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Does ‘Without Power’ Always Equal ‘Powerless’?

Balance between powerfulness and powerlessness. Chalkboard drawiDoes “Without Power” always equal “Powerless”?

Well…if you go by the standard definition of powerless then yes, that’s exactly what it means.

End of article. Thanks for reading.

But, does the concept of powerlessness reside more in a psychological sense as opposed to being grounded in reality?

And what are the outcomes of the “perception of power” over the need to be resilient and innovative in the absence of power?

The website posted an article on the subject where it refers to Power and Powerlessness

This article refers to ‘three identified types of power (that) include force, influence, and authority.’ It defines these different types of power and goes on to say, ‘Conceptualizations of power are also demonstrated in self-efficacy, as power may influence the extent to which an individual believes he or she is able to carry out a particular task or goal.’ The article continues by stating, 

‘Powerlessness refers to the expectancy that people’s behaviors cannot determine the outcomes or reinforcements that they seek. Powerlessness may further be explained as the lack of strength or the absence of power.’

What really struck me about this article was that powerlessness can be learned over time and be hard to overcome mentally. It refers to it as, 

A learned feeling or response that occurs when individuals are kept in powerless positions repeatedly and over long periods of time by others who are in positions of power.’


So, Where Am I Going With This?

Power and lack of power can come from many places. We’ve seen in organizations, especially some of the larger ones, a sense of what you might refer to as “power hoarding”. Power is in the control of a select few and often, even they don’t fully trust one another. But, they consider a transition to Agile ways of working and use words like “empowerment” of those who work for them.

But it’s hard. Really hard.

Why is it so hard to make that mental switch and what are the side effects of not doing it?

It’s hard because there has been a long-lived culture of “power” as defined by that organization. Not only has leadership been in positions of absolute power for a long time, but their people have been “kept powerless repeatedly and over long periods of time.”

We also want people to be transparent and open in an Agile environment. But, the article brings out that “persistent feelings of powerlessness can lead people to be afraid to open up about how they feel and their needs.” It can deteriorate to the point where some feel their powerlessness is actually their own fault.

This helps us to see the importance of creating a safe, and truly empowered environment while also having patience with those who need time to gain confidence in this new reality. It won’t happen overnight as it’s been a learned behavior. 


Trust Becomes Key

For many of us, it’s important to understand what we hold as a true lack of power. It’s taking a strong look at what we actually do have control over. Do we have a focused lack of power in a specific circumstance yet a wider opportunity for empowerment? Innovation is one of those areas. Often, we see some of the best inventions come from the fact we lack the power to change or influence something specific. But we are empowered to do something new and different.

This is a self-recognition that those with a learned behavior of powerlessness may hold at arm’s length. So, as leaders, could we be squashing innovation by creating a learned sense of powerlessness in our employees. As employees, could we be holding ourselves in a world of powerlessness without thinking through the areas we truly have influence and can change or even innovate?

Can power overconfidence create a sense of complacency? Perhaps. Some companies became the most effective and innovative when they suddenly had the least power over their fates. Markets tanked. Customers became more finicky. Pandemics struck.

So, what did they do?

They sought out where they have power. They adapted and innovated. Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “You can’t stop the wind (powerlessness) but you can adjust your sails (resiliency).”

Or maybe you’ve heard, “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass (powerlessness). It’s about learning to dance in the rain (resiliency).”

Ask yourself; how are you currently defining your own power? Are you truly “powerless”? Or do you lack power in one area only to have the ability, or empowerment, to change or influence other areas?


Don’t Limit Yourself

Reflect on whether you have a learned sense of powerlessness and the impact it’s having on your work, organization, and life now. You may find you have considerably more power than you think. Use that newfound empowerment to empower others, find new ways of overcoming, and the next thing you know…your actual power could change the world.