Powerlessness and Personal Agency

'Power should not be concentrated in the hands of so few, and powerlessness in the hands of so many.' ~ Maggie KuhnClick To Tweet

Are you in control of your own life?

Or does ‘stuff’ just happen to you?

And why does it matter?

Becoming Powerless

In his seminal book Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl describes in dispassionate detail the way that Jewish prisoners were stripped of their possessions, their dignity, and – indeed – their sense of self upon arrival at one of many Concentration Camps deployed by the Nazis during World War II. After undressing, and being shaved of all body hair, Frankl notes:

“while we were waiting for the shower, our nakedness was brought home to us: we really had nothing now except our bare bodies – even minus hair; all we possessed, literally, was our naked existence.”

Fortunately, most of us do not experience such dehumanising events in our own lives. Yet there are things that occur – often more gradually – that can undermine our own sense of agency. Welfare services, for example, are largely geared around making us prove we have nothing in order to obtain the support we might need at certain stages in our lives. Interactions with certain professional groupings where machismo has long been the path to the top can do the same thing – the legal fraternity and Hollywood have recently been challenged for this, with the emergence of the #MeToo movement being the result.

Sometimes our sense of powerless is a ‘gift’ granted to us by our parents. Perhaps because they also felt powerless to engage with the world around them, and sometimes, unfortunately, because of persistent emotional, physical or even sexual abuse.

In his excellent book The Power Paradox, Dachar Keltner describes the impact of powerlessness on human wellbeing:

“The powerless, attuned to threats of all kinds, are more likely to experience chronic stress… Chronic threat and stress orient the individual toward defence, undermining most other ways of engaging with the world and causing problems with sleep, sex, creative thought and trusting interactions with others. Chronic threat and stress damage regions of the brain that are involved in planning and the pursuit of goals. The principle is clear: powerlessness undermines the individual’s ability to contribute to society.”

In psychological terms, everyone can be placed somewhere along this spectrum from one extreme end to the other, and everywhere in between.

Powerlessness and Leadership

'Powerlessness is a self-fulfilling prophesy.' ~ Robert ReichClick To Tweet

Feeling powerless triggers your stress response. If it happens often enough, it becomes your default position.

As a leader, someone exhibiting these characteristics is incredibly challenging to manage.  In my experience, they are highly unlikely to be high-performers, and are difficult to motivate.  They are reluctant to take ownership of critical projects, and in many cases, their “doom and gloom” mindset risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Overcoming Powerlessness

'Powerlessness is a self-fulfilling prophesy.' ~ Robert ReichClick To Tweet

I am not suggesting that you can control everything around you. But I am suggesting that how you think about what happens to you is within your control.

This is not some ‘Pollyanna-ish’ magical thinking. It is not to suggest that bad stuff should be greeted with happy thoughts and that this will make you feel better.

What I am saying is that instead of thinking “why is this happening to me?” (a question to which your brain will happily set about providing multiple persuasive answers to), you should ask “how can this make me stronger?” or “what can I learn from this?”

You will still feel hurt/upset/angry. But your brain will also try and answer these more empowering questions. It will work hard to find answers, because it doesn’t like unanswered questions. And doing so will enable you to move on more quickly, and to feel less like a victim.

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