Let’s talk about agency for a moment. Or more likely for many moments. “Agency” is one of those modern terms that is highly important yet incredibly vague.
In this article, we’re breaking down agency into two dimensions (intrinsic and extrinsic) and coming to terms with the fact that they are not homogenous across groups, particularly in business. Agency and its forms can change drastically across groups and across times, and that is why we need to understand it. Let’s get started.
Agency is the extent to which an individual, team, or company has the power to make choices and act (or refrain from acting) on them. In my article Tyranny of the Familiar I examine how blocked agency contributes to a nefarious “disease” which can destroy innovation within organizations. But that is only one aspect of agency. Agency can be used and abused, created and destroyed, and is often the number one factor in a businesses success. There are times when you want it and need to fight for it and times when you don’t. Imbalances along the way can create or restrict agency in either direction, for better or for worse.
Agency has two sides, yet most people focus exclusively on the agency that comes from within. In this article we’ll look at both sides of the coin to give you a better understanding of agency and how it manifests.
As the name suggests, intrinsic agency comes from within. This is what people usually consider to be “agency,” but it has many nuances that are not always realized. We create this form of agency for ourselves as individuals out of a variety of factors: mindset, personal beliefs, and worldview. Some of these factors are within our control while others are more ingrained aspects of our personality. Upbringing, life experiences, and self-esteem all have roles to play.
Picture this: a person who goes to an Ivy League school with very supportive parents, has consistently been affirmed in their endeavors, and has very high intrinsic agency. They believe in themselves and have all the traits for success with a GPA to match because high intrinsic agency has been fostered and embraced (whether they are naturally introverted or extroverted). A person who has the opposite experience (lower quality school, lower GPA, less-supportive family, etc.) might have lower intrinsic agency precisely because this is what their environment fostered in them. The inverse of these could also be true - sometimes even the most fostered people still struggle with intrinsic agency, and the ones on the fringes find the power to rise.
Although it does follow some identifiable patterns, intrinsic agency varies as broadly as the individuals working in a company. Biases can come into play. As much as we don’t want it to be the case, gender, race, sexual orientation, social status, upbringing, and other factors influence how individuals think about themselves and their ability to make things happen. Some employees unintentionally sabotage their intrinsic agency by placing too much trust in leadership or by not trusting themselves or refusing to speak up about what they see because they believe their insights won’t be considered valid or essential.
These dynamics get more complicated when we realize that leadership, peers, subordinates and the environment as a whole can influence another person’s intrinsic agency. And since intrinsic agency is developed, it can be malleable in the future if we open ourselves and others to change. No one is an island, so the agency we hold within ourselves can impact that of others, and is drastically affected by the environment around us.
Extrinsic agency is a function of what people directly and outwardly create. It is the extent to which the broader environment gives or denies individuals the power to make decisions and take action to effect change. Examples of “extrinsic agency” factors include management structures, cultural values, budget parameters, and layoff decisions. Physical space can also play a role: design, layout, color schemes, and background noise can segregate or bring people together. Extrinsic agency is far more complicated than just allowing creativity and permission; it has to do with influence and power that go beyond rules and regulations to include business culture and various biases.
In businesses with high extrinsic agency, employees and teams are encouraged to identify problems or opportunities, speak up about them, and take necessary actions to move forward. In environments with low-extrinsic agency, questions are not embraced, outcomes are more deterministic, and feedback is unwelcome. Innovation lies dormant and people will stop speaking up because the environment has taught them that their words will not be heard.
Low extrinsic agency can go from the top down and place blame on people who have no ability to make the changes necessary to reach desired outcomes. If you’re suddenly thinking of all of the blockages in your own work experience that keep this from happening, you’re in the right place (we will hit on these later).
While external agency plays a role in innovation, it doesn’t eliminate employee responsibility. Either of the individuals in our hypothetical example above could have lost or made the most of a high extrinsic agency environment based on their choices and understanding of their own traits and tendencies. The point here is that employees on every level are often responsible for decisions and outcomes over which they have little control.
Both extrinsic and intrinsic agency can be enlarged from the self to include organizations, groups, companies, or industries of any size. Each business level works as a unit within the broader scope of the business world; people must be deliberate and strategic with agency inside of organizations and themselves.
Agency is also diverse and variant, and not just in the way it shifts and changes across organizations and over time. A given individual or organization does not have to tick all the boxes. A high agency person may not have high agency in every arena or decision, for instance, just as a low-agency person may sometimes exhibit high-agency thoughts, behaviors, and actions. A person with high extrinsic and intrinsic agency may, for any number of reasons, not be the first to act and question the rules in some circumstances. They don’t have to be an enabler - the high-intrinsic agency is quality. Businesses and individuals are too complex to fit a given structure, and sometimes external rules don’t stop you from having the ability to make decisions (or in fact, even foster it).
What we do know, and can conclude about agency at this point in our discussion, is that while external, non-human factors often heavily influence decisions, human relationships and the environments they create establish the actual parameters of agency.
Whether it is a leader-to-subordinate, subordinate-to-leader, peer-to-peer, or individual-to-self dynamic, relationship pairings are where our influence tends to guide others into productive or unproductive stress (see Tyranny of the Familiar for our conversation on stress, the survival instinct, and agency). In our next article, we will consider the dimensions of agency: how it varies over time and across organizations. Agency’s connection to emotional states and work environments will continue to surprise you.
Even though I’ve made a little chart for future discussions which I’ll unveil next time, don’t expect real-life agency to fit any neat boxes. Agency is messy when we realize that it doesn’t remain consistent or constant across businesses. It can widely vary in different areas of organization and over time. This fact often makes it difficult to recognize imbalances outside of your immediate sphere. Next time, we will talk more about this concept as well as how and where we can document common dynamics of agency in different working environments.