Monday, June 2, 2008

Be Careful What You Ask For

Years ago, decades actually, I was very interested in empowerment and was doing a great deal of research on the subject. During my research I came across a very interesting article on an empowerment program that had been instituted in an inner city housing complex.
Someone or a committee in a government agency had determined that it would be a good idea to encourage and empower the people living there to take more responsibility for the complex and make more of the decisions. This worked very well for a while until the people living in the complex started making decisions that the agency did not agree with and started advocating for things that did not “fit” the agenda of the agency. The whole program came tumbling apart. In a short time, the people living there were feeling more helpless and hopeless, less empowered and more disenfranchised than ever.
There are a few lessons from this experience.
1. As I have mentioned many times in the past, be clear about the level of authority and limit of choices when you are trying to empower or build consensus. If you are trying to build full collaboration there should be few if any limits imposed by you. There are always limits, but you may not know all the options or have all the information. Solutions may arise that you would have never dreamt of on your own.
2. Expect the unexpected. If you go into this with the idea that you know what the other individual or group will want, then you may be hit with a big surprise. Do not have the idea that because it is “this” individual or group, they will have a particular agenda or concerns. Be open to what they will have to share, their concerns and issues. Listen and avoid prejudgments. Perhaps if you understood them as well as you think you do, there wouldn’t be any void or a need for a special program, committee or meeting.
3. Be careful what you ask for. If you want someone to speak up, be prepared that they just might do that and even say something that you are uncomfortable with. If you ask someone to take more responsibility, they may take actions they believe are in their own best interests but out of your control.

Independence, empowerment and free-agency can be funny things. You may lose some control over someone else, while they may be strengthened, become more self-efficacious, independent, productive, and a greater contributor to the world around them. You may even find that as a collaborator with this other group or individual your own capacity has actually increased, like theirs, rather than having been diminished. Additional information about self-efficacy can be found at Emory University.
My experience has often been that those who need to control the lives of others, have little control over their own. If empowerment of others is uncomfortable for you, perhaps you need to look inward. Is part of the issue driven from your own fears? There is a great book well worth the reading, over and over again. I would recommend it to anyone whether you believe this to be a personal issue or not. The book is Love Is Letting Go Of Fear.

Remember that more real good can be accomplished from real collaboration. Yes, it can be a scary thing but well worth the effort if the goal is the benefit of all.


Sometimes, and unfortunately, after the very best efforts that you are able to muster at the time, you may have to walk away with hopes of a better dialogue another day.

1 comment:

jason f said...

i found this empowering.