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On motivation, empowerment,
Cain and Abel

Lately, I have had the pleasure to participate in a fascinating discussion on the LinkedIn network on the subject of worker empowerment. It took place in a group of which I am a member. One of the quality managers shared his efforts to empower his workers, while the management, to be precise, the wide management, isn’t really into it.

Many interesting things were said by the group members. They made me realize that the whole concept of empowerment may not be so very clear to most people. The discussion inspired this article, and I hope to bring some clarity on the concepts.

Some think empowerment is a method to ensure the workers are happy, i.e. to compliment them and slap them on the shoulder. Some consider is just semantics, a type of New-Age PC in management. Or, simply, mumbo-jumbo and total nonsense.

Some are convinced, that worker empowerment cannot be achieved without “enlightened” management. Therefore, there is no chance for it without management support.

Perhaps I can make things clearer.

Illustration: the stick and the carrot - empowerment

What is, in fact, empowerment? And what are its consequences?

Empowerment, as the word implies, is the giving or increasing of power. Thus, worker empowerment means:

  • focusing on the worker’s power, his strength, and the process of him gaining awareness of his ability to change things, to act differently, to improve his situation;
  • taking action in order to increase this awareness of power.

A worker connected to his own inner strength would feel good about his work. Confident in his actions, involved in his job and his contribution to the whole, he would act out of caring for the result.

I would like to make myself as clear as possible. By “feeling good about one’s work”, I do not, in any way, mean making the worker “happy”. These are two completely different states. A person who feels good about his work is engaged and wants to do it well. At the same time, he may or may not be happy. For example, he might be frustrated with a challenge he needs to solve. He will, however, confront the obstacle because he is connected to his job, engaged. A person’s being “happy” is a momentary, ever changing state. A person’s “feeling good about his work” is a steady state, a constant.

Illustration: Empowerment

What does it mean for quality?

That’s obvious, isn’t it? When a person is empowered, when he knows he has the power to change and improve, to affect. When he feels good about his work and is engaged, Quality rises drastically, and with it, by default, rise efficiency and productivity.

When workers are empowered, aware of their power and using it, they are motivated from within, not from without. Their motivation comes not from some carrot the management dangles in front of them, but from their inner values. It is not by chance that the words for “self”, “essence” and “power” in Hebrew share the same root! When one is in alignment with oneself, acting from within – one has power!

Each and every one of us is born free, with choice and power. If we find ourselves at a place where others have power over us, then this happens later and not of itself, not naturally. It means that somewhere along the way, as a result of “circumstances”, culture, education, the programming our parents passed on to us etc. we have lost our sense of power and our confidence in it, in our choice.

Worker who don’t know they have the power to improve their situation, who are sure they must bend to another’s will are workers who literally have no power. They feel like slaves or outsiders. They are not independent, not involved, do not own their actions or their consequences.

Empowerment is the way of allowing to return to the workers power, which was theirs to begin with. The power they lost, misplaced along the way.

When does one empower workers?

Working to empower workers is a way of life, not a method, not “another program”, not a tool.

In order to be able to empower your workers, you must first truly believe that they really have the strength in the first place. That they have the power, and all you must do is remind them of it daily, until they experience, see and believe it again themselves. It is a process, which begin with yourselves. It is an approach.

And what of the managers who “don’t buy into” this approach?

Well, an empowered person would ask: what does that have to do with anything?

An empowered person, who believes this is the right and only way to progress and succeed as a group, an organization and a society. He does not borrow his strength from management. He knows that the only way he can act is in accord with his values, his beliefs. His inner power. He doesn’t need his manager’s approval. That’s the whole point.

What moves an non-empowered person to take action? Something other than himself, for instance, the carrot and the stick. The manager promises the carrot (something the worker wants, like a raise). Or threatens with the stick (something the worker does not want, like a certain work station, shift or the threat of layoff). In other words, the motivation to act / not act comes from an external source. From without.

On the other hand, an empowered person is motivated to act / not act. Based on what is right, based on his trust in himself and his ability, on his values. His motivation does not depend on external factors, it comes from within.

Thus, the question “who would let us?” or “what would they say?” or “what about the managers?” simply becomes irrelevant.

Thus said the Sages.
Quotes by people worth heeding:

To realize that you do not understand is a virtue. Not to realize that you do not understand is a defect.

