You Have Agency. Here’s How to Use It.

Posted 03.02.2021

It almost always happens. Whenever I work with a group of high potential leaders, we eventually get to the conversation about agency. Someone will start talking about all the organizational dynamics that seem to be getting in the way of progress and then others will join in. Before you know it, everyone is talking about what “they” need to do to make things better and by “they” the group usually means the more senior executives in the organization.

After giving folks space to vent, I usually remind the leaders that they have agency and by agency, I mean the definition of the word that is “a thing or person that acts to produce a particular result.” You have agency. I have agency. We all have agency – the capability to act to produce a particular result.

That can be hard to remember when you’re in the middle of a complex organization with a lot of opportunities and challenges. In a situation like that it’s too easy to give your agency away. Nothing good comes from giving your agency away. It’s like a muscle. If you don’t use it, you lose it.

Here’s how to use it.

Speak Up – You’re likely closer to the ground than the most senior executives in your organization. Leverage that. Do some pattern analysis on what you’re seeing and hearing. Then, speak up about it. Information, insight and perspective are only valuable to the degree that they’re shared. Share the information you’re privy to with the people who can benefit from knowing about it.

Speak for the Work – If you grew up with the idea that if you do good work, it speaks for itself, you need to let go of that if you’re a leader in a large organization. Because people are too busy with their own stuff to have the bandwidth to notice, the work doesn’t speak for itself; you have to speak for the work. Speaking for the work doesn’t mean tooting your own horn; it means putting the work your team is doing into a context that senior leaders care about and then sharing what you’ve accomplished, the obstacles you’ve overcome, what’s in the way and any help you need in getting to next steps. All of that is a demonstration of agency.

Bring Solutions – For the same reasons that senior leaders don’t have the bandwidth to notice everything that you and your team are doing, they also don’t have the bandwidth or the patience to listen to a litany of problems. That brings us to a truism for most senior leaders; they want potential solutions presented with the problems. If you can’t come up with some viable solutions to the problems you’re identifying, you probably haven’t yet spent enough time and effort on breaking the problem down to its root causes. Do that first and then develop and present some solutions to the problem.

Reassess Your Risk/Reward Ratio – And, if all of the above sounds too intimidating to pursue, then your risk/reward ratio is probably out of whack and needs to be adjusted. In my work with high potential leaders over the past two decades, I regularly see managers and more junior executives who overestimate the risk of speaking up and acting and underestimate the reward of doing so. If you’re a manager yourself, here’s how you can check yourself on that. What would your reaction be if you had a team member who approached you with the identification of a big opportunity or problem along with a well-thought-out plan to address it? If you’re like 95 percent of the leaders I’ve worked with over the years, you’d be thrilled. Your manager or executive likely isn’t any different. Check your risk/reward ratio and reclaim your agency.

That’s my quick take on how to own and use your agency. What’s yours? Share your thoughts, tips and ideas in a comment if you’re reading this on LinkedIn or send me an email if you’re reading this directly on the blog.

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