Book-projects – Power and response-ability: Understanding empowerment

Understanding empowerment

In the other overviews, I described power-issues last; here I’ve necessarily placed them first, because a clear understanding of power – what it is, and (often more important) what it isn’t – provides the foundation for functional responsibility at work.

Defining power

So what is power, anyway? In some management texts, you’ll see that power is linked with ‘soft’ concepts such as empowerment, commitment, motivation, quality – but they’re words which often seem to have about as much meaning as a wet fish, and about as easy to grasp. In other texts, power seems to be equated with control – whatever that might be, because it’s obvious that no-one actually has it, no matter what they might pretend to themselves or others. And in common usage, ‘power’ is a word that’s become almost hopelessly ambiguous: power over self, power over others, a powerful leader, a powerful car, a powerful telescope, a powerful strike, a powerful blow – almost anything might be powerful. Or not. So power is, um… er… power, right?

In short, the common concepts of power are a muddled mess. To get anywhere, we need to start again, with some hard definitions that actually mean something. The simplest and safest place to start looking for concrete, objective meanings is in the sciences: and in physics, ‘power’ has a clear, straightforward, unambiguous definition:

  • Power: the rate at which work is done.

The physics definition for ‘potential’ is perhaps more relevant:

  • Potential: the ability to do work.

And ‘work’ too has a straightforward definition in physics:

  • Work: the rate at which energy is expended.

But that’s about as far as physics will take us: ‘energy’ is essentially defined as energy, which isn’t very helpful. And in most sciences there’s intentionally no concept of purpose, which does, however, have meaning in the human domain: the kinds of work on which energy is expended, and why that work is done, usually matter a great deal in business!

So where do we go next? For our purposes here, in understanding power at work, we obviously need to include the human dimension. So the first shift is that ‘power’ in human terms is essentially a description of potential, rather than the strict physics sense of power as the expression of that potential. Hence, in human terms, we could start with the definition:

  • Power: the ability to do work.

But if we try to use that definition without any other rider, we run into trouble straight away, because we effectively define slavery as power – not a good idea! And whilst objects and machines don’t have choice, humans do: it’s one of the things that makes us human. So at the very least, we need to add to that definition the human dimension of choice, and the human need for a sense of meaning and purpose:

  • Power: the ability to do work, as an expression of personal choice, personal responsibility and personal purpose.

The definition of ‘work’ remains unchanged, as “the rate at which energy is expended”: but it changes radically in meaning, because ‘energy’ has many different meanings in a human context. As a result, ‘work’ includes anything on which human energy is expended: digging a ditch is work, and likewise solving a technical problem – but so is managing a household or a corporation, or calming an angry client, or planning a future strategy. All of these, and many others, are ‘work’ – and in many cases we can measure the energy expended on that work, if only in nutritional terms.

So far, so good: in human terms – within a corporation, for example – ‘work’ can be anything on which people choose to expend energy in a purposeful way, and ‘power’ is the ability to do that work.

But there’s another essential human characteristic that needs to be added to that definition, though it’s one which has been the source of enormous difficulties in business and elsewhere: the fact that, in human terms, there’s no real distinction between ‘work’, ‘play’ and ‘learn’. They’re three different yet inextricably interdependent aspects of the same human energy: we learn, to extend our knowledge and ability; we practice those abilities through play, either on our own, or through relating with others; we apply the results of that practice through work, on our own, and with others; which leads, in turn, and in time, to new learning, for ourselves, or shared with others.

This interwovenness of work, play and learn can be seen every day, in every schoolyard. Yet each depends on the other, and without all of them being present – without that dynamic balance of work, play and learn that can be seen in the schoolyard – none of them happen. Trying to separate them, or partition them into separate domains, leads to endless problems, and pointless inefficiencies – and yet that kind of separation is exactly what most businesses, and even most people, try to enforce. “You come here to work, not play!” is the common cry in business; employees learn to accept that “work is what I do to pay for my play”, and settle down to doing the minimum work that they can get away with: few people seem to realise that there might be an important connection there… Those few companies that do recognise the connection, and do deliberately integrate ‘play’ and ‘learn’ within the work of the corporation, tend to be very sucessful indeed.

So in human terms, we end up with a definition of ‘power’ that goes as follows:

  • Power: the ability to work/play/learn, as an expression of personal choice, personal responsibility and personal purpose.

And it’s a definition that works: it can be applied directly in business and elsewhere, with concrete, measurable results.

But what about all those other meanings of ‘power’, you might ask? This definition doesn’t say anything about getting power, or keeping power: so how do we gain power, for example, or take back our power from those who try to take it from us? What about power as control? What about – heaven forfend! – “power comes out of the barrel of a gun”? Where do all these things fit within that definition?

They don’t. That’s the whole point: they don’t.

Those other apparent meanings of ‘power’ arise from a series of delusions that have nothing to do with power itself. And until we recognise that they are delusions, we’re going to get nowhere – which is exactly what so often happens at present. So before we can go any further, we need to take a close look at these delusory forms of ‘power’ – and start to face them within others, and within ourselves.

