For the past few…well…forevers, I have been an enabler.
I take personal responsibility for the health, success, and happiness of other people.
This is not a good thing.
It really stinks to admit this to thousands of my closest friends. Okay, so, you may not know me, but please be my friend for a few minutes while you read this. I’m feeling vulnerable.
Because, when I enable, I do not do anybody any favors, including me. The outcomes are unproductive all the way around.
In the workplace, enablers do the following:
- Create task after task after task on their to-do list to follow up with other people on delegated work
- Inject themselves into almost every business process, whether in or outside their scope of responsibility
- Make excuses for the underperformance of others, often “swooping in” to save the day
- Fail to give behaviorally-specific feedback to others, or apologize when they do
- Over-instruct high performers on the specifics of how to do a task, rather than let the person devise their own, possibly better, path
- Solve problems for other people who are perfectly capable of coming up with their own solutions if given the chance
All these behaviors come from a good place: the intent to help.
What are the impacts of our (well-intentioned) enabling behaviors?
- Learned helplessness. People around us lose opportunities to grow and develop.
- Frustration. We get frustrated that “nothing happens unless I make it happen.” Other people are frustrated because “she doesn’t let me do anything on my own.”
- Chronic stress. If we are the gatekeepers to all productivity, then we can never take time off, get promoted, or die.
So how do we stop enabling?
Get comfortable with seeing other people struggle
I’m not saying to turn into a heartless psychopath. But, understand that personal development results from a good amount of struggle. The book Peak Performance explores the following success equation: stress + rest = growth.
Without an appropriate amount of challenge, coupled with periods of rest, we end up in this gray area of performance where we are just “getting along” with mediocre results.
Performance is optimized with struggle. We enablers are hurting those we intend to help by solving their problems and shielding them from stress.
Sit on your hands
One of my clients, code-named Linda, was the COO and part owner of a manufacturing company. Linda was very much an enabler when we started working together. Several times a day, other company employees would walk into her office with some file folder or stack of paper extended toward her in their outstretched hands. Linda would extend her hand and accept the proffered paper before the employee had even finished the first sentence.
I advised Linda to sit on her hands. Literally. She was not to reach out her hand until asking several questions, including “What do you think you should do about this?” Within a few weeks, employees were solving their own problems. Linda was able to meet her goals, sell her company, and retire.
Giving feedback transfers responsibility for performance from the enabler to the enabled. That’s why enablers avoid giving feedback. If you are in a leadership position, you must give behaviorally-specific, actionable feedback to your direct reports. It’s part of your job. Here are some tips to help you.
Although I am an enabler, giving feedback is not one of my areas of struggle. Sometimes I embarrass my husband in restaurants. “Waiter, I assumed when you asked me what I wanted to drink that the drink would be eventually brought to the table. If I was incorrect in my assumption…” Poor man.
Enablement likely began as a behavior targeted toward specific circumstances in our lives. Left unchecked, it slowly changed from an adaptive behavior into a dysfunctional pattern.
Keep wanting to help. As Mr. Rogers taught us, the world needs helpers.
Just refocus your efforts to helping other people grow…and not need you so much.
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Dr. Melissa Gratias (pronounced "Gracious") is a work psychologist who helps overwhelmed and underappreciated businesspeople be more focused and effective. Since 2007, thousands of people have graduated with honors from her onsite sessions, distance coaching, productivity seminars, and corporate consulting projects. Based in Savannah, Georgia, Melissa is available for nationwide consulting and speaking engagements. Contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 912-417-2505. Sign up for her free monthly e-newsletter or visit her website, melissagratias.com.