A lot of things can make you feel disempowered. Your boss tells you to work on a project you do not believe in; you embrace a new life or work project just to find out that you do not have the necessary resources to achieve your goals; your significant other or parents push you to work really hard on something that is simply not aligned with your passions and ideals; at work, your suggestions are rejected without a reasonable explanation… The list goes on and on and does not appear to bode well for all of us who are trying to do meaningful things at work, with our lives and, as a result, in the world. So, with so many things leaving us disempowered, is there something we can do to empower ourselves and if so, what are the key things we should focus on?
Today we look at the meaning of empowerment and identify the critical ingredients that can help you creating a meaningful and empowered life at work. Whether work means your job, your business, your studies, or even a side project you have in hands, these key ingredients should be present and you should benefit from having them in place.
Try to recall a moment in your life where you believed that you were contributing to a larger purpose, where you felt so passionate about what you were doing that you were fully energized, motivated and interested. You were probably empowered and doing something meaningful. Empowerment is exactly that, a constellation of your inner experiences, feelings and thoughts that put you in command and in control of your life and work. It is an inner belief about the value of what you are doing that energizes you to do more. Research  shows that there are 4 critical ingredients to lead a psychologically active and empowered life and to achieve more of what you want at work: meaning, competence, autonomy, and impact. Let’s look at what you can do to achieve each one.
First ingredient to empower yourself: Meaning
We have meaning at work when we believe that the things we do are important and worthwhile. The meaning of “meaning” (no pun intended) changes a lot from person to person – what is important for you might be irrelevant for your significant other, boss, business partner, or client. For that reason, meaning comes to life when what you do fits your values and standards, not the values and standards of others. When what you are doing or trying to achieve is aligned with your own values you feel energized, remain focused for longer periods of time, surpass the difficulties and obstacles that come your way, and your mind does not seem to stop thinking about the amazing things you have ahead of you.
In contrast, when our values and actions are misaligned we tend to feel empty, stressed, exhausted, or even depressed. We start wasting time, procrastinating, and finding excuses to not do the work. It becomes tempting to open the news app, one of the social media apps, to do other things that are neither urgent nor important, or to mentally list why doing that particular task is a total waste of time.
This misalignment happens more frequently than we would like. For example, have you ever felt inspired by a social media post or video, just to find out that, 5 minutes later, all the momentary energy vanished and you were once again wasting time or, even worst, feeling bad? The reason is that many of these posts and videos are well crafted to attract you, but they only resonate with some people’s values and standards. For those, that video or post can be life changing; for you, a potential source of frustration. The critical difference is whether the external inspiration was aligned with your values and standards or not.
If you do not have meaning in our work or personal life, your first temptation might be to search for it. You might enroll yourself in new things, experiment with a new job, create your own business, or even change your network of friends. This active search has value in itself and is usually encouraged because it helps you better understand the world around you. For example, you might discover something that you really enjoy but were unaware of.
However, research has shown that this search can leave you emptier than you were when you started, particularly when you skip an important first step. This first step is identifying and elaborating on your values, standards and passions. In order to have meaning we all need to both understand ourselves and the world around us. That gives us the opportunity to honestly recognize our current position in the world, to identify our desired position, and to define the steps we need to take to achieve our goal.
By taking this first step of identifying your values, standards and passions, you can derive two main benefits. First, you can run a more directed search. You are no longer randomly searching for the next shiny new thing to do, but rather finding something that you know you want to do or pursue. Second, in most cases you can find something in what you have to do that is aligned with your values and thus find meaning in it. For example, let’s say that you are a business owner who dreads filling tax paperwork. Nonetheless, you choose to do it because that task is aligned with your value of being an independent entrepreneur. A deep understanding of who we are and where we want to be in the world, gives us the capacity to make these simple but powerful changes in the way we frame things. You can find meaning even in the most boring task when you look at the purpose it serves.
