Leading from the Bottom: Conversations that Empower Leaders to Empower You

The Bottom Line: We complain when we don’t feel like our leaders are empowering us, but we either don’t realize or don’t remember that leaders are most empowering when the people accountable to them empower up.

I was having lunch with a friend a couple of weeks ago. He’s in sales and he’s great at his job and doing well with the company he’s with. But when I asked him about his life, he said he’s been considering moving on because, “things are a little weird with the company right now.”
It turns out they recently lost a sales manager that the team loved and the company was looking outside to bring in someone new. Actually, they were looking outside for the second time because the first person they brought in didn’t stick around too long. “He just came in like he knew everything and started shaking up the way we do things, but we know the market and products way better than he did, so he got no buy in and it didn’t work.”

Hearing my friend didn’t really want to look for a new opportunity but also wanted to be on a cohesive, happy team with a supportive manager, we kept talking and exploring what he could do to make the environment better. At some point he said something really instructive that made it crystal clear to me that he and his team were – without even realizing it – completely undermining that possibility.

“I’m willing to keep an open mind and be receptive,” he said, “but at the same time, you’ve got to prove yourself.” Right there I could see that, when they brought the next person in, he and his team were in line for more of the similar, if not more of the same.

A person’s words provide a window into their view of the world, and a person’s view of the world shape their attitudes, actions, and ways of being. Often, in work teams, these points of view aren’t personal. People talk about how the world “is” and reinforce each other’s ways of looking at things.

What we forget is that, when we see the world, we aren’t looking at the world as it is. “Seeing the world” is actually something that our bodies and brains do and, in doing it, provide a distorted reflection of reality that, to us, looks like crystal clear realities. Said another way, we’re so used to our own view of the world that we forget it is, in fact, just a view. It isn’t so much a reflection of reality as it is a projection onto it.

What I imagined when I heard him say, “prove it,” is a room full of distrustful sales-people, arms crossed, just waiting for the new leader to make a mistake. In other words, a whole group of people with the “beingness” of “prove it.” In the face of that group, it isn’t weird that a new leader would act a little weird. It isn’t weird they wouldn’t last long. For them, they’re operating in a dangerous environment, and those kinds of environments tend to bring out the worst in people. And then, we complain about dealing with the worst people.

But there are ways to empower your leaders such that they empower you. If you think about it, any interactions is like two mirrors facing each other. One person is reflected in the other, back to the other, and back again infinitely. The key to being powerful – in that everyone is empowered (i.e., don’t collapse power with dominance) – is to be and act in ways that give the other power such that they reflect it back.

It isn’t hard. I’m going to give you the keys I gave him. Here are 7 steps to distinguish your disempowering ways of being so you can adopt new ones and then actually call your shot on the kind of environment that you want. Be warned, going through these steps is going to be a little uncomfortable and you’ll probably resist some of them by thinking, “I don’t really do that.” As you go through them do two things. One, consider that you do. Two, give yourself a little space to be human. We all do this stuff. Because you do too doesn’t make you a bad person. It just makes you a person. Welcome to the club.

  1. Notice what you and others are saying. “I hope this one’s not like the last one…” “The boss is always doing…” or “This place is so…” Consider that whatever you’re saying it backs up a larger view, then boil it down to one statement. If it’s really disempowering, it’s probably something along the lines of they’re clueless/incompetent/stubborn/stupid. Don’t sugarcoat it. Trust me, it ain’t pretty; it won’t be useful to you to pretend that it is.

  3. Consider that statement is a rule that mobilizes you for action. Just like a green-light mobilizes you to press the accelerator and drive, the statement you came up with is a signal that gives you actions. What are the actions? Do you tune out in meetings? Do you argue? Do you act agreeable with no real intention of following through? Do you complain to your co-workers? Get interested in that and look at the ways you behave.

  5. Now, put yourself on the other side and see what it’s like to be on the other side of you and your group of conspirators. Don’t fall into the trap of “I would totally understand because I’m right to feel this way…” That’s you being a cracked mirror and blaming the other mirror for reflecting a crack at you. And, no matter how justified you are, your justification is part of what’s holding things in place. Your behavior affects theirs as much as theirs affects yours. You can grow a lot of long-gray hairs in a miserable situation waiting for someone else to change before you alter your behavior.

  7. Look again. What must it be like for them? How would you act if you were faced with a bunch of crossed-arm skeptics with “prove-it-to-me” looks on their faces? If you think still think you’d be the better person, then train someone to act like you and your colleagues and have them do it toward you while you try to be a leader. You’ll really get the experience.
  8. Get grossed out by what you’re doing to the other person. Then forgive yourself. Remember, you’re just doing what people do. If the creator wanted you to do something different, he/she/they/it would have made you something else.

  10. Now look at what you’re really committed to and how you want things to be. What would you be doing then? What would be the experience?

  12. Now, create a conversation that interrupts that. It should look something like A) I noticed that we look at the world like (fill in what you discovered in step 1)… B) Then we all act like y (and fill in step 2’s discoveries) and have the experience of (more step 2)… C) What I’m really interested in is a workplace where we have the experience of (step 6) and act (more step 6).

For my friend, I coached him to have two conversations.

First, with his coworkers. “I noticed we’ve got this really skeptical attitude about anyone they hire and whoever they bring in here is already behind the 8 ball with us before they walk in the door. Then we sit here like, “Ok, buddy… prove yourself.” Then it’s not any fun for us or them, probably, and we keep getting managers who act like they have something to prove. I’m interested in a supportive environment where everyone’s got everyone else’s back. Let’s see what we can do what it takes to have our new manager win so that we can all win.”

Then, with the new manager. “I don’t know what it must be like coming into a new place with an established team that has a lot more experience with the product line and market than you do. And I know there’s a tendency with teams like that to treat new managers skeptically and make it hard on them. What I want you to know is that our team totally has your back, we know there are going to be things for you to learn and we’re going to support you while you learn them and make it our job to have you win at yours. You can count on us to empower you in empowering us.”

I’ll leave off in this: look at the above conversations. If the people accountable to you were having those kinds of conversations with you, what would it mean to your leadership? Then, ask yourself, am I (and am I willing to) have those kinds of conversations with my leaders? If you’re not having them and you are willing, great! Get to it. If you find you’re not willing, well, you better be willing to deal with the leaders you have.