwards yourself.  People are less aware that there’s an unconscious association of kindness with resourcefulness. It’s like part of your brain says to itself: “Oh, I’ve just been kind! I must have the strength of mind and physical resources that mean I can spare some for others”. Whenever you get the chance, role-model this for people and use the contagious power of kindness to remind people just how resourceful they really are.

Coaching Techniques

Coaching with clients’ symbolic non-verbal cues with respect and empowerment

One of the many things I love when I’m one-to-one coaching is when clients unconsciously start drawing shapes in the air, or writing on an imaginary whiteboard or using their hands to position symbolic thoughts, people and objects in different places around themselves. It’s clear that people’s hands and bodies are directly connected to the inner workings of their mind and are often able to represent things quicker and with more clarity than words alone can do.

In my experience, all the qualities of these shapes, diagrams, air-writings and positionings are great doorways into deeper understanding and will open up many new possibilities for insight and action with my client, if I treat them right.


I always try to be really respectful of what they’ve just ‘drawn’ and to not impose my own frame of reference on things. Here’s a technique that I like to use which I believe really helps to get more insight and action, without me the coach getting in the way.

Because my client is often sitting across from, not next to me, I’m not seeing what they’ve ‘drawn’ from their perspective. Suppose I want to ask something like this, so we can get deeper into what it means:

“I notice that you just drew that as a kind of curve; whereabouts are you on the shape of that curve?”

And as I ask that question, I’ll usually want to redraw that curve for them, so they can see it again for themselves but consciously this time.

Here’s the important bit – I reverse the frame of reference so that I’m mirroring, not reproducing what clients have done.

If they’ve drawn that curve in the air from their left-to-right, I’ll redraw it, but from my right-to-left. If they’ve picked-up an imaginary object, person or idea and moved it over to their left, I’ll play that back to them, but make sure that the thing I move also finishes-up on their left. I imagine that I’m tracing whatever they did back to them, from the other side of a glass whiteboard.

I believe that this approach is so crucial, because I don’t want it to be my thing – what I do want is to empower them to get more understanding about the thing they ‘drew’ or ‘moved’.
 

Beyond Impostor Syndrome

On the other side of impostor syndrome lies great possibility. Don’t just settle for the comfort of overcoming it, go beyond.

Almost everybody trying to do something challenging or worthwhile will at some point have felt that sense of Impostor Syndrome.

This is where people are looking to you to achieve something, but inside you don’t feel all that confident. You might worry that people will find out you’re just making it up as you go along, or you might somehow regard yourself as a fake because you don’t know all the answers. Or you might just tend to put down your successes to a one-off piece of luck.

Working on overcoming impostor syndrome is a great thing to do with your coach. But, my experience with clients has taught me that there’s a place even beyond that.

When I’m working with aspirational leaders who really want to make a difference and to have a positive impact, I invite them to not just settle for overcoming impostor syndrome, but to go way beyond.

On the other side is a way of leading that allows people to be really true to themselves, to not have to ‘fake’ anything and, at the same time, to be able to meet the leadership needs of the people around them. This is a gorgeous bit of work to be able to do. It’s about finding what your true strengths are, what your character is really about, and then seeing how it feels to apply that in ways that suit your circumstances.

The impact you can have when people get that you’re leading in a way that matches what they need and is totally genuine and true to who you are, is astonishing.

Like anything that’s really empowering, going beyond impostor syndrome to that place of fully-integrated leadership can be a scary transition. But, if you want it, it’s definitely worth the journey. Don’t just settle for the comfortable feeling of overcoming impostor syndrome, dare to go beyond.

When I let go of what I am,

I become what I might be.

Lao Tzu