People frequently ask me about agency and what it means. You’re exercising agency over your life and career right now.
How? You subscribed to my newsletter about career growth, you opened it when it showed up in your Inbox, and now, you’re reading it.
In a nutshell, agency is the knowledge that you have influence over your own life.
How do you gain agency? Practice.
Why is it important? It’s the driving force behind motivation.
When we exercise agency, we trust ourselves to make decisions and willingly take responsibility for those decisions, actions, and their outcomes.
What happens when our agency goes missing? We are miserable and stuck.
Agency and Motivation
In Drive, Daniel Pink explains that research shows that the carrot and stick model of motivation is outdated. Why? Because it’s about reward and punishment, not about providing agency.
When we’re not able to use our best skills to do our best work because we’re micro-managed or forced into the wrong position, we become discouraged. We feel the loss of our agency to change our situation.
On the other hand, when we’re allowed to exercise competence, we use our best skills to do our best work. This makes it easier to trust both our work and our judgement. Which makes us more inclined to take a risk.
When our days are choreographed to the minute, our judgement questioned, and our expertise dismissed, we lose our motivation which, in turn, robs us of our feeling of agency over our work. Teachers, in particular, experience an extreme version of micromanagement day in and day out.
In my experience, loss of autonomy is the number one reason people are dissatisfied with their work.
When we 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. We feel confidence in our ability to recover from the outcome of taking those risks.
If we’re working in an environment where we don’t understand how our work fits into the big picture, it’s hard to make good decisions. We find ourselves second-guessing our best work and feeling disgruntled. We don’t know how people will respond to our work or our suggestions.
But, 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 risks. Again, it’s easier because we are confident in our ability to recover from the outcome of risk-taking.
Kelly Clarkson’s Agency Story
One night, I was up late watching The Tonight Show. Kelly Clarkson was one of the guests. I thought her music was okay, but I always felt like something was missing.
Since I was curious, I stayed up to hear her. Her performance that night changed my mind. 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.
Fallon 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 the competiion. I instantly 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.
When Kelly was finally able to exercise agency over her career, it blew up.
Since agency is about trusting ourselves and our ability to influence our lives, exercising agency also enhances our resilience. Clarkson trusted her ability to create her own unique sound. She had confidence that the change would work, and, if it didn’t, she knew she could tweak it.
As we learn how to shoulder agency over our lives, our confidence in our judgement increases and we take more risks. Then, when we do make a mistake or experience unintended consequences, it’s easier to recover and figure out a way forward because our actions were our choice.
When we exercise agency in our own lives, we naturally foster agency in other people. When we praise someone for taking a risk, we show trust. And, as the person takes more risks, and we reward it with more praise, the person learns to trust their decision making. They make more and better decisions because they know they can recover from any missteps.
Claim your agency.
Here’s the thing.
We have to claim our agency; it’s not something that’s conferred on us because we’ve achieved certain milestones 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.
We learn the difference between influencing and control (see autonomy and competence above).
Coaching and Agency
There are a couple of ways we can exercise agency over our careers. First, we can speak up at work when our autonomy is taken away or we’re asked to do work that we’re not suited for. Second, we can look for someone who can help us figure out how to reclaim our agency.
The top way you can exercise agency is to own your dissatisfaction and decide to do something about it.
You don’t have to wait until the situation is so bad you can’t stand going to work. Instead, you can work with a career coach like me and tackle the issues you’re facing.
Many people think you only hire a career coach to help you change jobs. While that’s one reason people come to me for career coaching, others want to stay at the company or job they’re in and grow in that job.
I’ve helped more than one person re-align the way they think about their work, their work relationships, and the way their company thinks about them. This has led to promotions, salary increases, and increased motivation.
And I’ve helped people exercise agency by leaving their current positions.
I would love to help you recover your agency, with one-on-one coaching or a workshop.
I offer individual coaching engagements and a variety of workshops.
In the meantime, you can practice offering yourself the gift of agency over your life and your career.