Into the 1900s, there were two deaf communities in Massachusetts.
One had graduation rates lower than the hearing students. This district was rich with deaf social services, aids and other forms of support.
The other deaf community had graduation rates on par with able-bodied students. What’s most surprising - the community didn’t have services. Instead, all community members learned an old form of sign language, and treated the deaf students as equals.
Here lies the paradox:
attempts to support can disempower
The social services - while well intended - can define your identity by your deficiency. They can create a sense of dependency. Framed poorly, their focus on “fixing you” or “solving your problems” can shadow the capacities you can cultivate.
We can face a similar challenge in the work place. Bosses strive to help employees thrive. But often, employees leave meetings with feeling disempowered.
As a leader, the language we use should inspire employees to feel confidant in themselves. Our language should recognize their gifts and talents. It must create agency rather than dependency. We have to treat people has equals.
Thankfully, a few careful shifts in phrasing can achieve exactly that:
4 Empowering Phrases
Phrase 1: “Could I share some thoughts?”
Before sharing your thoughts, ask your collaborator for permission to share. Asking for permission may sound silly. But it gives them power: have the option to say no.
This question is especially important when discussing personal or emotional situations. Issues of burnout, employee conflicts, projects going poorly are sensitive topics. Your managee may just want to air a concern or vent. Let them. They don’t want to hear your steamrolling perspective.
Asking for permission has benefits outside of sensitive topics. Your managee is more bought in to listening after responding “yes”. The question also subtly shifts the tone to a two-way dialogue rather than the manager delivering authoritative claims.
Instead, give them a choice.
Phrase 2: “Consider/Recommend/Suggest”
Communication has multiple parts: what you say, and what is implied subtly.
Asking them to “consider” something implies that you trust their thinking. You simply are providing a new perspective to digest. You have faith they will reach the best conclusion on their own. Over time, this dynamic can subtly build their confidence.
Saying “I recommend we …” or “I suggest …” is a bit more opinionated than asking for consideration. Here, you might explicitly share what you believe is the best course of action.
All these phrases put the ball in their court rather than shoving your thinking forward. Saying “do this” “that’s wrong” or sharing flat out opinions can subtly imposes your superior knowledge onto them. You are creating dependency.
I recommend that you (see what I did there!) use “we” while making suggestions rather than “you”. It implies that you are a thought ally.
Phase 3: “Delegate to me”
This phrase reinforces their power to loop you in to do work on their behalf. The delegation could be actual work or giving feedback. This statement may be a shock to younger employees used to top-down management structures.
If the colleague is super new to delegation, this five point framework is super useful.
Phrase 4: “I’ll support whatever option you decide”
Managers have power. They can delegate, raise salary, fire employees. Managers must work against these typical power dynamics to build employee agency.
Phrase 1 gives employees a power piggy bank
Phrase 2 and 3 puts in a dollar
Phrase 4 sends them out with more bills
The phrase “I’ll support whatever you decide” closes the conversation with the ultimate delegation of power. It reminds them of their agency. It emphasizes that you got their back.
Important things must be repeated
The road to building agency is long. Employees need multiple positive experiences and reinforcements before fully stepping into their power. Each Phrase 4 statement is a vote of confidence. You are dropping another dollar in their agency bank.
If you don’t trust what they were hired to do, then maybe they aren’t a good fit for this role.
Back to Massachusetts…
Our fast paced work culture tempts us to fix things quickly. We may feel impatient with teammates. We might solve their problems instead of letting them figure things out on their own.
The thriving deaf community in Massachusetts got it right. They didn’t solve the challenge with a quick fix. Instead, they had the patience to learn sign language and integrate. In doing so, the whole community could fully utilize their the talents, gifts and influence.
The road to developing a team takes patience.
The language of creating agency may feel foreign. But fluency is the ultimate way to a happy and empowered team.