I have written a lot about agency to date, both here and elsewhere. At its essence, agency is about the willingness to take action. In particular, it is what underlies the motivation for us to be willing (and able) to make a difference.
It’s an elusive but important concept in leading change, so I want to take the time to expand on it a little bit more. It underlies much of what we do (or don’t do), and it is the basis for a lot of what I will explore here in the coming weeks and months.
Having the confidence to take action can be a challenge for many of us. Even when we have the title, the role or the expectation to perform, we can find ourselves frozen and stuck. The journey ahead of us may look too difficult and arduous. The political landscape may appear to be littered with traps and saturated with minefields just waiting to explode in our faces. The priorities of other people with other goals may appear to be more important than—or in conflict with—ours.
Agency is what surmounts that and gets us moving. Agency is what enables us to take a first step, and a second, and a third; that keeps us willing to keep moving inexorably forward. Doing so doesn’t depend on other people. Instead, agency is a personal quality. The degree to which we perceive ourselves as having agency is the degree to which we believe ourselves—and expect ourselves—to take action.
What’s important to recognize here is that agency is not what motivates us. But it is what makes motivation possible. Excitement, enthusiasm, commitment, passion; none of that can be sustained without an underlying belief and confidence that we are doing the right thing, that we are able to do it, and that we have a belief in our ability to be successful. Our emotions vary on a daily basis, based upon circumstance and opportunity. Agency is an inner flame that is sustained over time; it may burn hotter or cooler, but the warmth of its presence is what sustains our ability to make change.
So where does it come from? Agency was a central principle that emerged from my doctoral research, and got explored in my book, Exercising Agency. What those findings demonstrated was that where agency existed in those involved in making strategic project initiation decisions, it was most likely to be present in the face of three factors. One factor was the position of participants in the organization, with all of the theoretical range of possible influences that goes with that. The second was level of influence in the decision making process, where those making or recommending a decision exhibited the highest levels of agency. And the third was personality: the degree to which individuals were confident, goal-oriented and driven to succeed.
When looking at where agency was exhibited, two of the factors (position and decision making involvement) were largely attributable to the organization. Personality was the factor that was independent and attributable directly to the person. But personality itself is a proxy for many other circumstances and conditions. We aren’t fixed by our personalities, and we have the ability to surpass our theoretical preferences when it actually matters.
The other consideration here is that the factors that were observed were all qualities that were present when agency was being exhibited. They speak far less to what actually influenced its presence in the first place. Where did it come from? Why did some people possess and evidence strong levels of agency, while others didn’t? And most importantly, how might we better develop it in ourselves?
When we actually step back and look at those who make a difference, who effectively lead change and deliver on significant and complex strategic undertakings, some patterns emerge. There are a few factors that seem to make the greatest difference in developing—and demonstrating—agency.
The first, and possibly the most important, is a belief in ourselves and our ability to do something. Agency is at its core a product of confidence. It is a measure that we believe we are up to the challenges that we will face, and that we can be successful. That’s not to say that there won’t be complications or difficulties, or that we won’t confront obstacles along the way. That’s not even to say that we won’t occasionally suffer from a sense of doubt. All of that is entirely normal, human and to be expected. But overall there is a sense that we are equipped to tackle the situation, and to figure out what needs doing as we go along.
Building on this is a cause or sense of purpose. It is the objective that lies beyond the obstacles. We need to have a clear sense of what it is that we are trying to accomplish. When we lack a goal, or aren’t clear about what our purpose is, we are often aimless, or at the very least inconsistent in our preferences. Everything may interest us, or nothing may interest us. In either event there is no cohesive sense of purpose and drive that guides our actions and our choices.
While purpose is fundamental, what is also critical to the development of agency is a commitment to take action. To actually begin, to move forward, and to commit to realizing our sense of purpose. If we are honest, this is where the majority of us fall down in realizing our goals. We may talk about what we want, and dream about it, and hope to one day realize it. But if we don’t do anything about it, it isn’t going to happen. We are not going to magically get to “done” without a great deal of hard work and effort in the meantime.
Not only is agency driven by purpose and confidence, then, but by an underlying compelling force to take action in moving forwards and realizing that purpose. It is about the follow-through and willingness to commit, even in the face of roadblocks and obstacles.
An idea I’ve found important in leading and making change is the suggestion that we have “permission to be in the room.” It speaks to the idea that we are allowed—and encouraged—to be there; that we have a role to play, and that there is an expectation that we will play that role. All too often we associate that with what someone else gives us, whether by role, or title, or opportunity. In other words, our permission to be in the room is because it has been allowed by others. By extension, then, that permission can theoretically be revoked by others.
Agency, at its core, is permission to be in the room. But it doesn’t come from others. It isn’t something that is granted to us. It’s something we give ourselves. It is the inner glow of confidence that says “this is my room, I have a right to be here, I have a difference to make, and I am going to make a difference.”
What’s your room? What’s your cause? What’s your purpose? And most importantly, what are you going to do about it?
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