Power and delusion

We now have a workable definition of power, in human terms: but where does that power come from? The short answer is: from within each one of us – and only from within us. It doesn’t sort of drift around for us to grab out of thin air: in all its forms, it’s part of us – part of us, an expression of us as human beings.

At the moment, that description is way too abstract: it needs an example. So, imagine: you want to cook a meal. You’ve invited some friends round, you want everything to be the best for them. (For a commercial example, just scale this up a bit: imagine you’re doing the catering and presentation for a public event.) There’s work to do, of many different kinds: plan the meal, get the ingredients, sort out the timings so everything comes together at the right moments, tidy the room, lay out the table… the list goes on and on. Each of these tasks needs a different kind of energy, which tend to be given different names: to even get started at all, for example, needs a specific kind of power that’s usually called ‘motivation’. But for each of those tasks, the power, and the energy, comes from you. Nowhere else. That’s why power in this human sense is sometimes referred to as ‘power-from-within’.

  • Power-from-within: the ability to source and access human power from within the self.

Doing everything ourselves can be enormously satisfying. But sometimes it’s not as much fun as doing it with others; and there are many things which we can’t do only on our own. Perhaps the task is too big (as it almost certainly would be if you were catering for a public event); perhaps you don’t know what to do; perhaps you’re simply too tired. Either way, we can ask others for help. So you might ask a friend to show you how to do Thai cooking, perhaps; you might just need a bit of ‘moral support’ – and a suitable glass of red wine – to help you find that all-important motivation with which to get started. The only source of power, in human terms, is from within; but we can share that power with others, or help each other find that required power. This sharing of common purpose – particularly when its aim is to help us find our own power-from-within – is sometimes described as ‘power-with’.

  • Power-with: the ability to assist each other to generate and access power-from-within, and to share that power with others.

But it’s in this sharing of power that a crucial delusion so easily creeps in. Our only source of the energy to do work – of any kind – is from within ourselves. Everything needs effort, and energy: it takes effort even to learn something new. But to find that energy from within ourselves is often challenging – physically, emotionally, mentally, whatever. Facing the challenge, we don’t feel powerful at all: exactly the opposite, actually, although we may not be conscious of the fact – indeed, in many cases may be very careful to not be conscious of it. That feeling of powerlessness is not pleasant: no-one likes facing it within themselves. And for whatever reason – and there are many, many reasons – up comes the delusion: the idea that we can ‘solve’ the problem, and banish that feeling, by ‘exporting’ it to someone else.

It seems to be so easy: pass the buck, find a scapegoat, trap someone else into doing the job for us. “Power is the ability to avoid work”, says the delusion. And it looks as though it works – which is why it’s such a common delusion. But it actually doesn’t work: it never does, though it sometimes needs a lot of careful thought and observation in order to be able to recognise that fact. All that the delusion does is reduce the overall amount of available power. For one individual, or one group, for a short while, it may perhaps seem to increase their own power; but overall, over time, over the entire system or entire group of people, the total amount of power is always less – which means that less work gets done.

The delusion always takes one of two forms, whose usual names are perhaps a bit too pejorative for use in this context. We could call these forms ‘Type A’ and ‘Type B’, of course; but for consistency with ‘power-with’ and ‘power-from-within’, they’d best be described as ‘power-over’ and power-under’.

  • Power-over: any attempt, in any form whatsoever, to create the illusion of empowering the self by disempowering any other.

The ‘Godfather’ slogan “true power cannot be given: it must be taken” is an obvious example of power-over; so is the old Black Panther assertion that “power comes out of the barrel of a gun”. But if a manager uses her supposed ‘superiority’ to bully a subordinate, that’s power-over; deliberately humiliating someone is power-over; excluding others from involvement in decisions that affect them is power-over; spreading rumours about others, or intentionally misleading others, is power-over; kicking at the cat because you’re feeling down is power-over. The details vary enormously, and the impact may vary enormously, but it’s all the same delusion: the idea that we can prop ourselves up by putting others down.

  • Power-under: any attempt to offload responsibility onto another without their express involvement and consent.

(For that matter, attempting to take responsibility from another without their involvement and consent can also be power-under: the crucial issue is the lack of consent rather than the direction in which the responsibility is transferred.) Blame; scapegoating; ‘playing victim’; dumping responsibility for work onto others: they’re all forms of power-under, all variants of the same delusion that “power is the ability to avoid work”. Power-under can sometimes be a lot more subtle and a lot more difficult to identify than power-over: but the damage can sometimes be much more serious, precisely because it’s so difficult to detect.

Power-over and power-under are extremely common – so much so that many people think that that’s what power is. Some people make these delusions into a way of life; but everyone falls into them from time to time. To a large extent our entire society is held together – or supposedly held together – by power-over and power-under, through threats, punishments, edicts, demands, cajoling, bullying in many different forms. The Machiavellian office-politics promoted and popularised in books such as “The 48 Laws of Power” essentially consists of nothing but power-over and power-under. The usual name for power-over is violence; the usual name for power-under is abuse; as you’ll now perhaps recognise from those definitions above, both are extremely common. If you don’t believe me in this, think about those definitions for a while, then take a look around you: take a good look at most advertising and marketing; take a good look at other people’s behaviour, at work and elsewhere; for that matter, take a good look at some of your own behaviour, at work and elsewhere.


