Command or Empower? The subtle, fundamental difference.

Hierarchies have been part of our lives for ages and will not go away anytime soon. All of us have most likely experienced both sides of the spectrum several times in our lives: sometimes you are the one in charge, other times it is someone else. Sometimes you are the one giving orders or commanding, other times you are the one who must follow orders or who is taking commands. In either situation, the way you feel is not determined by the “what” – the task at hand –, but much more by the “how” – the way this given task is assigned. So, ask yourself, when it is your turn to take charge, do you command or do you empower?

Hierarchies and Power

Hierarchies come in all shapes and forms. They exist at the workplace with your boss or your employees, at home with your parents or your kids, amongst your friends, your partner and even people you randomly meet day in and day out. Hierarchies are not always clearly defined by an organizational chart or contracts. Often we take up certain roles within society, without even realizing it. On a side-note… we all have the tendency to fill the role which corresponds exactly to the way in which we see ourselves.

Whenever you find yourself in a position of power, you have certain choices to make. It is certainly important that you set yourself and your team up in the best possible way; a way that will yield the highest possibility of success in your endeavor. You may frequently find yourself in such a situation at work, but also at home, in a sports team or any other organization or group of people. So, how do you make sure people do what they are supposed to do (or rather what you want them to do) without being dictatorial?

Ask yourself, do people follow you because they are excited, motivated and feel important, or do as you say because they are afraid of the consequences and scared to incur some sort of harm if they don’t? Well, I sure hope it is not the latter! But before dismissing this tyrannical scenario entirely, let’s analyze our situation and ask ourselves if there might be some signs or indications – small as they may be – of this phenomenon.

I ask myself this question continually and although in most cases I can happily dismiss this argument, I still catch myself – on rare occasions – edging into situations that mirror scenario number two. People do not and will not always share your dreams or your crazy ideas; and they don’t have to! Still, you must be able to lead and convince people if you want to be successful in life. This has nothing to do with being a CEO or manager of a company or a similar position of power. Everyone needs these skills to lead a successful and fulfilled life. This is the only way to really get what you want. 

The key to attaining relational success lies in the decision to drop our superior position of power and resist to giving commands.


Why intention matters

The fine but crucial difference between commanding and empowering lies in your intention and implementation. When you tell someone to do something, do you simply want them “to do it”, or do you want them “to want to do it”? In the first case, you only care about the result and not about how this result is attained. There may be situations where this method is efficient, even desirable, but if you truly care about other people and want to build lasting relationships independent of hierarchy, take the second approach instead. If you tell someone to do something in a way that makes them want to do it, you will solve four problems at once.

  1. You don’t have to worry about motivating them any longer – for they will want to do it themselves.
  2. The likelihood of obtaining higher effort, quality and more than just “the bare minimum necessary” are significantly increased.
  3. You will not be a cold-hearted dictator, but quite to the contrary a trusted and welcomed advisor. You will reap thankfulness instead of resentment.
  4. The other person will feel empowered and honored to be able to assist you, rather than powerless and obligated; and will likely assist you again in the future without hesitation.
 Whenever we command, we take away choice.

The key to attaining this interpersonal success lies in the decision to drop our position of power and resist the temptation to simply giving commands (though this may seem like the easier way). When I command, I take away choice and I relieve myself of any responsibility. Instead, meet your interlocutor on their same level – step down from the throne, if necessary – and empower them to the task at hand. This approach may need more effort and understanding, but shows that you truly care; and in the long run it will pay out manifold. To empower someone, we must show genuine interest and listen attentively. Also, when I empower, I let a person keep their free will, allowing for creative action, and I show that I am willing to take responsibility or lend a hand when needed.

He who commands will earn obedience. He who empowers will earn collaboration.

Do this actively and consciously! People around you will feel valued and part your decisions. This way you can pleasantly steer them, without having to use brute force. And soon, you will not only see how people will start to feel good around you, but especially how fulfilling and gratifying you will feel yourself!