Stop Building Dependency And Start Building Competency

By W. Coby Milne

So, you are looking to better a situation?

There are many, many people out there who commit either their free time or career or both to help others. These are the altruistic people who are determined to make whatever situation they are passionate about better for all involved. I have seen these people throughout my career, from my days working with children with disabilities to my work in the non-profit sector, to my current work supporting senior and mid-level managers to improve their workplace. In fact, I am someone who is passionate about helping others create transformative change in their workplace and in their professional lives. Often one of the side effects of those who work in roles to make positive change and help others is creating dependency. In fact, there are lots of people who work in professional services who make bank on creating dependence. The sad reality is, for whatever reason, dependency is the norm. This is because we do things for people in the short term to support them, causing the habit of continuing to do things for them, creating dependence, and a never ending need to help them. This is where dependence starts to stack up and become never-ending, and sometimes quite costly. Which is often seen as the goal in the consulting world, but to me it is not how you actually help people or how you create sustainable change.

Teaching people to fish

It makes sense that supporting people means we do things for them. It is a direct line of cause and effect. Someone is in need of help, so we do something for him or her that will help, simple. The problem becomes when we are always doing things for people, and not with people. This takes me back to very early in my career when I was working with children with disabilities. I worked with a lot of well meaning people who would do things like typing up notes for students with weak fine motor skills, which seems like the nice and helpful thing to do. The student has trouble typing, so you type for them…simple. The problem with helping them in this fashion is that you are creating dependence. The proper thing, though it appears less nice, is to give the students a portion that they are responsible to do, and you take a portion that you are responsible for. Then over time, you adjust the potion to give them more and more, and hopefully one day all. This is about creating an independent competency. The goal is not to be nice and provide them a short-term pleasant experience, it is about being kind and providing them what they need to be successful in the long-term. In a similar path, in assisting organizations when there are employees, managers, and executives require support; the nice and helpful thing to do to take their problems and do the work that they require to be successful. Although, the kind thing, though it appears less nice, is to build resources that will give them the tools and supplies needed to support create competency. All of this is really just the practical application of the old adage: Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

If you take all of these words of wisdom, approaches, and advice and you boil everything down to its basic core, what you are talking about is empowerment. This is a term I use on a daily basis and have for many years. From education, to workforce development, to corporate training and coaching, everything is about truly empowering others. If you create the interventions and resources that people need to lift them up in their time of need, give and teach them to use the tools and supports that will improve their situation, share the workload with them so they are gradually taking on more responsibility, then you will watch them be successful on their own. It’s nothing fancy or complicated.

Empowerment is universal, but so is dependence

There are really very few situations where empowerment is not an ideal method to support others. It is the foundation of good education, human resources, community work, economic growth, and healthcare, just to name a few. However, we sometimes get caught up in the short-term solution and look to create temporary solutions that end up creating dependence. We see this all of the time when we unintentionally sacrifice what is right for what is easy. This can look as simple and common as not properly training our pets to greet people at the door when they are young and then we need to isolate them or pick them up when we have company arrive. This can also be as large and complicated as when a community becomes dependant on a single industry or large business. If the majority of their employment opportunities are tied to a single employer, without diversifying, the community ends up in a critical situation if that employer were to shut its doors. Large or small, inconsequential or critical, it doesn’t matter, creating dependence is nothing short of setting yourself up to fail.

Whether you are a manager, consultant, educator, or coach you need to make your top priority building the skills of those you are responsible for to the point that they can be successful without you.

The Key to Empowerment: Sustainability

What you are doing when you look at empowering others is you are playing the long game to a sustainable solution. Your efforts are geared toward not only the short-term need, but the long-term benefit of your efforts being an intervention, not creating a permanent and ongoing job or role that will always need to be filled. This is why in my career I have always defaulted to the majority of my efforts being in resource development. Spend the time, effort, and money to create something that will be able to wean someone’s dependence off you, and that can be used over and over by others who require the same support. This is why in my student support role I would create guides and games to strengthen things like typing skills in my students. In workforce development, I would design progressive skill development resources that would strengthen communication and collaboration strategies. In organizational coaching and training, we have resources like our Knowledge Suite and on-demand training to help managers build their skills on their own schedule. Creating sustainable interventions is critical to building up and empowering those you serve.

The Takeaway

Whether you are a manager, consultant, educator, or coach you need to make your top priority building the skills of those you are responsible for to the point that they can be successful without you. Sure, it is easier (or more profitable) in the short-term to just do the work for them. However, the short term is not where your focus should be. It is critical to look at help and support from a long-term, sustainable approach. Just like in parenting, we need to do what is right, not what is easy, and be focused on what is the best thing for the future. Doing this will truly help by providing support and encouragement while they become empowered to do more and more things for themselves. The real payoff in helping and supporting others is to watch them succeed on their own with the skills you helped them develop.

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