And none of it works – that’s what’s so sad, so pathetic. Yet so very, very common.

It’s all a delusion. We can’t ‘take’ power from others: it just doesn’t work that way. We can’t offload responsibility onto others: it just doesn’t work that way. Scapegoats have an uncanny ability to return when they’re least expected. None of it works: it simply doesn’t work.


Yet because it doesn’t work, but seems to work at first, it’s also highly addictive. The addiction is perhaps more obvious with power-over. For example, imagine I’m your manager, but I don’t feel in control of anything, including you or your work. So, feeling somewhat powerless, I try to ‘export’ that feeling to you: I try to prop myself up by putting you down, telling you you’re no good at your job. What happens? Either you ignore me, and get on with your work anyway; or you believe me, and become unable to do your work. If you ignored me, have I actually propped myself up? If you took on my ‘put-down’, am I actually in any more control – is any more work actually done – than before? In both cases, the answer’s ‘No’: I might perhaps gain a brief delusion that I’m more ‘powerful’, but the overall power, in a functional sense, is less, because you now either won’t want, or be able, to share your power with me. But because there’s less work being done, I’m still not feeling powerful: so I do it again… and again… and again…

Indulging in power-under is just as futile, and just as addictive. To go back to the meal example, let’s say you want a Thai theme, but you don’t know how to cook that way: so you might try to trap a friend into doing it for you – rather than with you. You might trap that friend in any number of ways: nagging to create guilt, perhaps – “you promised you’d do it for me last week, and the week before” – or ‘playing victim’ – “I can’t do it, you’ve got to do it for me” – or flattery – “you’re so much better at this than I am”. It’s now their responsibility, too: if the meal doesn’t taste right, it’s all their fault, not yours. “Power is the ability to avoid work”, supposedly: if they’re doing everything for you, you’re obviously more ‘powerful’ there. But are you actually powerful at all? In reality, “power is the ability to do work/play/learn”: but here you’ve done nothing; you’ve learnt nothing; the smug feeling of having ‘got away with’ doing nothing is soon replaced by a flat feeling of emptiness and impotence. And what about next time you want a Thai meal? Having – intentionally, deliberately – learnt nothing, you’re now dependent on your increasingly unwilling friend: so to trap them into doing it for you again, you have to find another power-under trick… and another… and another…

The only source of power, in human terms, is from within ourselves. We can choose to share that power with others. Anything else that calls itself ‘power’ is a delusion: and an addictive delusion at that. It’s a delusion that invariably reduces the overall amount of power available to do the work that we choose. And it’s a delusion that’s extremely common everywhere – including inside every corporation.

So in case you’re thinking that this discussion of power still seems a bit abstract and academic, try a small costing exercise. Take a look at the usual office politics; take a look at all those put-downs and blame-games that run rife through almost every corporation. Take a good look at the place where you work, the people you work with, the interactions you have with others. And note this one fact: every occurrence of power-over and power-under invariably and inevitably reduces the available overall ability to do work. Take just a handful of examples: what is the cost of each of those examples, in terms of lost productivity, lost efficiency, lost morale? (A hint: whatever cost you come up with at first will be vastly underestimated, because of the knock-on effect of attempted export and counter-export.) Work out a typical cost for each type of incident. Multiply that average by the total number of incidents (and yes, there’ll be a lot of them…) within each area of work. And then let that hidden cost work its way through the balance-sheet, all the way down to the corporate ‘bottom line’. That’s the real cost of failing to minimise power-over and power-under at work; that’s the real cost of failing to understand the true nature of power.


Not quite so abstract now?

Failing to face these issues effectively hurts corporations real bad. Hurts you real bad, too.


Export and import

Yes, it’s bad: it really is that bad. But if the problem’s that bad, what can we do about it? More to the point, is there anything we can do about it? It’s at this stage that a sense of futility tends to creep in…

And that feeling of powerlessness is exactly what I’m on about. Notice how you respond to that feeling, because that’ll show you, first-hand, exactly how the delusion works – and also what you can do about it. But first you have to notice what your response actually is: because most of the time, most of us go to quite a bit of effort to not notice it.

