This is Your Moment: Finding Empowerment Through Action

Though the original author of the blessing “may you live in interesting times” may be lost to history, he or she would certainly agree that 2020 would qualify. Headlines from compounding crises compete for our attention and emotional resources. We have become numb to the word “unprecedented,” and we feel ill-equipped to process, let alone solve, the number of urgent issues that must be addressed. If we are, as it seems, at an inflection point requiring large-scale change and action on many fronts, where do we begin?

At the same time, we each continue to navigate our daily lives. We interact with and relate to our families, our friends, our neighbors, our coworkers, our bosses, and everyone else we encounter in our communities. They are not all behaving as we’d like, all the time. Conflicts inevitably arise. Our patience is thin, and our resources are depleted. How do we move forward?

First, acknowledge human nature.

Human beings have an instinctual gift which has helped the human race endure over time: the fight or flight response. While this mechanism is useful for emergency situations, it tends to backfire in times of chronic stress. Biologically speaking, our bodies are awash in the adrenalin and cortisol we’d use to fend off a tiger, but the tiger isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon. We are not set up for this.

For those who are hunkering down and avoiding as much danger as possible, that response is understandable. Also understandable: anger, bargaining, denial, depression, or acceptance. If these sound like the stages of grief, it’s because they are, and they’re evident all around us at all levels of society as we work to identify all the tigers and keep them at bay. It’s tempting in “fight” mode to try to attack all the tigers at once. It’s tempting in “flight” mode to hang our hopes on someone else showing up to fix it, whatever “it” is on any given day. Neither strategy is sustainable.

In a 2014 Forbes article entitled “50 Ways to Do Well by Doing Good,” author Bruce Kasanoff suggested a middle ground, writing, “If you have boundless initiative, learn to be patient. If you have infinite patience, learn to take action. You will need both.” These are wise words for complicated times.

Take the temperature- particularly your own.

The good news about “fight or flight” mode is that biology has also equipped us with critical thinking skills, intuition, and empathy. When we encounter a conflict, be it global or personal, we can almost always take a moment to pause, take a deep breath, and acknowledge the strong emotions we may be feeling. When we recognize our own internal processing methods, we can control our external response to a conflict, and react more effectively. We can also acknowledge that those around us are likely processing strong responses as well, even if they don’t match ours. This is as true in an emergency as it is on social media or in a meeting with teammates.

Every problem has a solution, even if it is not immediately clear. After we’ve taken a moment to take a breath, we can identify the problem, involve other people in the process, and take it step by step.

Commit to solving big problems.

When it comes to solving problems at the regional, national, or global scale, how should we proceed? Do individual actions move the needle, or should we leave it up to those who can enact sweeping changes? The answer is complex, but large-scale change almost always requires solutions from the top down, from the bottom up, and from the middle. Individual actions absolutely matter; our choices accumulate over time and across communities. If everyone participates, these choices can impact industry behavior and sway our leaders to positive action with even broader effects.

Systemic change takes time, and requires a multitude of overlapping strategies. There may not be an “easy button,” but collaboration at all levels can build momentum, encourage innovation, and unite us around critical and common goals. This collaboration, however, requires building bridges, not burning them. When we assume positive intent, even when we disagree with others at the table, we are more likely to find enough common ground to move towards win/win solutions.

Be brave enough to swim upstream.

The internet, though a powerful force for connection and innovation, also creates real issues of misinformation and polarization. Algorithms present us with targeted content based on our “likes,” but rarely show us perspectives that challenge our own. The middle ground disappears as we are nudged into increasingly isolated bubbles. The pressure to keep up with the social media movement of the moment is intense, and it becomes difficult to separate social media urgency from real urgency. Callout culture makes it easy to assign blame and take pot shots without offering any real solutions, and mostly just leads to more burned bridges and less middle ground.

How do we escape this treadmill? We do so by acknowledging that the actions that count are the ones that happen offline, in the real world. We stop complaining and make a plan; we stop commenting and criticizing and start advocating. We remember that the human beings in front of us need our attention more than those in our social media feeds, and we begin to trade screen time for meaningful action.

Do your due diligence.

When we do decide to get moving, it’s important to take time to gather the facts, and consider the impacts of our actions from every angle. Nothing happens in a vacuum; everything intersects with other issues. What is the cost of the change we’re proposing, and how will that cost be addressed? Who benefits? Who loses? Is there a solution that isn’t zero-sum, one in which everyone benefits?

Equally important to consider: what is the opportunity cost of failing to act? What are the impacts to the individual, to the cause, to the firm, or to the project team? Every choice won’t benefit everyone equally. That shouldn’t necessarily stop us from taking action, but it’s important to understand exactly what we’re asking from all parties moving forward in order to make a well-reasoned argument for change.

Lead the way.

In challenging times, taking the first step towards positive action yields huge benefits. We can join something, form something, or give to something- as long as we show up for something. Actions, even small ones, remind us that we have agency. It’s ok, sometimes even preferable, to start small. The canned goods we deliver to the food bank today might not eliminate world hunger, but they will feed somebody in our town tonight. It’s also ok to join an initiative in progress rather than re-invent the wheel. We can learn from and contribute to well-established organizations that have developed an efficient process to address a significant need.

We can also propose new solutions, whether at home or at work or in our communities. When we’ve done the work to understand an issue from a variety of perspectives, we are more empowered to take action. We can step out of reactive mode, in which bemoaning is the easy answer, and into proactive mode, in which we show up to propose a better way forward and are willing to put in the effort to achieve it.

We’re all in this together.

As team members in a firm of 345 people across three states and eight offices, we have all seen huge changes this year in our communities. Within our company and others, our need for a “better together” attitude has never been greater. Fortunately, even as we have redoubled our efforts at the firm level towards achieving positive changes in our communities, our individual team members have accelerated their own efforts towards solving problems at every scale. We have long been rooted in the values of excellence, integrity, empowerment, collaboration, balance, stewardship, and caring, and when someone asks, “What is LS3P doing about…?” we can say with confidence, “We are all LS3P,” and acknowledge that each of us is accountable for doing our part.

Our impacts are as close as delivering meals to first responders in our own neighborhoods, and as far away as designing critical healthcare facilities for people on other continents. We are each empowered to respond with meaningful action in difficult times, and we each have agency when faced with a conflict, at the dinner table or at the global scale. As we move forward together, our goal is to use this agency wherever possible to unite people rather than divide them. We will build bridges, not burn them; offer solutions, not criticism; and show up to help.

About Katherine

Senior Associate Katherine Ball, AIA, LEED AP, serves as LS3P’s Strategist | Writer. Based in the Raleigh office, Katherine supports firmwide internal and external communication efforts, content strategy, and research. Katherine earned a Master of Architecture from NC State University’s College of Design and a Bachelor of Arts in English from Wake Forest University. Her architecture experience includes programming, design, and construction administration for civic clients; her previous professional experience is in public education.

About Heather

Associate Principal Heather Pierce, MBA, serves as LS3P’s Human Resources Leader. Pierce brings over 17 years of comprehensive HR experience, including significant leadership roles in the AEC industry. In addition to holding the highest accreditation by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRMP-SCP), Heather holds a Master of Science in Project Management as well as a Master of Business Administration from the Citadel, and a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Hollins University. Her expertise includes Human Resources theory and practice as well as project management.