“I am powerless….” (Probably not, but let’s talk about it)


(image courtesy of clipart-library.com)

Over the past couple of months, I’ve taken note of essays and blog posts where individuals have shared a sense of powerlessness to change things for the better. The saddest of these are proclamations: “I am powerless to (fill in the blank)….” They come from good people who care about making the world a better place, yet who have reached a place of deep exasperation, frustration, or hopelessness. Some are venting, others are mourning. Some, having gotten it off their chest, will jump back into the fray, while others seem poised to move on or withdraw.

I want to think about this out loud for a few minutes.

I haven’t gone back to find and link to those various writings, as it’s not about questioning or highlighting individuals or their causes. Rather, it’s about recognizing that trying to change things for the better — however one defines “better” — can be hard, challenging work, especially when forces against that change have a lot of power (economic, political, personal, what have you) and exercise it freely. And we happen to live in an age where extreme concentrations of power are ever more common.

In my work on workplace bullying, I see this all the time: Aggressors at work who treat others abusively, and often get away with it. Executives and senior administrators who stoke climates of hostility. HR officers who safeguard abusers and toss targets under the bus. Powerful business interests that want to keep workplace bullying legal.

Nevertheless, I also have been a witness to, and at times a participant in, positive change. A form of mistreatment that didn’t have a widely-recognized label a decade ago (at least in the U.S.) has entered the mainstream of discussions about employee relations. Articles and coverage about workplace bullying appear regularly in the print, electronic, and social media. Some organizations take bullying behaviors seriously and cover them in employee policies. Unions are negotiating about bullying and abusive supervision at the bargaining table. Legislatures are deliberating on and slowly starting to enact workplace bullying legislation.

My experiences are hardly unique. People are exercising their power all the time to change things for the better. Oftentimes they are cast in the role of underdog, yet they are moving the world forward within their spheres of influence regardless.

But what if you are feeling exhausted, hopeless, and maybe a little beaten up?

First, let’s acknowledge that steps to reconsider, regroup, recover, renegotiate, reassess, and reenergize are wholly permitted.

If the work you’re doing to make a difference is overtaxing your body and soul, then you need not be a martyr. Maybe you’re at the point where you’ve done what you can do, and it’s time to pull away.

Or maybe an angle you haven’t considered or fully explored can serve as a breakthrough — or at least as a more rewarding pathway. Perhaps you’re close to that breakthrough with the approach you’re using, but you don’t fully comprehend it.

If you want to cogitate on the stay vs. go question, check out Seth Godin’s short, thoughtful, quirky book, The Dip: A Little Book that Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick) (2007). Here’s a snippet:

Quit the wrong stuff. Stick with the right stuff. Have the guts to do one or the other.

The decision may look simple, but we know it’s a lot more complex than that.

Finally, we must keep strive our egos and expectations in check, which is no small task when we’re emotionally invested in something. Especially when our popular culture demands immediate satisfaction and embraces short term “deliverables,” we are primed to expect and celebrate quick results. But deeper change can take time. Even dramatic tipping points are often preceded by a long run up.

The old social activist adage, be the change you want to see in the world, applies now more than ever. In addition, a vital lesson I’ve learned as an educator is that we must also be willing to work for change that we may never personally see. (My friends who are parents may understand this implicitly.)

When we put these two pieces together, we have a lot more power than if we did not.

14 responses

  1. I think this is your best post EVER. As a conflict management specialist, I like to help people focus on what they can do for themselves first by helping them identify with being unstuck, with options available, and then exercising their right to determine where they want to be and how to get there – unstuck where they are or unstuck someplace else. It is so important, to remember, in being unstuck, that the other persons behavior is never about you. It is all about the bully and their lack of control, power, etc. It is not about the bullied; and the bullied should not, by any means, give up their power over their lives to the bully.

    • Barbara, thank you for that very kind comment. I’ve been wrestling with these thoughts for some time, and I finally decided just to toss them out there. I’m glad they resonate for you and the important work that you’re doing.

      • I like to look at the positive side of things, David, and as many people as walk into my office saying they have been bullied or are, often their experience doesn’t rise to the definition. None-the less, it is how they feel. So, I help them unstick first, and then empower them. Often, it results in empowering them with the right tools and words to stop the uncivil behavior they feel they have been subjected to. What I teach my kids, which comes from a Becky Bailey seminar, is “I don’t like it when you…it would be better for me if you….” This often works amazingly well.

        Regards, Barb.

        Barbara Viney
        Conflict Management Specialist
        Violence Prevention Coordinator

        Mail Code 3602A – Suite 1402 S/T
        William Jefferson Clinton North
        1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
        Washington, DC 20460


  2. David, thank you for your wise and balanced outlook on dealing with difficult circumstances. After three years of mobilizing tenants and successfully battling bullying and mobbing in my subsidized housing situation, I was burned out and my health was at risk from the continuing stress. When management reversed our gains, I abandoned efforts to change my situation. We did not have the power to succeed in confronting the bullying. But I switched to education and advocacy in the broader community, and have found common cause not only with other advocacy groups, but a very warm and supportive welcome by our legislators on Beacon Hill. Our goal is to pass S2329, which will create a legislative study commission to research the issues and propose change. Our concerns are very comparable in many ways to your ongoing efforts on the workplace front. My point is that sometimes we need to go around the immovable barriers to reach our goals. And as you point out, to be patient and persistent.

  3. Thank you for this post, Professor Yamada. It was very helpful. I read your blog regularly and it is always full of great stuff, but this one is particularly helpful for those of us who have been fighting long and hard and finally reached a point of pure exhaustion. I was feeling like a quitter because I threw in the towel when I finally reached a point where I could obtain some remedy for my personal situation. I was just too tired. But, perhaps more importantly, I achieved victories that will benefit those who come after me. Working for change we may never personally see…I like that and I feel good that I accomplished it. Thank you for driving that point home, sir.

  4. This is a great post, David – thank you. I’m sure you’re aware of the Jian Ghomeshi situation unfolding in Canada, which includes allegations of physical and mental bullying in the workplace. One of the complainants in that case has alleged that when she approached her boss to discuss Ghomeshi’s alleged abuse toward her, she was asked “what can you do to make things better for yourself”. I hope that your very sensible suggestions will not be interpreted as putting all the responsibility for change on the accuser – I know that’s *not* what you meant, but I think that needs to be emphasized in case it is read that way.

  5. Thank you, everyone for these comments. I really didn’t expect such a positive response — these “think piece” type posts seldom get much feedback. But I’m glad this one resonated in a thoughtful way.

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