Recently, Diana and I were discussing topics for our podcast, Uniquely Brilliant. When I brought up the idea of exploring agency and its impact on our lives, Diana said she’d never heard agency used in that context. This gave me pause, because, to me, understanding our ability to exercise agency in our lives is a core life skill. It’s something I thought a lot about as a parent, and it’s a core concept in my coaching.
When I talk about agency, I’m referring to the ability to trust ourselves to make decisions, to have influence over our own lives, and to willingly take responsibilities for our decisions and actions. Agency is also the driving force behind motivation.
In Daniel Pink’s book Drive, Pink explains that research shows that the carrot and stick model of motivation is outdated. Why is it wrong? Because it’s about reward and punishment, not about providing agency. The premise of Drive is that to be motivated at work we must be able to exercise competence, autonomy, and purpose. There is a one-to-one relationship between these three concepts and agency.
When we feel competent – allowed to use our best skills to do our best work- it’s easier to trust both our work and our judgement. So we’re more inclined to take a risk. When we are able to exercise autonomy in our lives and our work, we learn to trust our judgement. We also see that others trust our judgement and our ability to do the work we need to do. This, in turn, makes us more willing to take thoughtful risks without being overly concerned about the outcome.
Finally, when we understand the purpose of our work, how our work fits into the whole, we have a context to make informed decisions. And, since we understand the context of our work, we can figure out how to use our competence and our influence to improve both our own work and that of our team. Which makes it easier to take a risk.
Because agency is about trusting ourselves and our ability to influence our lives, exercising agency also enhances our resilience. As we learn how to shoulder agency over our lives, our confidence in our judgement increases and we take more risks. So, when we do make a mistake or experience unintended consequences, it’s easier to recover and figure out a way forward.
As we learn about and exercise agency in our own lives, it becomes easier to foster agency in other people. When we praise someone for taking a risk, we show trust. So, as the person takes more risks, and we reward it with more praise, the person learns to trust themselves. They make more and better decisions. We do this naturally with our kids when they’re small.
When a child is learning to walk, they’re motivated by wanting to get around faster, among other reasons. Then, when we encourage them to stand up on their own and praise them for trying – even when they fall down – we’re showing them they have agency over their lives. The trick is to allow them to work at their pace, on their own internal schedule, so we’re honoring their internal struggle for competence.
The gift of agency
In coaching, I’ve found it effective to offer clients a strategy, and then use an analogy to show how they’re already doing part of the strategy. By demonstrating that they already have an understanding of the strategy, I’m showing the client that they can trust themselves. When I remove my expectations about how a strategy will play out, I see all kinds of surprisingly great results. Results I would never have expected.
Have you ever offered someone something that seemed innocuous to you – like the ability to choose how they arrange their office or to present a report however they’d like – and they went crazy thanking you? You offered them agency over their work, and, whether or not they know about the concept, they’re rewarding you for offering them ability to exercise agency. You’re choosing to influence their lives, not control it.
A brief example of agency. One night, I was up late watching The Tonight Show (I’m usually reading instead) and Fallon announced that Kelly Clarkson was one of the guests. I think her music is okay, but I always felt like something was missing.
I was curious, so I stayed up to hear her. Her performance that night changed my mind. She was on the show to promote her new album, Meaning of Life, and she sang Whole Lotta Woman. I didn’t even recognize her voice! The sheer power of that voice and the soul vibe of the song blew me away. At one point, I could have sworn I was listening to Aretha Franklin.
And then Jimmy mentioned that this was Kelly’s first album with her new label. Her original American Idol contract had just ended – 12 years after she won. And, instantly, I realized what had happened. Kelly Clarkson was performing as 100% Kelly Clarkson. Why? Because she gets to exercise more agency with her new label. She decides what she records and how she sounds – not the label. She now has total influence over her own voice and by extension, her career.
Claim your agency.
In both examples, people claimed agency over their lives to have the lives (and, in Kelly’s case, the career) they wanted.
Here’s the thing. We have to claim agency; it’s not something that’s conferred on us because we’ve achieved certain things or reached a certain age. Instead, it’s an active process where we realize that we can influence and impact how we proceed through our lives. We learn that we are resilient. We learn that we can help others by offering our opinions (our influence) and trusting them to find their own way.
On being “volved”
A final story. My husband taught me a lot about agency. When our son, Kennedy, was little, Bo encouraged me to let Ken decide how his hair was cut and how he should dress. He pointed out that children have very little control over anything in their lives, so letting them work out their own style was a great gift.
As a result, when Ken was a little kid (starting at 3 or 4) and we took him to get a haircut, he would tell the stylist that he wanted a “volved” haircut – Ken-speak for being bald. Bo was bald. Neither of us ever interfered in Ken’s hairstyling decisions, instead we let him work it out with the stylist. Happily for us all, no stylist ever shaved Ken’s head! Much later, when he had cancer as a teenager, Ken lost all his hair. The family joke was that he’d go to any lengths to be “volved” like his dad.
Kennedy’s hair story underscores that the core principal of exercising agency in our relationships is to offer influence, not control. When we offer our input, then give people room to make their own decisions in their own time, we both exercise and demonstrate agency. Our challenge is to remember to exercise and offer agency instead of control.