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I have been doing some studying and teaching lately on the topic of empowerment.  Over the past several decades, much has been written about the importance of empowering employees in the workplace.  Empowerment relates to the power or control that an employee has to make decisions and to influence the outcome in his or her area of responsibility.

Many organizations have adopted various forms of empowerment initiatives aimed at giving workers more control over their work.  Companies engage in shared decision-making by pushing levels of authority down the chain of command.  Leadership development programs train and equip workers to take on increased levels of responsibility.  Organizations have opened lines of communication so that information flows more freely, not only from the bottom up, but more importantly from the top down.  These socio-structural conditions within organizations provide a framework and structure for how employees are expected to perform, problem-solve, and achieve goals.

While the socio-structural aspects of empowerment are important, there is another aspect of empowerment that is even more important: self-empowerment.

Actually, the only real empowerment is self-empowerment.  Implementing corporate policies, training, structures, and incentives aimed at empowering workers is akin to leading a horse to water.  As the saying goes, you can’t make him drink.  We make the choices, take the initiative, and make the moves to act.  Self-empowerment starts from within, with our mindset.  Self-empowerment often requires overcoming whatever organizational and personal forces zap our sense of empowerment.  It often takes resisting the convenient urge to disempower ourselves.

We often disempower ourselves through our words.  Do any of these words or phrases sounds familiar?

  • “I’ve done all I can do.”
  • “That’s not my job.”
  • “There was an unexpected change in priority.”
  • “I thought I would be able to complete it on time.”
  • “My manager is not supportive of my idea.”

We tell ourselves all the time about what we are unable to do or why we are unable to accomplish a task or goal as intended or expected.  We often hear these and similar phrases used as reasons why a project, task, assignment, or initiative cannot be completed.  These phrases give us an out.  They may all be true and valid reasons why things are as they are; however, when we place a period at the end of the phrase, the sentence comes off sounding like an excuse.

In her book, The 85% Solution, Linda Gallindo talks about how we can learn to empower ourselves to act with the addition of a simple word to our vocabulary:  “and.”  Replace the period at the end of the disempowerint phrase with the word “and” and complete the sentence with what you are going to do next.  That is the power of “and.”  That is the essence of self-empowerment.

  • “I’ve done all I can do and I am going to research the project further to see if there are other options.”
  • “That’s not my job and I’ll meet with John in the IT Department to solicit his help with this task.
  • “There was an unexpected change in priority and I’ll re-prioritize my assignments and renegotiate the deadlines with my manager.”

Now it’s your turn. How would you complete these phrases?

  • “I thought I would be able to complete it on time, and _____________________.”
  • “My manager is not supportive of my idea, and ___________________________.”

Self-empowerment is not to be confused with authority.  A reason we sometimes give for not acting is that we lack the authority to act.  As Ms. Gallindo points out, if you lack the authority to take an action, you are still empowered to seek the authority or to request assistance from the person who has the authority. “I don’t have the authority to contact the customer directly, and I will ask the Director of Customer Relations to do that for me.”

With our choice of words, we unwittingly give over our power and our freedom to choose.  Self-empowerment requires altering our mindset about the degree of control and influence we think we have over our environment.  As Henry Ford said, “whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you are right.”

The next time you find yourself using a disempowering phrase, catch yourself and embrace the power of “and.”