Empowering people is hard. Imposing an opinion, solution or direction might seem like an easier way in hard times.
Spoiler alert: it’s not.
When you’re starting out a new role or a new project, or if you’re simply going through some changes in your professional or personal life, you’ll find yourself reacting with your lizard brain, the “thinking fast” one. That can get you out of trouble fast. But it can also create a lot more chaos than it was to begin with.
Reflections from a personal story
I was in a situation like that recently and I was fortunate enough to be able to reflect on it a few months after the dust settled. Mergers and acquisitions are hard. Integrations are where a lot of companies end up failing. There is also constant context for conflict and roadblocks for projects. For months, as a new hire, I was involved in integrating two brands. That meant meetings, not only to get to know people, but to build things with them from the get-go. We went from forming to storming really quickly and it was hard to see the clear path to norming and performing.
I saw people being in the way (and they weren’t), so I tried to push them out of the way (so they pushed back).
It’s not very empowering, is it?
That made my life and my goals much harder to achieve. It also didn’t benefit me or the team, or the larger company context altogether. I went into meetings with a clear outcome in mind, and tried to impose the best way forward. That prevented me from collaborating with everyone else in the room. It also took much more work from my side to get to a real solution, and move things forward.
I was missing an important piece: I didn’t consider what I didn’t know. I assumed I have enough information to formulate a clear conclusion about the future.
For me, it’s not natural to admit I don’t know something or that I need help. It’s something you’re taught to avoid while growing up as a man in Romania. You have to be strong and decisive, provide solutions fast, think on your feet at all times. After all, in school, in class, whenever we were asked a question, we had to answer on the spot or get punished. Not the most empowering environment. It also builds a “come up with any answer” mindset that’s not helpful later on.
Empowering: Stop and think
I recently learned a cool way to reframe this. Before making a major decision or change of direction, ask yourself:
“What are the implications of the things we haven’t considered?”
Let me unpack that a little bit.
First, you are already a step ahead by telling yourself that there are, in fact, things that you might not have considered.
Secondly, those things are likely to have implications in your projects/tasks/endeavors.
By spending a few more hours / days thinking about this question, you’ll be able to make better decisions and empower, not impose. You’ll have strong reasons for the way you are envisioning.
This way you’ll turn to empowering, and drop the impositions.
But this was recently, months after I had got through working on the big change project.
Turning imposing into empowering
Back to my personal story. What helped me turn around was asking myself: “Is what I’m doing right now helping the team succeed?”. If the answer was no, I would shut up and let others move on with their desired path. If it was yes, I would try to ask more questions. I would also be able to suggest other outcomes as I learned more about what I didn’t know.
Next time you feel like you want to grab people and show them the way forcefully, don’t. Choose your battles.
Think of it like you are across the field from them. Instead of trying to pull them to your original position, walk towards them ask them to walk towards you. Now you both have a slightly different perspective about the problem. Now you can try to see a shared path to the solution. Ask questions, listen and and walk with them to the shared solution. Just be careful to not walk too far in their direction and lose the way completely.