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Coaching to empowerment: How to promote personal responsibility

When leaders fix problems, they unintentionally teach employees to adopt a victim mentality.

4 min read


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I have worked with leaders who tell me they work 70 hours a week because they are putting out fires all day long.

When leaders fix problems, they unintentionally teach employees to adopt a victim mentality. Instead of taking initiative, the employee runs to the leader complaining and expecting the leader to take action. Coaching (versus fixing) is a better method of promoting a culture of personal responsibility and improving productivity. Here are the simple steps to coach employees to empowerment.


When you don’t see the logic, it’s tempting to try to intervene by fixing or challenging. You have to take a counterintuitive approach and listen. Simply take a pause and hear the other person out. Take a deep breath, and silently count to three. Do not multi-task. Do not interrupt. Do not nod in disagreement. Simply hold space and let the other person finish.


Acknowledge the other person’s reality. Acknowledgement does not equal agreement. Example: “I hear you, Stephanie. It sounds like you are overwhelmed.” Stephanie will either agree or correct you. Once you acknowledge the emotion they usually begin to calm down.  

Focus the energy

Next, you are going to help Stephanie focus her energy by asking the question, “What do you want?” There are thousands of ways to ask the question. For example, “What is your intended result?” or “What is your objective?” Use your own authentic style to guide Stephanie to articulate her end result.

Don’t take the bait

Once you ask, “What do you want?” prepare to be distracted. This is where Stephanie is likely to break into a story about why things aren’t fair, and why you don’t understand, as she reminds you of her seniority or tenure.  Do not — I repeat, do not — take the bait. It wastes time and encourages more emotional storytelling. If Stephanie says something like, “I just want Jada to move away,” don’t react to their frustration or sarcasm. Instead, get curious.

Get curious

The question to use here is, “What would that give you that you don’t have now?” Using curiosity effectively creates a pattern interrupt, and helps you get to the root of what Stephanie really wants: “I would be able to apply for Jada’s position.”  


Your goal is to get Stephanie, or Steve, or whomever is complaining, to actually take responsibility for stating what they want. In the example above, Stephanie wants to be a manager. (She doesn’t really want Jada to move.) In short, until a person claims what they really want, they will continue to complain.

Ask the empowerment question

The next question is, “What are your choices?” In this example, our fictional character Stephanie says, “I could get an advanced degree so that I can apply to be a manager.” When you help your employee find their choices, you help them find their power.

Seek willingness

The final step in the coaching to empowerment method is to see if there are any roadblocks or resistance. You are attempting to see if Stephanie is willing to do what it takes to get what she wants. The question is, “Are you willing to get your advanced degree?” Stephanie’s answer helps you to know if she is willing to do what is required.


People complain for two reasons: They want something and don’t know what it is, or they know what they want, but don’t know how to get what they want. Now that you know why people complain, you can help someone who has gotten lost in the complaint forest to get some direction. 


Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker and the author of “Stop Workplace Drama” (Wiley 2011) and “No-Drama Leadership” (Bibliomotion 2015). Visit her at and Connect on Linked InFacebook and Twitter.

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