Exercising Agency: How Do I Develop Agency?

The following is the fifth in a series of posts further exploring questions and concepts that emerged during the book launch for Exercising Agency.

While we have explored what actually constitutes agency, and illustrated it with examples, a fundamental question is how it emerges. How do individuals develop the ability to exercise agency?

To define this, it helps to explore the influences that led to the development and employment of agency in the research my book was based on. In supporting project initiation decisions, those that demonstrated the strongest levels of agency had three factors in common: position, decision making influence and personality.

The role of position in developing agency may seem either obvious or counterintuitive, depending upon your perspective. Agency is about acting independently in order to achieve an outcome; actors perceive themselves as having the confidence, ability and will to get things done, working through, around or despite the processes of the organization where necessary. Those who are higher up the organization chart theoretically already have the power and influence get things done. In theory, an actor shouldn’t need agency where they already have the right to act. What is important to recognize is that formal power is not functionally equivalent to agency.

Those who have formal power can simply require things to be done. The exercise of agency requires active and applied effort to realize an outcome, drawing on the personal capabilities and qualities of the individual to do so. Power is a proxy for agency, but it isn’t agency itself. As well, we saw executives in high levels of authority within their organization who consciously chose not to exercise power or agency, in favour of an effective process being allowed to work in the manner in which it was designed. While position relates to—and appears to create favourable conditions for—agency, the exercise of agency is not simply the application of power.

Decision making influence also plays a role in those who exhibit high levels of agency. In particular, those participants who were involved in or actively made recommendations as part of the project initiation decision process, were more likely to demonstrate agency. Again, this isn’t simply about power and influence. It is about being able to make a difference in the project moving forward. Those that have the ability to contribute to the shaping of the decision are more likely to feel that they are able to actually make a difference.

The final characteristic that was associated with the development of agency was also the most interesting: personality. Specifically, those who exhibited agency were most likely to demonstrate extroverted and thinking qualities, which is associated with confident, decisive and goal-oriented behaviour. Those who exhibited less agency were more likely to demonstrate introverted and feeling qualities, which is associated with behaviours that are more considerate, conciliatory and focussed on the wants and needs of others. The confidence to take action in part seems to derive from the confidence we feel as an individual..

What is important to recognize is that the characteristics outlined here aren’t the basis of developing agency. They are the attributes most often associated with those who demonstrate agency. They are not determinants, but they are likely to be enablers. A key factor that defines agency is the ability of an actor to have influence, to believe that they are able to make a difference and that they have the skills and capabilities necessary to do so. Those who do not demonstrate agency often cite outside constraints that prevent or discourage them from doing so.

In other words, while anyone has the potential to exercise agency, those that are most likely to do so are those that believe they can take action, play a decisive role and get things done. Position, decision making influence and personality are some of the factors that will influence this perception.

The exercising of agency is the application of confident action in the pursuit of a worthwhile and valuable goal. Anyone has the potential to develop agency. To do so, however, we must understand our internal potential and dismiss perceived exterior limitations.

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