— Lao Tsu

But it's not easy, to empower a non-empowered person

It is not easy to bring “simple workers” to such a degree of empowerment, but – let’s start with you! Are you empowered? Does your motivation come from within, or from the response of others? Are you led by the carrot and/or the stick?

To illustrate, I’d like to use a story from the Torah. One you know well, but I wish to show in a different light.

I shall first say that I have no intention to give a lesson in religion, perform any missionary activity or offend anyone else’s faith. I am not a religious person, though I believe in my own way. I would never force my beliefs on anyone and fully respect another’s faith (unless it intends harm on others, naturally).

However, I would like to show you a view completely different from any you have ever encountered of this particular story, based on my own point of view. Thus, I would like to ask you to take it without judgment, like a totally new story, one you have never heard before.

Personally, I view the Torah not as a book of religion, but as a type of “operation manual” for Man, made for the purpose of instructing us on the best way to live our lives. The Torah, the whole Bible, is a very large book. It must, therefore, be extremely economical in words, to give us as many stories as it can about what we should do and what we should refrain from doing. Most of the story is, in fact, happening between the lines, in the people, the feelings, the experiences, and not in the words themselves. I experience the Torah as the ultimate self-improvement book, the first ever in the world, and would tell you the story from that point of view.

Sacrifices of Cain and Abel
The Sacrifices of Cain and Abel. Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, wood engraving, 1860. From The Bible in Pictures, Leipzig (Georg Wigand) 1860, page 12. Berlin, Sammlung Archiv für Kunst und Geschichte.

The story of Cain and Abel through a child's eyes

The following interpretation comes from my son. A few years ago, when he was about 8 or 9, he had a very hard day at school, and I was called to take him home early. I found him at the playground, very distraught. Wishing to help him calm down, I suggested to tell him a story of Cain and Abel (Genesis, 4). This was the first time my son has ever heard it.

I told him that Cain and Abel were sons of Adam and Eve, the first people created. We have already spoken about that story. Cain has grown up to be a farmer, and Abel was a shepherd. At some point, Cain has brought an offering to God of the fruits of the earth, and Abel – from the firstborn of his sheep. God has taken Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s, which has made Cain really angry.

Here I stopped and asked my son what he thought: why, in his opinion, has God accepted one brother’s offering, but not the other’s.

His answer came as a complete surprise to me in its depth of a child’s understanding of a story from just the few words above; his ability to feel the situation and interpret it.

The action's intent decides its results

“Mom”, said my son, “Abel sounds as a person totally at peace with himself and happy. In fact, a rather boring person. He just does what he loves doing. All this giving offering to God was for him a great idea to celebrate his gratitude for all the abundance he has, out of true feeling of love and gratitude, from his heart.

“Cain is different, he is complicated. He is looking for attention, he is competitive. He doesn’t bring the offering from the joy in his heart or true gratitude, but out of his desire to outshine his brother. He wants to make God love him more. In effect, he wanted to impress God, buy his love, like parents and grandparents do when they shower the children with presents.

“But God is not to be bought. He sees not the object, not the gift, not the offering. He sees the intention in the person’s heart in giving it. That is why he accepted Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s.

“And also, he already loved Cain more, and wanted to make him think, improve himself, so he gave him a difficulty, an obstacle in his path to overcome, so he can solve his own problems inside”.

Somewhat overwhelmed by the depth of my son’s analysis, I was speechless for a moment, then continued the story.

Cain was angry with Abel because his offering was accepted, and God asked him why he was so angry. He explained to Cain that a good deed was in itself the best prize, it made the person who did it feel good. He instructed Cain to look for the real reason for his anger and not allow the anger control him. But Cain did not listen, and out of anger he killed Abel.

God asked Cain where Abel was, and he has lied, implying he did not know. Then God told him that from that moment forward he will have no place in his land of birth,. He will move from place to place, and everywhere he shall be recognized, but he won’t be killed.

And again I asked my son what he thought of the story and Cain’s actions, and this was his reply:

Cain slays Abel
Cain slays Abel. Frederic, Lord Leighton, wood engraving, 1881. Illustration for ‘Dalziel’s Bible Gallery’, engraved by the Dalziel Brothers, 1881.

Correction must come from within

“God has given Cain advice, told him what he should work on. This confirms he loved him more than Abel: he never tried to teach Abel, but he tried to teach Cain, to help him improve. But Cain did not listen to him, because, it is hard to listen when you’re angry. He allowed the anger to control him.

