Empower Yourself: The Empowerment Myth

If ever there were a time for empowerment, this would be it. It sure seems like events are conspiring to dis-empower us as we transition through these still rocky economic times.

However, have you had the somewhat scary experience of bumping into someone who wants to empower you? That’s a pretty interesting notion, I must admit. On the one hand, I have been in the business of empowerment for thirty plus years; on the other, empowerment is generally a myth and doesn’t work.

Or at least, no one else is going to empower you. Not me, not your boss, not your husband or wife, not your church, not anyone. Well, maybe one person can. That one would be you.

I frequently hear the term “Empowerment” being used in corporate settings where some person or group wants to talk about “empowering” people. For the most part, lots of people think highly of this notion and jump on the empowerment bandwagon.

For my part, I would welcome larger numbers of empowered people in just about any aspect of life. That is, I would welcome the empowered if that meant people taking responsibility for improving what they can about their life circumstances, and leaving behind the notion that blaming someone else is the correct route.

Including right now. Including these trying economic times. Including those of us who have lost jobs.

For most of us, the word responsibility conjures up images of blame or fault. There’s plenty of that being hurled around these days, and perhaps deservedly so. However, you can blame until the cows come home and nothing will change as a result, no matter how articulate you are in the blame game.

There is however, a much more empowering definition of responsibility. Fritz Perls, in his super little book, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, redefined responsibility by spelling it slightly differently: response ability.

With this change in spelling, the word takes on a whole new meaning; it becomes less about blame and fault and more about having the ability to respond. If we could have more (self) empowered people exercising their ability to respond, I suspect we could cure a whole lot of what ails us in this world.

I think I understand the good intentions of those who would “empower” me. It usually has to do with allowing or encouraging decisions to be made at lower levels of an organization. In other words, someone is encouraging me to exercise greater ability to respond in the everyday activity of my job.

To the extent that decisions get made closer to the level where the work actually takes place, this kind of empowerment could be a really great thing.

If your employer wants to “empower” you to make customer service decisions, that’s probably a good thing – assuming you have the requisite authority to go with the decisions that are being handed over to you. And if they stand behind you in true support, then it’s getting better.

However, I’m not so sure that most empowerment efforts are sufficiently thought through. Let’s take a closer look at empowerment as it applies individually and in terms of what it suggests about capability or the lack thereof.

If you were not previously empowered, then what were you? Disempowered seems like the logical opposite. And, if you are disempowered, then perhaps you are viewed as someone who is weak or ineffective. If you accept the notion that someone else can empower you, then you may even believe that you are weak, ineffective and powerless.

In the work I have done with individuals and organizations, I have encountered hosts of people who see something that could be done to improve the current situation and yet avoid taking response-ability for making the improvement. I imagine that it is this context that the well intentioned manager, trainer or friend seeks to empower someone else.

In today’s current and ongoing economic challenges, I see all kinds of people volunteering to be self disempowered, and quite a few examples of people who are choosing the self empowered route instead.

Self empowerment only requires that you embrace the notion that you can do something about your current situation, something other than sitting around hoping that things get better. It also requires that you stop blaming the circumstances and get on with doing what you can to improve what you can.

There are any number of examples out there of people taking the initiative to do what they can to make a difference. Recently, I received a note about two women who lost their livelihoods in the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

Once they got over the shock, they decided that there was opportunity in the midst of their dilemma and chose to be response-able. These two self-empowered women opened a small business targeting other small businesses. Their focus: helping small business owners create high quality web sites and web marketing programs to help grow their businesses.

It’s too early to tell whether or not they will have a small, medium or large size success. However, it is already clear that success will be theirs. Why? Because they chose the self-empowerment route. How? By acknowledging their ability to respond, and moving on what they could.

And what happens if this enterprise encounters additional challenges and unforeseen twists and turns? I’m betting that they will find another opportunity and will choose the response-able option once again.

After all, we come across forks in the road every day. If you have a sense of where you are heading and the willingness to respond, you don’t have to choose perfectly, you just have to choose. And choose again.

That’s response-able self empowerment.

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