Is this the same as the common saying “follow your dreams” or “follow your passions”? To be absolutely clear: No! When we have 1) a deep understanding of the world around us, 2) a clear picture of our values, standards and passions (either present or those that we want to develop), and 3) we align these pieces of information with our actions, we usually start finding meaning . In turn, this alignment is at the root of a positive feedback loop. Over time and after many positive reinforcements and lessons learned, we establish meaning in our lives and the belief that we are leading a meaningful life starts building on itself. Then, and only then, we may be following our passion, regardless of whether that passion was with us from the beginning or was created from scratch.
Think about the values that are most important to you and write the ones that pop up in your mind (three to five). These are the things that you care about, that you want to maintain in your life or that you want to develop. If you are having trouble, please consider this short list as a starting point (ambition, collaboration, competence, courage, creativity, family, financial security, freedom, helping others, integrity, leadership, power, strength, wealth). Do not judge yourself during this exercise. These are your own values and there are many ways to use them productively.
After identifying your values, write down for about ten minutes why each value is important for you, how you can rely on them to achieve your goals, and how they can guide your everyday decisions. Finally, define a clear action to take; one that is difficult but doable in a relatively short period of time. Remember to be honest with yourself on things like your starting point, your current environment, and your current resources. Take a first step from wherever you are, not from where you wished you were. Once you complete that action, you start your own positive feedback loop on the creation of meaning for your life and work.
We use this exercise all the time here in our team (the Managing Life at Work crew) and we have reminders of our values hanging around. It never ceases to amaze us how easy it is to find deep meaning even in tasks that we may have otherwise found boring. We also found that the more we use this exercise, the easier it is to remember our values and to apply them in our daily lives to achieve important things at work and in life. Knowing our values gives meaning and purpose to our actions.
Takeaway: Meaning happens when you believe that what you are doing is important and valuable. You achieve meaning by aligning what you do with your values, standards, passions and aspirations. Identify your values, reflect on why they matter to you, and find ways to use them to achieve your goals or to simply finish that important thing you have been avoiding.
Second ingredient to empower yourself: Competence
You feel competent when you believe that you can do something well and make things happen. Have you ever wondered why some people with the exact same qualifications, intelligence, and work ethic you have behave like superheroes at work and in life? They have so much confidence in themselves that they not only see truly challenging projects as achievable, but they also mobilize all the resources required to successfully finish those projects. They go to work meetings and perform like pros, even when they are under fire from colleagues or bosses. They create profitable businesses in competitive niches. The list of their apparent superpowers appears to never end.
Well, we have good and bad news for you. The bad news is that superheroes can only be found in cinema and comic books and thus we do not have the privilege to walk among them. The good news is that those who believe that they can achieve something important and behave like pros are systematically using these next four tools – and you can use them too. If you do so, your beliefs about how difficult something is will change progressively, the amount of effort you put on things will go up and, consequently, your success will skyrocket. You might even notice other people giving you the superhero status.
So, when faced with something that you consider difficult, try these four tools to boost your competence beliefs.
- Remember yourself of the successes you had in the past with similar tasks. If you have managed to accomplish something at least once in the past, you can do it again. If it is something new or if you failed in the past, find similarities with things you already achieved and recall those things. The difficulty of almost everything in life is mostly a perception that you have built, not a factual reality. Keep building on your past experiences and ensure that tomorrow you recall today’s achievements. Over time and with continued effort you will get to the level you want.
- Look at what those superheroes are doing. If you have a difficult meeting ahead, observe how those superheroes behaved when they found themselves in that situation. If you are thinking about opening a business, watch videos, read books, or read posts on that topic. Even better, if possible have a chat with a few pros and learn from what they say.
- Let others convince you that you can do it and embrace that influence. Our friends, family, co-workers, and mentors can be great sources of encouragement when we doubt ourselves. If they are not, have a chat with them and explain that what you are trying to achieve is important and you would like to have their support.
- Bring the right emotions upfront. Fear and anxiety make you doubt yourself; excitement and enthusiasm bolster your confidence. Listening to music or having others cheering you up help building enthusiasm. Research has even shown that something as simple as saying “I am excited” when you are afraid or anxious increases your confidence and performance. If you place high importance on material possessions, create a montage with the things you want to get your hands on and turn that into your laptop background.
