Agency Illustrated: Breaking Out Of The Box

In a post last week, I explored in depth the question of what constitutes “agency.” I build on that here as a result of a bit of awesome serendipity.

An interview with Apple’s Tim Cook that was published this week provides an excellent, if unintended, illustration of the idea of agency in action. Right at the outset, Cook shared the philosophy of Steve Jobs that has had the most enduring impact in shaping the culture within Apple: “Steve felt that most people live in a small box. They think they can’t influence or change things a lot. I think he would probably call that a limited life. And more than anybody I’ve ever met, Steve never accepted that.”

Those few short sentences capture the antithesis of agency. The idea that people live in a box where they are constrained and unable to influence actions and create change is what epitomizes the absence of agency. It is the idea of being powerless, of not being able to make a difference. The perception of being limited, of not being allowed to do something, is what determines the absence of agency.

Cook went on to describe how Jobs encouraged people to abandon that perspective and set of beliefs. “If you can do that, then you can change things. If you embrace that the things that you can do are limitless, you can put your ding in the universe. You can change the world.” Putting a ding in the universe is a powerful concept, and it’s a driving motivation that has been attributed to Jobs in the past. Embracing that motivation, and taking action and steps towards its realization, is what agency is all about.

In a paper published in 1992, the scholars Thomas Dietz and Tom Burns explored the criteria necessary to be able to attribute agency to the actions of an individual. They identified four factors. First, the person had to be able to make a difference. They needed to be able to have an impact and create change around them, of whatever scale and scope. Second, the actions of the individual needed to be deliberate and intentional. In other words, the person intended to create a change, and the resulting impacts were not coincidental or the product of chance. Third, the person had to have free play in their choice of actions. They were not limited or constrained in their ability to act, and there were other possible courses of action available to them that were not taken. All of these represent preconditions for agency, in that they speak to the freedom, intent and scope for action of an individual.

The fourth criteria outlined by Dietz and Burns gets to the heart of what Cook was talking about in his interview: The person had to be reflexive. This means that they are aware of the impacts of their actions, and are able to monitor the effects of their actions and adjust their own personal behaviours and rule systems accordingly. This is an extremely powerful concept, and at the heart of what it means to be able to truly exercise agency.

For an actor to be reflexive, they have to understand the forces of cause and effect, and their position within those forces. Someone who has a low level of reflexivity perceives that their actions and options are shaped by society, by the rules of their organization or by others. In other words, they view themselves as being powerless to change their situation, or to have an impact on the world. This is what Cook was talking about when he referenced people “living in a box.” No matter how flimsy the structure, the boundaries of the box limit their perception, and therefore their reality.

Someone with a high level of reflexivity is extremely conscious of their own norms, values and principles, and the relationship of their personal belief system with that of the societal influences around them. They make their own rules, place their own beliefs and values first and foremost, and are confident in their ability to take action—and to make a difference. Highly reflexive individuals will work within the norms and conventions of their organization when it is appropriate and reasonable to do so. They will also willingly step outside of and work around—or despite—the rules when they need to. Their purpose—and their intent—is to make a difference.

In other words, the idea that Cook is discussing of not accepting the status quo is a call for reflexivity. It is a call for agency. It is a belief that people can—and should—make a difference in the world, and that their ability to do so is a product of rejecting a belief in limitations, and of embracing possibilities. It is the self confidence that, through not just motivation but also action, we can put a ding in the universe.

I will finish up with one final comment from Cook on Jobs: “Through his actions, way more than any preaching, he embedded this nonacceptance of the status quo into the company.” It is the rare person that refuses to embrace the status quo. It is the rarer company that will broadly encourage their staff not to accept the status quo. To do so is to license your employee base to genuinely embrace—and exercise—agency. If you can truly do that, there is no limit to what can be accomplished.

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