It usually goes through several stages – which happen to illustrate exactly the different forms of the delusion. The first response – especially in business environments – is often some variant on the ever-popular power-over theme of ‘shoot the messenger’: an active form of what’s technically known as ‘denial’. You try to export your discomfort to me, as the ‘messenger’ who appears to be the cause of that discomfort. You don’t like what I say: so you throw away the book, yell at me, say I’m a liar, demand to have me fired, whatever… and yes, I might well run away in fear and terror at your anger, so yes, you might think that you have exported the discomfort to me. But none of this changes the fact that what I’ve described really is fact: so where’s the power to actually work with those facts? The facts are still sitting there, “large as life and twice as natural”: but now no-one has any power to cope with them. Oops… Delusion #1…

Some people, as we know all too well, never manage to get past that stage. But the next stage, as the feeling of impotence drifts back once it becomes obvious that nothing has really changed, is often to slump down into the passive form of power-under. You want to blame me, or everyone else; if you can get past that, you may want to blame the world at large for not being fair. You might blame yourself, as ‘other’, exporting responsibility to yourself in the past; or procrastinate, exporting responsibility to yourself in the future. More likely, you’ll want to pass the buck to someone else – anyone else – to make it their responsibility, their fault. You might well put a lot of effort into that last part – effort which, if you think about it, you could otherwise have used in finding a solution within yourself, right now. And although you might just possibly find someone else who’s able to take on the responsibility, the chances are fairly low, because, as we’ve seen, everyone’s likely to be stuck in this particular delusion. And again, none of this activity – or, more often, passivity – changes the fact that the facts are still sitting there, completely unchanged. Oops… Delusion #2…

Many people never get past that stage either, and remain perpetually stuck in trying to export the problem – whatever it is – to someone else. But in business especially, where people pride themselves in their ability to take charge, there’s often a third stage: the active form of power-under. Once we recognise that passing the buck doesn’t work – because there’s no-one to pass the buck to – we eventually come back to the old phrase “the buck stops here”: and instead of trying to export the problem to everyone else, we try to import it from everyone else. We try to take control. Of everything. For everyone (since clearly they’re not going to do it themselves). And of everyone (since clearly they’re not going to do it themselves). Oops… Delusion #3…

Big delusion… perhaps the biggest delusion of all…

Like all forms of the delusion, it looks good – it looks, and usually feels, like ‘the right thing to do’. But… no. Or rather, it depends on what our motives are – not the motives we probably think we have, but the ones that we’re likely to be very careful not to notice. Go back to the definition of power-under: notice that “the crucial issue is the lack of consent rather than the direction in which the responsibility is transferred”. Did everyone ask us for our help, our ‘protection’? Did everyone ask us take control of every aspect of their behaviour and their lives? For that matter, could we do it? Would we actually succeed? It’s fairly obvious that the answer’s not going to be ‘Yes’… So what’s really going on here? In almost every case, what’s actually going on is that we’re using the apparent import as a cover-up for our own export – in other words trying to use ‘being responsible about everyone else’ in order to avoid being responsible for our own behaviour. Which is why it doesn’t work: because ultimately the only person we can be responsible for is ourselves.

Others can be responsible about us, and to us – that’s power-with, in fact – and we to them; but not for us, not for them. The difference is subtle, yet utterly crucial. The only actions and behaviours we can be responsible for are our own: everything else is either attempted export or attempted import, in order to avoid that responsibility. When two people try to take responsibility from each other in order to avoid facing their own, the result is called ‘co-dependency’; when more than two people try to do this, the result is called, simply, a mess. We can’t live others’ lives for them: it’s exactly as possible, and exactly as sensible, as trying to go to the toilet for them. Others can’t live our lives for us: it’s our responsibility, and no-one else’s. We can’t ‘take’ responsibility from others, any more than we can ‘take’ power from others: it just doesn’t work.

So what can we do? Answer: go back to those original definitions about power. We do have the power-from-within to address every kind of problem – including this one. And with awareness of others, we do have the possibility of power-with, helping each other to face these delusions. In principle, and in practice, all that we need to do is watch our responses, watch for our reflex tendency to fall into one or other of the ‘power’ delusions – and then choose a different response.

That’s all there is to it, in principle; not so easy in practice, though, especially in the everyday chaos of work and other people. It’s a mess out there: a big mess. If we’re honest, it’s probably a big mess ‘in here’ within ourselves as well… But there is one bit of good news: if it’s as bad as all that, then even quite a small amount of effort can create a large improvement – so the effort is worthwhile!

Winners and losers

There are a few other issues we still need to face, though, before we can start to turn this round. One of them – perhaps the most important – is the concept of ‘winners’ versus ‘losers’.

“Winners are grinners”: everyone wants to be a winner – feeling powerful, feeling on top of the world. Conversely, no-one wants to be a loser – feeling down, feeling lost, feeling powerless… no-one wants to face that feeling of powerlessness. But wait a minute: we’ve seen this before, haven’t we? Something about being so uncomfortable with the feeling of powerlessness that we ‘have to’ export it to others? Just how much is that going to affect the ‘need’ to be a winner? Oops…

Dead right: there’s another delusion at work here – or rather, another way in which the same delusions about power get played out. And as usual, the delusion starts with a simple mistake, leading to a tiny shift in perspective, which leads in turn to big problems we see all around us, every day.

