The Truth About Empowerment
By Belinda Clemmensen
Empowerment. We throw this word around a lot and it’s used in many organizations all over the world – we should empower our people - but what does empowerment really mean? Well, we can’t talk about empowerment without talking about power.
As much as we use the word empowerment, I don’t hear a lot of conversations about power in our world. Who has it, how it gets used and even how we interpret power. It’s one of those subjects, like religion or money, that we’ve been trained to avoid. We’ve all felt power dynamics, often damaging ones, but we just don’t talk about it.
Thought leaders like Janet O. Hagberg and Elizabeth Lesser have created very useful frameworks to describe power in organizations and communities. In her recent book Cassandra Speaks, When Women are the Storytellers the Human Story Changes, Lesser clearly lays out the thinking about power that most of us are familiar with; power over, competitive, individualistic, dominant, values fortitude and withholds praise or encouragement. This version of power permeates every facet of our society from how we raise children to how we structure organizations. Think for a moment about how that might be true in your own definition of power, or what you’ve experienced. I know this is the story I’ve been told.
How do you empower from this place? What I often hear from leaders is that those with the power (typically those highest in the hierarchy) should empower others, by somehow giving them some of that power. The implication is that some people only get to have power when someone else chooses to share it. This is that old definition of empowerment as authority or power given to someone to do something.
But does this have to be the story we go forward with? Lesser also articulates a clear alternative. What if new power could be all about partnership, collaboration, relationship, empathy, inclusion and listening? As a coach this definition of power feels more congruent with what I’ve seen happen when we change to a more side-by-side leadership approach. Just reading her words I can imagine how our experiences, organizations and communities would be different, how this kind of power could bring people together to solve some of our most complex and challenging problems as a society. This approach could be truly empowering for us all – shifting the definition of empowerment to the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one's life and claiming one's rights.
How did we get to a place where the ideas of new power that Lesser writes about are such a radical departure from how most of our organizations are structured? That’s where Janet O. Hagberg’s Real Power, Stages of Personal Power in Organizations comes in. In a (patriarchal) society like ours we have over-valued power by achievement and status. Achievement in and of itself can be a great thing. But if we structure our systems of valuing people by achievement and status, we’ve got big problem. You’ve seen this at play – how do people get hired / promoted? By what they’ve achieved – their degree, their results, etc. How do our children get access to higher education? By the grades they’ve achieved. By the economic status of being able to afford it. We justify this as “meritocracy” – those who are good at things naturally rise to the top. Now that we understand intersectionality and the deep-rooted inequities inherent in all our systems and structures, this myth of meritocracy is starting to unravel. It was never true. It just reinforced the same power structures and those who held them.
How do we shift to the new power and empowerment? We need to get really honest about power in our world. Educate ourselves by reading and listening to thought leaders like Lesser and Hagberg for sure, but also take a real look at how power shows up in your life. Question the assumptions that this is just the way things are, that it’s somehow natural. Being familiar or pervasive doesn’t make something inevitable. It just means we have a hard time seeing and questioning it. That has to change. We need to start talking about it. When someone says empowerment, we need to ask what that means. What power is being shared? How? Why?
We need to be aware of how power plays out in our one-on-one interactions. As a coach I am mindful of how being the one asking the questions can put me in a power position, that old familiar teacher-student or leader-learner dynamic. I am intentional that the coachee takes the lead in our conversations and I am side-by-side with them, a fellow human on a parallel journey. Not an expert, wiser and knowing, not detached, but together, collaborative.
So, if we really want to EMPOWER our teams, we need to shift our definition of empowerment from authority or power given, to the process of becoming stronger and more confident in controlling one's life and claiming one's rights. From that place my role as coach is simply to ask questions because only they have the power to bring their vision to life. Coaches believe that the coachee knows what is best for them and getting clear on that will ultimately lead to aligned choices. This is new power, and with it, empowerment will happen.
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