In recent years I’m learning to appreciate the critical role that personal agency plays in my personal values system. And I strongly believe that a deep sense of personal agency is a critical ingredient in any type of healthy collaborative effort, be it a personal relationship or the company you are working for. You can only have a healthy collaboration if the collaborators acknowledge their own agency in managing the health of the collaboration. But sadly, often times that’s not the case.
My own sense of personal agency was developed not under the best of circumstances, most likely as a coping mechanism for dealing with late childhood / early adolescent experiences. Today, I view it as a great source of strength, but it does have its shadow side. Just recently I learned to appreciate that I often find behaviors that demonstrate lack of personal agency as somewhat triggering.
Wikipedia defines a “sense of agency” as:
The subjective awareness of initiating, executing, and controlling one’s own volitional actions in the world. It is the pre-reflective awareness or implicit sense that it is I who is executing bodily movement(s) or thinking thoughts.
I tend to understand a term better by looking at its opposite. And we can best do that by connecting personal agency to a slightly more academic term, coined by the renowned psychologist Julian Rotter, called “Locus of Control”, explained in this lovely illustration:
Or by this more complicated table:
So a slightly more academic way to explain personal agency is to describe is as a strong internal locus of control.
I view helping people develop a strong sense of personal agency as one of the most powerful ways to enable people to grow and be part of healthy organizations. And I’m deeply curious about ways to achieve that.
The language we use and the organizational systems that we design, sometimes inadvertently reinforce a sense of lack-of-agency (sometimes referred to as “learned helplessness” or “victimhood”).
Another powerful lever, suggested by Steven Covey, and more recently by James Clear is focus. Covey creates an interesting distinction, between our “circle of concern” and our “circle of control” which Clear eloquently explains:
Circles of Concern are the things that you often waste time and energy worrying about, but that you have little to no control over. Meanwhile, Circles of Control are the things that you can influence in your daily life.
As an example, the vast majority of news stories — war and terrorism, the economy and stock prices, celebrity gossip and political scandal — fall squarely in the Circle of Concern. They can easily soak up your time and energy, but you have virtually no control over those events.
Other examples include getting angry about what someone posted on Facebook, worrying about what other people think about you, or wishing your kids would make better choices (a valid wish, but still outside of your control).
Covey’s advice is to shift our focus from our “circle of concern” to our “circle of control”. Even on its surface, it seems that introducing this distinction can help people see the personal agency that they already have, and hopefully, over time, start growing that circle outwards.