Two different words: Support vs. Enable

Short post time…

I was listening to some seasonal ‘organisational comms’ when I noticed two words being used in a way that felt problematic – they were being used the wrong way around. I’ve come to view the two words as important1 so their usage ‘stood out’ and made me pause for thought.

The two words were ‘support’ and ‘enable’.

I reflected that these two words are sometimes used interchangeably, which caused me to:

  1. look up whether my thinking was ‘correct’ (as in the dictionary definition); and
  2. ask myself why I think it matters

Here’s a quick write up:

1. What do they actually mean?

Using the wonders of the internet, and the various dictionaries on offer, we get the following definitions:

Support: “to give assistance, to help carry the weight of”

Enable: “to make it possible for

      • somebody to do something; or
      • something to happen or exist

by creating the necessary conditions”

When trying to nail down a definition in my head, I find it useful to also consider its opposites:

The opposites (antonyms) of support include oppose, contradict, and undermine

The opposites of enable include prevent and inhibit.

2. Why it matters!

Whilst both words seem related, there is a big difference between them.

‘Support’ is about being ‘part of the action’, helping in the moment: A ‘thing’ is happening, and this is either being supported to occur/endure/ succeed…or not.

‘Enable’ is about providing the conditions such that desirable ‘things’ can occur, (and hopefully) easily. Whether a specific ‘thing’ happens, and the who/how/where/when of it don’t need to be (and usually can’t be) known upfront. The point is ‘can it happen?’ and ‘is it more likely that it will?’

On the relationship between the words: I could be desperately trying to support someone to do something and yet be in an environment that is inhibiting or (worse) preventing us from succeeding. This is, sadly, a very real scenario for many people working within conventional service systems.

This shows why the concept of enabling is sooo important – without it we can devote HUGE efforts on attempted support and yet be constantly thwarted from achieving anything meaningful and sustained.

To reiterate a central point:

The structural ‘centres’ role is to enable value to be delivered ‘at the coal face’. This is VERY different from (attempting to) merely support.

Many (most) conventional ‘management systems’ think that their constant attempts at ‘support’ (via organisational restructures, detailed policies and business rules, activity reporting and quality inspection…) is helping. However, it regularly inhibits and prevents.

Senior Management need to oversee a shift from (attempted) support to enabling…which starts with them.


1. A few of my recent posts are based around the concepts of ‘autonomy support’ and ‘autonomy enabling’.

If you want to go further into this point then here’s a link to the first post in a series: Autonomy – Autonomy Support – Autonomy Enabling