Do not expect magic coming out of these four tools, though. They are helpful competence boosters in the sense that they give you a clear picture of the amount of effort it will take you to achieve something, the steps you need to take to get there, and a fair assessment of the resources necessary to achieve what you want (for example, time required to learn something, ability to limit the distractions that are slowing down your progress). Step by step, these tools build up your competence in a certain work or personal life area. In turn, your belief in your competence starts feeding itself.
Do not forget to be patient with yourself – you may not believe that you have the competence to achieve a big goal tomorrow, but you very likely have the competence to, today, take the first required step to achieve that big goal. Keep in mind that, under the same circumstances, people confident in their competence consistently outperform those who doubt their capability. Their achievements are done one step at a time, no matter how big their final goals are.
Start using these 4 tools right away to boost your competence beliefs and also your actual skills. With time you will be able to use them without thinking, and confidence in your competence will become natural to you.
Takeaway: Competence is the belief you have in your ability to achieve something. To bolster this belief, use your past experiences, observe what others do, look for and embrace encouragement from trustworthy people, and bring emotions like excitement and enthusiasm upfront.
Third ingredient to empower yourself: Autonomy
When you can choose what to do, how to do it, and for how long you want to put effort on doing it, you experience autonomy. Why do we feel empowered when we are autonomous and have control over our choices? In a nutshell, because to pursue your values and to be in control of your life, you need free will. Although empowerment depends to some extent on your environment (for example, your business partner or your boss), to be empowered is largely an act of individual choice. If you think about it, you need autonomy to choose your meaning and, in turn, you need meaning to be able to wisely choose what to do. Without meaning, choices are resumed to following impulses or orders. Without autonomy, meaning cannot be built and you cannot choose how you want to achieve your purpose.
Do you enjoy when someone tells you to do something “as soon as possible”, meaning “now”, without any reasonable explanation? Probably you really do not like it. Do you feel anything special when you achieve a goal by strictly following what someone told you to do? Probably you think that the other person holds the merit for the goal you achieved. By delegating control over our lives, letting others define our values, or simply following orders, we put ourselves in a position where our autonomy, and consequently our empowerment, is endangered.
Autonomy is so important for all of us that the majority of things in our life are built around it. For example, the majority of legal systems assume that you have the ability to choose to do right or wrong. Many teenagers, in an effort to build their autonomy and their sense of control over their lives, rebel against direct orders (to the point when sometimes they end up doing exactly the opposite of what was requested). Large scale studies even show that autonomy is a psychological need all human beings have. So it should be no surprise that losing or giving away our autonomy can be truly damaging and even traumatizing. An extreme example of this point is convicted people who spend some time in jail (their autonomy was taken away). Two out of three never return to prison – probably those who decided to never find themselves again in a position where their autonomy was being taken away. Not having the autonomy necessary to pursue what we want slowly but steadily eats us from the inside out and is a massive source of frustration. At least in our view, life is too short to be lived in such a way.
At this point you are probably thinking – “Well, I am employed and I have to do what I am told to do.” Although that is truth to some extent, nowadays people tend to have more amplitude in what they do than they expect. For example, after doing a great job your boss is probably going to trust you more and see no need to micromanage you. If your boss does not show any signs of adaptation in light of your great work, you can always try to negotiate the amount of autonomy and control you will have in your next task and at your work. If you co-own a business you might be thinking – “Well, my business partner is a control freak, always looking over my shoulder and telling me how to do things.” In such a situation, you can try to define roles and to clarify who is in control of what. For example, while you lead marketing and product development, your business partner leads payroll and production. Through weekly meetings, each partner can develop a clear picture of the whole business and contribute to the overall strategy, without damaging each others’ level of autonomy. The point here is that in almost every situation there is some negotiable amplitude in how much autonomy you have.
Think about something that is frustrating you at work because it is hurting your autonomy. It can be, for example, you being forced to do something in a way that you know is inefficient. Try to negotiate the introduction of a new way of doing things. During the negotiation, keep in mind two key points. First, make sure your timing is spot on. If everything is going reasonably well, the other person will hardly see any good reason to change a procedure. However, when things are not going as well as expected people can be more open to alternatives.
