Personal Empowerment in Difficult Times

Most people would be amazed at how much we can really do ourselves if we only take the opportunities in front of us. You don’t have to know all the answers, but if you keep asking the questions, you will get closer.

This is Ross Wirth speaking, Program Chair of Business Administration at Franklin University in Columbus, Ohio. I had a chance to speak with Ross last week. It got me thinking.

I started my career at The World Bank in 1989 as an IT trainer and by the time I concluded in 2002, I was creating institution-wide events and working closely with then-President Jim Wolfensohn. In my last six years, I played a significant role in two major change initiatives with global impact. Yet, many of my colleagues complained of being disempowered. In the same environment, why was it I moved from the bottom of the organization to the top, enjoying so much engagement and influence? Ross' comments offered some insight.

People expect others to lead them, they are willing followers and do not realize how much power they have to influence others. It is a matter of positional control vs personal power of influence. Traditional thought says that nothing happens without top management approval.

Change need not be something that is ‘done to you.’ You have a great deal more influence than you know. The choice is whether to use the positional power you have acquired and how you do so within the framework of the organization. Traditionally people think of empowerment as being delegated downward, but that is only one of two ways of thinking about empowerment.

Here is another way to think of it, empowerment is something you grasp until you find its limits. I tell people that they can constantly test the limits of their empowerment, carefully reading internal politics to see when they are pushing up against a boundary. This adds a lot more power to them in their situation because they are now taking personal control of their life vs being dependent upon others. Too many people think they are not empowered, but they have failed to actually test their limits.

Ross experienced this in his former role in Citgo Petroleum Group, where he held a multitude of positions across the organization over a 32-year career. He used this opportunity of perspective to look at what makes people successful in their personal lives as well as in organizational change.

His insights match my experience. Most managers and leaders in organizations are eager for progress wherever it comes from. When you demonstrate your ability to contribute, they embrace your participation.

But what happens when hard times hit: economic downturns, down-sizing, mergers and acquisitions, difficult external circumstances?

Ross: Throughout my career, I have witnessed many business cycles where many were fearful of losing their job. Putting things in perspective, there are three likely outcomes.

First, nothing bad happens and life goes on. In this case, the best current action is to do your job well and position yourself for future opportunity. Another possibility is that your company is acquired by another, in which case you would be best positioned with a solid track record of accomplishment to compete with others in the acquiring company. The third possibility is not pleasant, the loss of a job through no fault of your own, a victim of ruthless expense cutting in desperate times. In this case you will want the strongest resume possible so you can successfully compete against others for another position. The worst possible action is to be seen as a complainer and wait on others to direct your future.

Examining the present situation within the context of possible futures, many will find that the best action to take is to identify opportunities where they can make a positive impact on their organization either for internal recognition or resume strengthening. This requires empowering yourself and making a difference. This is a choice for personal empowerment.

 - Seth Kahan, VisionaryLeadership.com

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