The mistake is about the availability of power: where it comes from, where it goes, who has it, who doesn’t have it, how to gain it, how to lose it. The common-sense view of human power is that it’s a fixed quantity, much like many other resources. It’s ‘out there’, somewhere – though no-one seems to know quite where. And it’s divided up like a pie, with each person somehow – no-one quite knows how – assigned their own share of power. Since the size of this pie is fixed, all power-transactions between people must re-divide the pie, with gains and losses always adding up to a ‘zero-sum’: in other words, as one Marxist theorist put it, “it is in the nature of power that it is impossible for one to have more without others having less”. That’s the shift in perspective: that you can only be a winner – the winner – by making someone else lose. In this perspective – often called ‘win/lose’ – there’s no link between personal effort and personal power: instead, if you want to be powerful, all you have to do is make someone else lose. You take their power – and export powerlessness to them in its place.

We’ve already seen what goes wrong when there’s any attempt at export: yet here, in win/lose, we have a structure which actually requires it. It doesn’t take much to guess the result: power-over and power-under run rampant, and thought before action is conspicuous mostly by its absence. This ‘pie-slice’ view of power tells us that if we’re feeling powerless – if we’re feeling like we’ve been ‘oppressed’, made a loser – then that must surely mean that someone else must have taken some of our share away from us. Hence, not surprisingly, we want it back. But what if everyone else is feeling powerless and oppressed, too? Who’s stolen all our power? There must be some hidden oppressor there – we need to find them and strike back! No-one seems to know what power really is, but we know when we haven’t got it: and we’ll fight anyone for it – to the death, if necessary!

This zero-sum view of power is so simple, so clear, so easy to understand – and seductively, dangerously, lethally wrong. It’s the source of countless battles for ‘market share’ and ‘mindshare’, the source of countless wars, countless revolutions and, yes, countless oppressions – and ultimately it’s completely wrong. Sure, there’s some truth in it: but often only because others have fallen for the same mistake, too, and think that they’re fighting for or protecting their own so-fragile share of power. Total chaos, anyone? Free gift of chaos with every simple mistake? Oops…

Business – and much else besides – can be a lot less troublesome, and a lot more profitable, once we can bring ourselves to understand and accept that this simplistic pie-slice view of power isn’t just an unnecessary assumption – it’s just plain wrong. But to many people in business, my description there isn’t wrong at all – that’s the way that it really is. It’s a tough world out there: it’s dog-eat-dog, y’know?

Ever stopped to wonder why, though?

Ever stopped to consider the possibility that all this pain and struggle and chaos actually is just the result of one simple mistake?

The mistake is that power isn’t ‘out there’ at all, as some kind of fixed resource that we have to fight others for: it’s ‘in here’, arising from within us, as part of us – and the only ones we might need to fight, to gain it, is ourselves. It’s not even a fixed resource: it’s always there, from within us, in any amount. Power is our own ability to do work, or play, or learn, as an expression of our own choice, our own purpose. And it’s not others, but we, who apply limits to its availability from within us, for all manner of different reasons – some of which we’ve already seen, in the previous discussion on power.

It’s true that it can be hard to find that power from within ourselves – mainly because it’s so easy to shut it down. That’s actually the reason why power-over and power-under don’t work: not only is energy wasted on setting up the attempted export, but most people shut down when they detect – even unconsciously – an attempted export, so the power is no longer there to ‘take’ anyway. If this isn’t immediately obvious, look at the productivity of slaves: not very high at the best of times, is it? What happens when a workforce gets pushed too far by management? Answer: they shut down – they work-to-rule, or go on strike – so that there’s less ‘ability to do work’ as a result of the bullying, not more. What happens if you push a prospective customer too far? Answer: they shut down – and you don’t make the sale. What happens if you use power-under tricks with a prospective customer? Answer: yes, you might make the sale this time, but they’ll shut down automatically in future – they won’t be a repeat-customer – and they’ll probably warn off all their friends and colleagues, too.

In each interaction, we have only two choices, two possibilities of shared power: win/win, or lose/lose. Either everyone wins; or no-one wins. Win/lose is actually an illusory form of lose/lose. (For that matter, so is ‘lose/win’ – a mistaken notion of power-with in which I assume that I can only help you win by making myself lose. Putting myself down to prop you up is merely the other side of the power-over delusion; whilst pretending to do so – a common sales ploy – is just another kind of power-under, and just as ineffectual in the long run.)

The pie-slice view of power – zero-sum, win/lose, lose/win, with all the power being somewhere ‘out there’ – seems like common-sense: but like so much apparent ‘common-sense’, it’s completely wrong. Every time you, or I, or anyone, plays power-over or power-under, everyone loses. There are no winners in win/lose: only losers. It may not look like it at first, but that really is what actually happens.

So that’s our choice: win/win, or lose/lose. We can play power-over games and power-under games as much as we like: but everyone loses – including ourselves. Or we can explore the possibilities for power-with, to help each other find the appropriate power-from-within, to do the work/play/learn that arises from our shared purpose – and with care, and awareness, everyone wins, every time.

If we want to win, we have to make sure that everyone else wins with us.

And it’s our choice, and our responsibility, every time.

