Powerlessness and Personal Agency
Do you generally believe that you are in control of your own life? Or are you a victim of circumstance? In psychological terms, everyone can be placed somewhere along a spectrum from one extreme end to the other, and everywhere in between. At the ‘victim of circumstance’ end are a special subset of people that exhibit what I describe as “extreme powerlessness”.
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.
But in an organisational context, there are numerous dignified and appropriate ways to deal with poor performance – regardless of the cause. This is not as easy if the powerlessness perpetrator is a close friend or family member!
Powerlessness in Person
My friend Jenny* is not, what you would call, a woman of action.
Don’t get me wrong – there are many things that I love about her, she is a fabulous mum, and has always been a generous and kind friend. She overcame a number of obstacles in her childhood that many of us would struggle to handle – she obtained a university qualification and has a great job.
However, taking bold (or even ANY) action, is not her strong suit. For a number of years I didn’t really notice this, but I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days with her due to a work trip that took me to her home-town.
We stayed up late catching up, chatting, reminiscing. But I gradually became aware that there was something unnerving about the conversation.
Something I’ll call “purposeless communication”.
This is not the same as ‘smalltalk’ – which can be a very valuable social tool for building relationships, establishing rapport and putting others at ease.
But actual purposelessness.
Jenny has an issue with her boss. And her immediate supervisor. And the team’s administrator. And the receptionist. And her team mates… you get the picture.
Basically everyone appears to have it in for her. Her ideas aren’t being progressed, her work isn’t being appreciated or recognised. She’s been overlooked for promotion in spite of her tenure.
On the face of it, (say we’d just caught up for a coffee rather than a long chat into the wee-small-hours), you might think that there was, at worst, some sort of institutional bullying going on (or a very toxic workplace) and at best, a really poor fit between employee and employer.
But as a asked questions, and empathised, and explored some of the issues she was describing, it seemed that she hadn’t raised any of her concerns. Ever. With anyone.
She wasn’t even prepared to entertain that it was anything other than deliberate malfeasance.
Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting for a minute that Jenny’s employer hadn’t done anything wrong. Employment relationships are fragile things – and they generally turn sour when there’s been mistakes by both parties.
But what became abundantly clear, was that Jenny had absolutely no intention of doing anything about it. Even where the actions available were relatively low cost and straightforward. She was complaining for the sake of complaining.
I don’t even think she felt better afterwards – it wasn’t a proxy for therapy or stress relief – it was just sharing negative stories for the sake of being outraged. Another example of a broken system. So futile.
Powerlessness – A Slippery Slope
Interestingly, I found this deeply uncomfortable and dissonant. So I spent a bit of time trying to understand why this was.
Don’t get me wrong, Jenny is a kind and generous person, and I generally enjoy spending time with her. We don’t live in the same town. But the life I lead requires me to problem solve effectively and quickly on a relatively frequent basis – whether in my home-life (raising a toddler is a constant source of opportunities for exercising these skills!) or in my career as a leader, manager and change agent. I am constantly stepping into the unknown and needing to research or innovate ways to do things I haven’t done before.
So why did Jenny’s different approach make me so uncomfortable?
Because what I was witnessing was someone I loved and cared about willingly (though perhaps not consciously) giving her power away, to someone else. Someone who didn’t have the same vested interest. Someone whose attention was divided. Worse – an organisation rather than a person, with systems and processes that are almost certainly flawed.
And what scared me the most about this was that it started to become clear that once Jenny had given away her power in this one facet of her life – her employment – it was becoming harder for her to separate that from other domains.
I suspect that personal agency isn’t able to be segmented: that you can’t be the master of your domain at home and then a powerless leaf on the wind in your professional life – at the mercy of the wind and weather.
So be wary. If you, or someone you know, seems to complain regularly about things, people, events – and exhibits no intention or impetus to act – you may be observing someone who is or has given their personal power – their agency – away. Perhaps it happened over time, or perhaps they don’t think they ever had any.
But they did.
And purposeless communication – that is problem identification (and obsession) without action – is the surest and quickest way I know to give it all away.
Have you ever successfully helped someone else turn this around? An employee, or a friend? I’d love to hear your thoughts.