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

Sometimes making a decision not to do something is the best option. When we think about the word 'action', we have a picture of movement, getting something 'done'. But often, staying away or not doing something (for someone else), can have a much greater effect than simply jumping into action. Let me illustrate this with an example, which is taken from healthcare, but could also have parallels within any organization. 

Over the last two decades, nursing theory has evolved 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. The nurse’s role has broadened to include evaluating the patients’ ability to handle health challenges. By being empathetic rather than sympathetic helps the nurse to remain autonomous, and this has become just as important as acting professionally in emergencies.  In this situation, both the patient and the nurse are empowered to have more control in their respective personal and professional lives.

 "Empowerment is not giving people power, people already have plenty of power, in the wealth of their knowledge and motivation, to do their jobs magnificently. We define empowerment as letting this power out.[1]''

For this reason action does not simply equate to 'staying away' from action. This process of empowering also demands a very different view of managing responsibility. Traditionally, a nurse had to responsibly judge the appropriate level of care when providing medical assistance to the patient. This often led the patient to enter an adapted state of helplessness in which they gradually lost the initiative and became increasingly dependent on their caregivers. (Note that some people are more vulnerable to this 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 from this mind set.)

The extent to which people believe they have power over events in their lives is reinforced through certain beliefs. Julian B. Rotter, one of the eminent psychologists of the 20th century, referred to this as 'locus of control'[2]. A person with an internal ‘locus of control’ believes that he or she can influence events and outcomes, while someone with an external ‘locus of control’ blames outside forces for everything – they feel they have no control over events and become passive.

Through the process of empowering all the responsibility belongs to the individual– this can be both a blessing and a curse depending where along the continuum of the ‘locus of control’ you are during that moment. However, empowerment is not an individual act even though it is about the individual; it is often an act between two people. A wise individual (whether a nurse, doctor, manager, parent, or coach) who is there to create the space for the process to begin must carefully judge when to ‘act’ or ‘not to act’, and then provide positive reinforcements which will hopefully give the recipient confidence in their actions, giving them more control over their situation, and further motivating them to continue on the journey. And when they have achieved that state, both parties must take action and release each other from each other’s agreement (formal or informal) until another challenge arises. This is the way to empowerment!

[1] Blanchard et al. (1994) Empowerment Takes More Than A Minute
[2] The social learning theory of Julian B. Rotter (