Rights and responsibilities

Responsibility is where and how we express our choice. But even here problems can arise, which we need to note before moving on to exploring power within the business arena. The delusion that “power is the ability to avoid work” means that accepting responsibility is often equated with powerlessness, a ‘successful’ export of responsibility to someone else. And the habits of power-under lead, all too often, to a situation in which responsibility is equated with blame – “who is responsible for this mess?” yells an irate administrator, for example – and in which anyone who’s willing to take on the responsibility for tidying up some kind of chaos immediately gets blamed for everything else as well. This doesn’t help in getting the work done… but both are very common, in all kinds of work-environments.

More subtle yet are the confusions that arise over rights and responsibilities – especially when people think in terms of ‘rights or responsibilities’. The problem is that statements like the US Bill of Rights or the UN’s ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ give the impression that rights are automatic, inherent and so on: but in fact every ‘right’ is an arbitrary assertion that responsibilities are to be placed on others to uphold that right on our behalf. And some of those assertions of ‘right’ can be very arbitrary indeed, such as the supposed ‘jus primae noctis’ – ‘right of first night’ – claimed by some Mediaeval warlords over any newly-married couple under their so-called ‘protection’. The concept of rights can lead straight to the dishonesties of power-under, the offloading of responsibility onto others without their consent – as is particularly evident wherever an argument is phrased in terms of “I have rights, you have responsibilities!”

Interestingly, and perhaps most disturbingly for business, even the concept of ownership falls far too easily into this trap, because it’s usually defined in terms of property-rights, without any definitions of matching responsibilities. “If I own it, it’s my right to do what I like with it”: in effect, ownership is defined as ‘the right to exploit without reference to others, either in the present or elsewhen’. (There’s also an associated ‘anti-ownership’, an asserted ‘right’ to avoid the ‘anti-property’ that no-one wants, such as pollution, poor food, poor living conditions and limited life-expectancy.) This all seems at first to be straightforward common-sense: but as with the pie-slice view of power, it actually doesn’t work. Ownership is deemed to confer rights without responsibilities: so responsibilities have to be imposed separately, through the cumbersome chaos called ‘the Law’ – and even then some people spend their entire working lives trying to find loopholes that would give them the ‘right’ to evade those responsibilities. In other words, power-under again, just like the pie-slice view of power, but institutionalised on a society-wide scale.

As we’ll see later, there are some specific problems about ownership ‘rights’ in relation to business. And there are also many arguments about ‘workplace rights’ and the like; but in practice, in trying to create a more functional approach to power in the workplace, the concept of ‘rights’ itself often tends to be more of a hindrance than a help. More to the point, it actually isn’t necessary: assertions of rights often result in evasions of responsibility, but defined responsibilities automatically lead to, and implicitly define, concomitant rights.

The simplest illustration of this is traffic law. Despite the common-sense concept of ‘right of way’, there’s in fact no such right: technically, a ‘right of way’ is actually a responsibility, on a land-holder, to permit passage of people and (usually) vehicles along a defined route across the land-holder’s property. The law then specifies a series of rules and responsibilities, indicating who must give way to whom, and under what conditions. Each rule is accompanied by explicit reasons for the respective responsibilities. Finally, there’s a ‘none of the above’ kind of rule which says that road users are responsible at all times to drive safely, regardless of what anyone else is doing, and regardless of what any of the other rules might say. So no-one is assigned arbitrary ‘rights’ over others: no-one has an automatic, inalienable ‘right of way’ over everyone else. There’s no such right as a ‘right of way’: yet as a result of a complete, clearly-defined set of interlocking responsibilities, everyone, in effect, has ‘right of way’ appropriate to their needs, and in relation to everyone else’s needs.

Given the prevalence of power-over and power-under, the concept of rights all too easily leads to power-problems: but we can get exactly the same result as was intended by the concept of rights, by starting instead from responsibilities rather than rights. The rights-based concept of ownership all too easily creates a tangled mess of assertion and counter-assertion, blame and counter-blame; but we can start instead from responsibilities, and replace it with a concept of stewardship – an acknowledgement of responsibility rather than an assertion of right. In functional terms, it comes out much the same, it even looks much the same: the difference is that it works, where ‘rights’ and ‘ownership’ don’t.

I’d perhaps better hasten to add – especially in a business context! – that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with ownership as such: it’s just that stewardship works better as a concept because it enforces an awareness of power as ‘the ability to do work’, where ownership invites a lapse back to an attitude that power is the ability to avoid it. In much the same way, the common identification of responsibility with acceptance of blame suggests that ‘responsibility’ itself needs a different name, too. In the functional form of responsibility, in this context, what we need to emphasise is its relationship to functional power, as opposed to power-over and power-under. And we need to emphasise responsibility as the expression of that power and choice, both in a personal sense as power-from-within, and shared with others as power-with. We can do this by describing responsibility as ‘response-ability’:

  • Response-ability: the ability to choose and act upon appropriate responses to events, in relation to personal purpose and shared purpose.