“And because Cain was so competitive, and did not listen and did not learn anything, he continued to think in the same way he had before. He thought he had to compete with Abel for God’s love, and that if there was to be no Abel – God will have to choose Cain. That’s why he killed him. He tried to force God to choose him.

“But God is not a man, he doesn’t think as a man, and he has all the Time in the world. He doesn’t have to choose anyone. He can wait until the right man came, as long as it takes.

“And even then he gave Cain an opportunity to improve himself. He asked him where Abel was, because if he was no longer angry, he may have realized the terrible mistake he made and was sorry for it… but Cain chose to lie, which is really stupid, when you talk to God: after all, he knows everything anyway, right? He was probably so distraught he didn’t know what to do.

And so God told Cain that he will be running his whole life from what he has done. Guilt is a strong feeling and you cannot run from it, and people can see when a person feels guilty, so he would always be recognized everywhere”.

Adam and Eve with Cain and Abel
Adam and Eve with Cain and Abel. Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, wood engraving, late 19th century.

Looking deep

I have read and heard many interpretations of the story of Cain and Abel. Never have I encountered such a humane, looking deep within and understanding one as from the mouth of my 8- or 9-year-old son that morning at the playground.

The child has seen Cain the young man and felt his pain and frustration, his acute jealousy of his younger brother, which we know today as a clinical phenomenon in families where a second child is born soon after the first. He felt his overwhelming desire to be noticed, his competitiveness, the cry of his soul for attention.

Most interpreters of this story do not deal with the people at all, nor the reasons for their actions. They concentrate on what was placed on the altar: the fruits of the earth or the firstborn of the sheep. They focus on the result, the acceptance/rejection of the offering, as the acceptance/rejection of that which is offered, as the choice of the quality of the offering or its substance.

The child has seen the deed through what wasn’t written: the dynamics in the family and between the brothers and their relationship with God and with themselves.

Interpreting the story - motivation and empowerment

I said I would offer a point of view you have never before contemplated. Allow me to add from myself the following observations.

The story demonstrates the principles of internal motivation vs external one, and their consequences.

Abel is an empowered person. He has no doubts in himself and acts from within. He perceives a good idea – and embraces it, because it is a good idea, one aligned with his values, his joy and sincere gratitude. Not because of someone else.

Cain’s motivations throughout the story are external. He is not an empowered person, he depends on others. His jealousy of Abel comes as a result of the lack he accumulates from his parents, interpreting the attention given to his younger brother as preference. His competitiveness is motivated by his brother’s very existence.

It is ridiculous to suggest that God would choose sheep over the fruits of the earth because of what they are, for they are equally His creations, and there is balance in the world between the two sides. Farmers and shepherds complement each other, they do not compete.

Cain and Abel make an offering
Cain and Abel make an offering. The Phillip Medhurst Picture Torah, 2000.

God has begun a process of empowerment with Cain, but Cain refused to participate. We cannot make others change, and we cannot motivate them from within. Only they can do that. Cain chose not to.

This story comes in the very beginning of the Torah to teach us what happens to us when we lead ourselves from within, as Abel – or are led from without, as Cain. It shows what would happen when we choose to not improve, to not empower ourselves.

And what about you?

Can you project the story and its conclusions onto yourselves and the people you work with? Which role would you choose? Where would you see yourselves?

Be the answers as they may, it is important that you understand that finding the power within yourselves is not a luxury, but essential for every aspect of your lives, at work and outside it, today and throughout the rest of your lives.

Would you choose to heed the ancient story from the Torah and bring a change in yourselves and the people around you? If so – your offerings shall always be well received, and the fruits you collect shall be bountiful and better that you can imagine.

Pictures of Cain and Abel, from top to bottom:
The Sacrifices of Cain and Abel. Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, wood engraving, 1860. From The Bible in Pictures, Leipzig (Georg Wigand) 1860, page 12. Berlin, Sammlung Archiv für Kunst und Geschichte.
Cain slays Abel. Frederic, Lord Leighton, wood engraving, 1881. Illustration for ‘Dalziel’s Bible Gallery’, engraved by the Dalziel Brothers, 1881.
Adam and Eve with Cain and Abel. Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, wood engraving, late 19th century.
Cain and Abel make an offering. The Phillip Medhurst Picture Torah, 2000.

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