Action or non-action… the way to empowerment by Wendela Wolters

When we think about the word “action” we get a picture of movement, getting something “done”, an activity, deed or battle. But often, by staying away and not  doing something (for someone else), can have a much more durable effect than simply jumping into action. Let me illustrate this with an example taken from healthcare, but it is just as applicable within any organization.

Over the last two decades nursing theories has progressed from treating patients as people who were to be “nursed” back into proper health, to empowering patients to take the necessary steps to recovery themselves by providing them with assistance and knowledge. Evaluation of the patients’ ability to handle and cope with health challenges, with a keen eye on staying autonomous, became just as important as to act professionally during an emergency.

It is not only ”staying away” from action, this process of empowering also demands a very different view of handling responsibility. Taking over responsibility without involving the patient leads to an adapted sense of helplessness whereby the patient gradually looses every initiative and becomes dependent on his caregivers. Some people are more vulnerable to this phenomenon than others. People with a pessimistic explanatory style, who see negative events as permanent -"it is not in my power to change"- are most likely to suffer.

It also varies with the extent to which people believe they have power over events in their lives. A person with an internal locus of control believes that he or she can influence events and their outcomes. While someone with an external locus of control blames outside forces for everything, they feel they have no control over the event and become passive (Julian Rotter).

On a larger social scale you can see intercultural differences of handling individual responsibility. The more individualistic societies are, the higher the value of independence and self-reliance; whereas the more collectivistic societies often take over those “individual” responsibilities.

I clearly experienced that dimension of collectivism versus individualism when I moved back to Europe. As a Positive Psychologist my second nature is to look for strengths, for natural resources, to empower my clients. But I also realized that working within different cultures often demands a translation of that message, even a little adaptation. Living in two cultures opened my eyes for those intercultural differences (and similarities) and it greatly enriched my life.