Response-ability is the expression of power as the personal and shared ‘ability to do work’: there’s no point in trying to ‘be powerful’ unless there’s work to do. Response-ability is the expression of personal response to changing circumstances: it’s an ability varies from person to person, and from moment to moment. And response-ability is also the expression of personal choice and personal purpose – which reminds us that the human need for meaning must be included within our concept of human power.

Motivation and meaning

Another key area of confusion is what’s often described as the spiritual dimension of work. The usual problem-area is the word ‘spiritual’ itself: many people I’ve talked with seem to think it’s vaguely connected with religion, and hence has no real connection with business – other than perhaps keeping industrial chaplains on call, to help staff with problems at home. But in fact it’s the other way round: religion, in whatever form, is simply a tool to assist spirituality – and there are many others, including work itself, if the circumstances are right. The confusion is so severe and so prevalent that the term needs an explicit definition for the work-context:

  • Spiritual dimension of work: the personal experience of a sense of meaning and purpose, a sense of self and of that which is greater than self, within and through the process of work itself.

Once again, I mean ‘work’ here in the wider sense that I described earlier: a dynamic balance of the three facets of ‘work’, ‘play’ and ‘learn’.

Spirituality is sometimes described as ‘inner power’ or ‘inner strength’ – which tells us that it’s essentially the same as what we’ve earlier seen as ‘power-from-within’. More accurately, it’s the source for that inner power: without it, the availability of power slowly fades down to a kind of maintenance level, where nothing much happens at all – and stays that way until there’s a good reason to find the energy to rekindle the inner fires again. We don’t have to look far for examples: think of the well-known effects of ‘de-skilling’ an area of work, or the devastation of workforce morale after repeated ‘restructuring’ and ‘downsizing’.

The process of reclaiming and maintaining that inner power, and using it in productive work, is generally described as ‘motivation’. But herein lies another common mistake: that people are only motivated by external inducements or external forces, and that, as managers, we’re responsible for providing that motivation for ‘our’ people. In reality, we don’t ‘motivate’ others at all: people motivate themselves – and they’re the only ones who can do it. Yes, agreed, ‘motivational’ speakers and the like can certainly help at times: but if you push people too hard that way, it’ll just feel like an attempt at power-over or power-under – which means that they’ll shut down, as we’ve seen, and you’re then worse off than where you started. Bringing in motivational speakers to ‘rally the troops’ also tends to reemphasise the illusion that the power is ‘out there’ rather than ‘in here’: hence although productivity often rises for a while, it soon slumps back – often leading to an addictive dependence on ‘motivational’ support just to keep going.

The key to successful motivation lies in understanding its relationship with the spiritual dimension. Personal power arises from a personal sense of meaning within work, or associated with that work; it arises from a sense of purpose, that the work fulfils some personal need, some personal thread or theme of life; it arises from a sense of self – especially a sense of self identified in and with work; and it arises from a sense of belonging to some purpose or process greater than the immediate limitations of self, a sense of belonging to and jointly expressing some shared common purpose. All of these things matter: ultimately, they’re the source of our power, and the power we share with others.

As with the ‘work/play/learn’ triad, all four facets of the spiritual dimension need to be in balance for that power to be fully available. This is true for the individual as well as for the corporation. So yes, people can do work that has no meaning to them; people can get by on clockwatching, on an attitude that “work is what I do to pay for my play”; people can function, after a fashion, with Machiavellian self-centredness and an obsession with “what’s in it for me?”; but productivity and creativity will invariably be poor – and such people usually bring others down with them as well. If we look at what does get people going, it always has those same four elements: the work feels meaningful; there’s a feeling that it aligns with a personal sense of purpose; there’s a sense of personal identification with the work, and the quality of that work; and there’s a sense of membership and commitment not just to the group or corporation, but to the wider community as well.

It’s a bit unfortunate that for most people the best-known context that fulfils all these conditions is war. It’s one reason why so many companies end up being run – even in peace-time – as if they were on a war-footing, stumbling from one crisis to another in order to create a sense of urgency and excitement. So it’s important to remember that support for all the facets can be created and maintained in ordinary, everyday work – and with a lot less stress on all concerned. We’ll be looking at this in detail later.

Part of our power is that we can create meaning in order to do work that we otherwise wouldn’t want or be able to do. Even the most interesting of work has periods of drudgery and boredom; all of us have aspects of our work that we dislike, or that we’d rather not face. To do that work, we have to create power from somewhere: we motivate ourselves to do it. And we usually do so by linking the work with something else that does have meaning, that does connect with our own sense of purpose. Many people go to work day after day, year after year, in mind-numbing, dangerous, dirty jobs, and keep going by connecting it with the idea that they’re supporting the family the love by doing so. And they can fall apart completely on divorce and separation, or when the family leaves home – because the supposed ‘reason’ to work goes with them. These are described as spiritual issues: yet they have very real impact on people’s ability to do their day-to-day work – in other words, their power, in a human sense.