Second, keep your proposal focused on the mission of your business or team. If your proposal reflects an important shared goal of the group, it is more likely that it will be accepted by others. For example, instead of saying: “I think we should adopt the alternative option B”; you could say: “We could increase our sales by 20% by adopting option B.” Understanding how the other person thinks is critical here. For example, one of my previous bosses loved numbers, so I learned that any new thing I was trying to introduce had to be justified with numeric evidence.
Importantly, you can use this exercise to start negotiating with yourself – framing things in terms of the benefits for what you are pursuing helps you feeling autonomous rather than controlled. This might seem silly to you, but for years I hated having my life scheduled in an agenda. I felt controlled every single time I opened the agenda and checked the stuff I had to do. I later recognized that the issue was not the agenda, but rather that I was giving orders to myself in the agenda without any meaning whatsoever. I surpassed this by negotiating with myself. Before each task I remembered myself of its importance for achieving my purpose. In some instances I removed the task because it was a waste of time; in other instances, it motivated me to do the work. Either way, I felt in control and autonomous.
Takeaway: Autonomy is having the choice and control of what you do and how you do it. While not always the case, in most circumstances we can negotiate how much choice we can have in a given task and at our work.
Fourth ingredient to empower yourself: Impact
We believe we are making an impact when we progress towards an important goal and have an active role in achieving something that makes a difference in our works, businesses, lives, or families.
When we feel that no matter what we do nothing will make a difference, we start believing that we do not have an active role in our world and we become helpless. When this happens, the route to giving up becomes wide open and the easiest one to follow – we give up our dreams, our goals, and even our health. The expressions “I am going nowhere” and “Oh, why should I try, it does not matter” become our personal motto. Interestingly, burning out is, in many instances, more the result of not seeing any progress than the result of working too hard.
To escape this trap and, at the same time, make an impact it is crucial that you start celebrating all the small achievements towards your goals. If you are struggling to just start working – work for 5 minutes and tap yourself on the back for that, you deserve it. If your house is a mess, clean up one room and reward yourself for that achievement. When these small victories start to build up, you become the one writing down the path of your life and of your own successes.
It is also paramount that you find ways to see the impact that the things you are trying to achieve have. Small things can have a positive snowball effect on you. A small compliment from a client, your first sale, or a small boost in your performance due to a change in behavior can have a lasting effect on you. Go after these things by, for example, interacting with clients, colleagues, bosses or business partners.
Think about something that is scaring you or making you feel overwhelmed. It can be building your own business, finishing a project at school, telling your girlfriend that you love her and would like to tie the knot, or simply sitting down and reading a book. Start setting milestones for the journey you can foresee to accomplish your goal. For each milestone, clearly define what constitutes an achievement and how you are going to measure it. Do not forget to also set rewards for yourself after you achieve each milestone. With this simple tool you create momentum to make an impact that goes way beyond your early expectations.
Takeaway: When you believe your actions make a difference in your path to goal accomplishment you have impact. Start small, set milestones and reward yourself for your achievements (even the small ones).
Do you need the four ingredients to empower yourself?
Together, these four beliefs are the core foundations of an active and empowered approach to work and life. If you do not have one of the foundations, hold on to the other three while you build the one missing. Each empowerment ingredient feeds on itself and on the other ingredients. For example, a meaningful purpose that you choose for yourself in something you are really good at can be a source of frustration if you see no progress (you have high meaning, autonomy and competence but low impact). Pay close attention to all four ingredients and try applying some of the strategies we shared to elevate the ones that are falling behind.
