Empowerment: Part 1 – The Individual. Can we learn empowerment?

When you think of empowerment, your first thought is probably a person – either you empower or who empowers you. However, empowerment is not just about people, it is dependent on individuals, environment and culture. And within each of these categories, empowerment is about how we respond.

Anna Carolina Queiroz, Associate Professor & Postdoctoral Researcher at Stanford University, was one of my guests at a recent empowerment roundtable. She succinctly described the difficulty of simplifying empowerment: “It’s not just the individual or the environment, it’s both together. It’s a very complex concept because one reinforces the other.”

Relationships are also complex, as individuals can either give (empower) or receive (empower). Effective empowerment is similar to effective mentoring. Both require a give and take on both sides.

Giving, taking and feedback

During the round table discussion, a number of key words and phrases were raised about what empowerment conveys to different people. Even on a personal level, the points raised conveyed both the giving and receiving nature of the empowerment:

  • Purposefulness (receiving) vs. service to others (giving)
  • Inner responsibility (receiving) vs. trust (giving)
  • Freedom (receiving) vs. Energy (giving)

Claudia Zuluaga, founder of The Future is 50/50, emphasizes the need to both give and receive. “You have to radiate positive energy for that [those being empowered] are able to sense a goal,” argues Zuluaga. But the sense of purpose can be destroyed very quickly when people are not able to learn from their mistakes, as Zuluaga points out: “To get better you have to make mistakes. You have to realize what you did wrong. However, there are many managers today, especially in traditional corporations, who do not allow mistakes and are quick to criticize.”

Anna Queiroz confirms this point, stating that “we need to know where we are failing. Failure is one of the most important parts of learning because you understand what to stop doing, what to focus your attention on, and so on. The environment in many companies, perhaps because of this labor shortage, is to constantly praise everyone and say they are doing a great job rather than giving constructive feedback.”

The need to avoid disempowerment during feedback was highlighted by Sandra Molies, Time to Think Coach. “It’s important to see the difference between performance failure and personal failure,” Molies argues, “there’s a difference between not doing something right and feeling like a failure. Inadvertent feedback when addressing a mistake or failure at work can lead to shame and great disempowerment.”

The Drama Triangle and the Empowerment Dynamic

Feedback is often given by someone in a higher position when an issue is raised. In reality, however, it is seldom that a problem lies solely with the feedback receiver – as Stephen Karpman illustrates.

In the 1960s, Karpman sketched The Drama Triangle. He describes three actors – the victim, the pursuer and the rescuer. Many employment relationships create a victim (employee), a pursuer (manager), and a rescuer (colleague). However, these positions are rarely static – the victim can become the pursuer and vice versa as each responds to the other. In fact, it can sometimes prove difficult to assess who is the victim and who is the pursuer. But the hidden figure of disempowerment is the savior. By coming to the rescue, the rescuer disempowers the victim as he does not allow the victim to find their own solution.

In his book, The Power of TED (The Empowerment Dynamic), David Emerald presents the opposite dynamic to Karpman’s drama triangle, encouraging individuals to replace the victim with the creator, the pursuer with the challenger, and the rescuer with the trainer .

It is easy to imagine the persecutor as a physical person, but more often than not the perceived persecutor is not a person but rather the circumstances, environment or culture surrounding the victim. The context (or circumstances) shape the environment, which in turn affects the individual. Catherine Gannon, managing director of the law firm Gannons, argues that “the empowerment of a boss will be, for example, having the tools you might need to manage cash flow. Empowerment for someone who feels subjugated will be a voice. Empowerment for a prisoner means ‘get me out of this prison’.”

How individuals respond to context is determined by both nature and upbringing. But are some people naturally more confident than others?

Self Empowered Brains

In a study of self-affirmation (the recognition of one’s worth), Christopher Coscio and others, through the use of an MRI scanner, showed increased activity in the self-processing and evaluation parts of the brains of participants who demonstrated higher levels of self-affirmation. While this study doesn’t examine why some people have higher levels of self-affirmation in the first place, it does show that self-affirmation, and with it the ability to feel empowered, is at least partly neurological.

Why do some people have a higher level of self-affirmation? Of course, there’s no simple explanation for this, but Annemarie Osborne, a senior marketing and content strategist, focuses on values. “What are my values? Beginning with integrity, gratitude, responsibility, empathy, kindness, forgiveness and patience – I think this is what truly creates personal empowerment and these values ​​cannot be taken away. In “The Search of Man for Meaning”, Viktor Frankl points out that those who are willing to look within can achieve more inner peace. This inner peace is not situational and cannot easily be hijacked by other people through deprivation of status and entitlement,” says Osborne.

Colette van Jaarsveld, founder of the sustainable design agency Arcology, combines this self-affirmation with self-efficacy (a person’s belief in their ability to be successful in a given situation). “Within empowerment there is a sense of importance, mastery and importance to others. So when you are on this very clear path, you have freedom and an inner responsibility that you are doing something meaningful,” says van Jaarsveld.

Albert Bandura, the Canadian-American psychologist, also addresses what makes some people inherently stronger than others in an article on perceived self-efficacy. He talks about the major psychological processes that influence our self-efficacy (cognitive, motivational, affective and selection processes). As individuals, we prioritize each of these processes differently, leading to the problem of trying to provide a one-size-fits-all empowerment solution. Because we are all wired differently, we all react differently to actions that aim to empower us but can instead cause stress. As CEO, I’ve been guilty of this, intentionally refraining from providing direction to empower, but not providing enough guidance to colleagues to know how to move forward.

How we react to various external and internal influences is also related to how we strengthen ourselves. Roundtable participants were split between the belief that self-empowerment is maximized when there is little choice but to pull yourself up from the bottom, and that you need a safety net to build on. These two points of view became particularly relevant when empowerment was discussed in the context of cultures (which will be discussed in a later article on empowerment).

What is empowerment?

In this article, I have purposely avoided trying to answer, “What is empowerment?” primarily because it depends so much on the psychology of each of us and how we respond to other factors that contribute to empowerment (including, but certainly not limited to, confidence, initiative, past experiences and more). But can we foster a sense of empowerment in children that they can carry into their adult lives?

Anna Queiroz from her educational research provided useful insights into this question:

“We have some parts of our behavior that are ingrained in ourselves and that are reinforced by the environment – ​​these are very difficult to change. But there are other behaviors, too, like taking risks. If you are in an environment that encourages you and gives you confidence to take risks, then over time you will reinforce this behavior. So when we talk about education we need some kind of structure so that the children can respect some rules but we also give them the flexibility to choose different initiatives. Some schools have started doing this in recent years.”

As individuals we work, study or play in a particular environment, so focusing on the individual alone will always result in limited empowerment. Part two of this series will therefore focus on empowerment and the environment.

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