The spiritual dimension also indicates that people need a sense of self – a clear sense of who they are, and of their own personal purpose in life – in order to be able to identify with and be committed to their work. This is another reason why power-over and power-under cause problems in corporations: the aim of both – but especially of power-over – is to crush the sense of self of ‘the other’, so as to create the illusion that power has been ‘taken’. For example, think of a typical ‘shoot the messenger’ scenario: after a full-on yelling-at, or worse, for the heinous sin of being the bearer of bad news, the ‘messenger’ is likely to feel crushed and worthless – and unable to do much, if any, work, for quite a while… Many companies still operate on the inane principle of “the beatings will continue until morale improves”, thinking that this style of power-over somehow correlates with ‘motivation’ – and then wonder why their workforce laugh at them, and come back with the old retort that “the morale will continue until the beatings improve!”

All too often, the common concept of motivation regards people as little more than mindless robots that need to be rewound from time to time. Instead, it’s far more sensible to realise – and respect – that people are intelligent, and motivate themselves when we don’t stop them from doing so. People do know when extra effort is needed – and often know this better than their so-called ‘leaders’. “We knew times were hard”, they said, “so we’d put our shoulders to the wheel, ready to push, ready to take the strain – and then the idiots took the wheel away!” Time and again, the same old pie-slice mistake about power rears its head: but the reality is that we don’t ‘give’ people power through motivation, any more than we can ‘take’ it through power-over or power-under. If we want to ‘motivate’ people to do work, we need to understand it not as ‘giving’ power to others, but as power-with, as a work-oriented support for their own spiritual process: and given a sense of meaning and purpose in work, and both a sense of self and that which is greater than self within that work, people motivate themselves to find their own power-from-within.

Expressing empowerment

The same mistakes that we saw with motivation also often occur with the concept of empowerment. The errors all arise from the usual source, namely the pie-slice view of power. In that view, the manager or great leader ’empowers’ her staff by magnanimously giving to them some of her own power, or power that she, in turn, has been given by others ‘above’ her. In return for this gift of empowerment, her staff must use that power in carrying out the work that she ordains. As a model of the empowerment process, it’s clear, it’s simple, it’s easy to understand, it’s just plain common-sense – and it’s completely the wrong way round. Which is why things get into such a mess…

It’s best to admit, right from the start, that much of that common notion of empowerment is – to use somewhat outdated slang – little more than an ego-trip for the supposed ’empowerers’. We all like the illusion that we’re the ones who ‘give’ power to others. The reality, though, is that we don’t empower others at all: people empower themselves – and may then choose to share their power with us. Our real task, if we want others to be empowered to do work, or play, or learn, is simply to be aware enough to not stop them from being so. Most of the time, the main problem is not lack of power from ‘above’, or ‘out there’, but people meddling so much that the power can’t arise from within as it otherwise would. Hence, most of the time, all we really have to do to ’empower’ people is to remind them that they are powerful already – and then get out of their way, to let them get on with the work as required.

That process of ‘reminding others that they are powerful’ is part of what I earlier described as ‘power-with’. How we do it, what we need to do – or not do – and what type of power we need to encourage them to find within themselves depends on the context and the requirements. It’s often also highly individual, because something that excites one person may be entirely unappealing to another: one reason why an understanding of the personal nature of ‘life-purpose’ is so important to empowerment. It also depends, unsurprisingly, on an understanding of the real nature of power, as something that arises from the individual rather than something that is ‘given’ to them. And it depends on an awareness of the expression of power as response-ability – the ability of individuals to choose and act upon appropriate responses to current conditions.

We’ll be seeing many examples of this as we go through this study. In practice, the process of functional empowerment always includes the same elements as motivation: exploring ways in which the work – whatever it is – can be perceived by the individual as worthwhile and meaningful to them and to those they see as associated with them; as being aligned with their own desires, needs and aspirations; as being something with which they can identify, and express themselves; and in which they can gain a sense of belonging, and a sense of contributing to a greater whole.

Given the prevalence in society in general of delusions about power, one of the complications is to find a way of empowering that doesn’t simply replicate the problems of power-over and power-under at a larger scale. For example, it’s quite easy to create a sense of urgency – and thus motivation of a kind – by inventing a sense of risk or threat: for business, as I mentioned earlier, the obvious example is war. It’s why many ‘motivation’ models emphasise an image of ‘Us against Them’: for example, one luxury-car company has, as a key part of its ‘mission’, the statement “beat Benz!”. The catch, as we’ll see more later, is that it doesn’t work, in the long run, or in the wider scale: if we do ‘beat Benz’, or whatever, the only group left to ‘beat’ is ourselves… leading to an implosion of infighting of a kind that’s destroyed many an apparently successful company. ‘Us against Them’ is just another form of the power-over delusion: the only way that individuals, or groups, or whole corporations, can ‘win’ is by creating forms of empowerment that ensure that everyone wins.

That’s empowerment; that’s power. And we now need to move this discussion out of the abstract, and into the practical world of business – starting with a review of the ways in which these power-issues repeat within and between every scale of endeavour, from ‘I’ to ‘We’ to ‘Us’ to ‘Them’.

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