Let’s look at a rather common example on how paying attention to all ingredients is critical to be empowered. Let’s say that all of your past businesses failed and you doubt your value (low competence). You can start by remembering yourself why it is important for you to open a business (your meaning), and which skills need development for you to build a successful business (competence building). You can increase your competence by reading or learning from successful entrepreneurs and past mistakes, by surrounding yourself with peers that support you, and by limiting distractions so that you keep your excitement about the new business project. Equipped with this new knowledge and skills you can then establish specific and realistic milestones and track your progress (impact). By the way, all of this was your choice, so you can also embrace the fact that you are still the one in control of your life and time (autonomy), despite all the turmoil that you might be facing due to the previous failing businesses. While you cannot change your past failures nor control others, you can control yourself and, to a large extent, your future achievements.
While reading this post, what was your biggest takeaway? Is there a tool you are ready to use, or an insight that will help you see things differently? Are you better equipped to pursue meaningful goals and have you now a stronger antidote to the difficult times ahead? If you don’t mind sharing, please comment below. If nothing else, it will fuel our empowerment to continue writing posts like this. Most importantly, however, it might help one of us learn from your insights or applications. If you think this might help some friends, please share the post and give them a call to cheer them up and remind them that their best achievements are just around the corner.
To be empowered requires serious commitment, hard work and, at least, some self-knowledge; but it is incredibly rewarding. Although mastering each empowerment ingredient is a challenge in itself, if you apply the tools we shared, you should start seeing progress in no time.
To simplify things, can we summarize everything we discussed into a memorable sentence you can take with you? Something simple to remember, but that reminds you of all ingredients (meaning, competence, autonomy, and impact)? Let’s give it a try. Empowerment comes to life when you see the progress of your decision to be competent at something meaningful to you.
As always, thank you for investing your time with Managing Life at Work. It has been a pleasure to share this information with you. See you all in the next post. Until then, enjoy the adventure of being empowered at work and in life.
References and further reading
- ^ Maynard, M. T., Gilson, L. L., and Mathieu, J. E. (2012). “Empowerment – fad or fab? A multilevel review of the past two decades of research.” Journal of Management, 38, 1231-1281.
- ^ a b c Thomas, K. W., and Velthouse, B. A. (1990). “Cognitive elements of empowerment: An ‘interpretive’ model of intrinsic task motivation.” Academy of Management Review, 15, 666-681.
- ^ a b Spreitzer, G. M. (1996). “Social structural characteristics of psychological empowerment.” Academy of Management Journal, 39, 483-504.
- ^ a b Steger, M. F., Kashdan, T. B., Sullivan, B. A., and Lorentz, D. (2008). “Understanding the search for meaning in life: Personality, cognitive style, and the dynamic between seeking and experiencing meaning.” Journal of Personality, 76, 199-228.
- ^ Newman, D. B., Nezlek, J. B., and Thrash, T. M. (2018). “The dynamics of searching for meaning and presence of meaning in daily life.” Journal of Personality, 86, 368-379.
- ^ Kashdan, T. B., and Steger, M. F. (2007). “Curiosity and pathways to well-being and meaning in life: Traits, states, and everyday behaviors.” Motivation and Emotion, 31, 159-173.
- ^ a b Seibert, S. E., Wang, G., and Courtright, S. H. (2011). “Antecedents and consequences of psychological and team empowerment in organizations: A meta-analytic review.” Journal of Applied Psychology, 96, 981-1003.
- ^ Stajkovic, A. D., and Luthans, F. (1998). “Self-efficacy and work-related performance: A meta-analysis.” Psychological Bulletin, 124, 240-261.
- ^ Gist, M. E., and Mitchell, T. R. (1992). “Self-efficacy: A theoretical analysis of its determinants and malleability.” Academy of Management Review, 17, 183-211.
- ^ Brooks, A. W. (2014). “Get excited: reappraising pre-performance anxiety as excitement.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 1144-1158.
- ^ Ryan, R. M., and Deci, E. L. (2017). “Self‐determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness.” New York, NY: Guilford Press.
- ^ Rhodes, W., Gaes, G., Luallen, J., Kling, R., Rich, T., and Shively, M. (2016). “Following incarceration, most released offenders never return to prison.” Crime & Delinquency, 62, 1003–1025.
- ^ Levinson H. (1981). “When executives burn out.” Harvard Business Review, 59, 73-81.