I am working my way through the exceptional: The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on Your Own Terms by Dr. Paul Napper, Psy.D. and Anthony Rao, Ph.D,. The main hypothesis of the book is that a lot of the negative feelings we have today: being overwhelmed, always needing to be “on,” anxiety and lack of real connectedness are due to a lack of agency in our lives.
While the book is centered on bringing agency to all parts of your life, I think there are many lessons for bringing more agency to your workplace. The result? More engaged employees, an increase in focused work and a better overall employee experience.
So what is agency? According to the authors: Agency is all about being active rather than passive, of reacting effectively to immediate situations and planning effectively for your future. Let’s look at the seven empowering principles and how they can be applied to creating a workplace filled with more agency.
#1. Control Stimuli
Starting off with a tough one, as this is hard enough to do in our personal lives, but REALLY challenging in the workplace. We’re literally inundated each day with email, instant messages, interruptions, endless meetings and so much more. An exercise suggested in the book is to count the number of interruptions you’ve experienced in the last twenty minutes, either from an email, Slack, text, co-worker or even an interruption from your own mind (like, “Gosh, I really need to write that blog post today).
So what can you do as an employer? I feel there’s a tendency in most organizations to over-communicate things that are less important and under-communicate the issues that have a real impact on your employees. A good place to start is to be mindful of the exponential effect of “dumping” information on your employees. The email reminder you sent about health insurance or the new client case study may have relevance and importance to your employees, but of course, that’s just from you; they are getting hundreds of more messages from their co-workers, clients and outside parties every day. This can make trying to figure out what to pay attention to really difficult. Is there a better or more coordinated way to get this information to your employees? Will what you’re sending make them feel more connected to your organization or pull them away?
#2 Associate Selectively
Again, not the easiest thing to do at work. We want to surround ourselves with optimistic, empathetic and open-minded people. But as the authors note, “Workplaces are particularly challenging. You come into direct, prolonged contact with groups of people under stress. In that environment, it is all too easy to pick up negative emotions, and it can seriously rob you of agency.” The even worse news? “People pleasers and hard workers are especially susceptible to the needs, anxieties and negativity of others.” The advice given in the book is when you come into contact with these people try to stay positive, be more diverse in terms of the people you work with, and build a community of people at work who share a positive outlook and are good at seeing the big picture. And remember: you can’t control you co-worker’s moods or actions, but you can control how you react to them.
This is one I am often guilty of. I am by nature a semi-fidgety person, and when I go more than a few days without some type of exercise I feel out of sorts. And yet, I often get sucked into a project or have several back-to-back meetings and suddenly realize that I haven’t moved in (literally) hours. What’s ironic is that if I walk out of our office into the common area or even (gasp) step outside for a few minutes, I’ll undoubtedly come up with just the proper phrasing for that email or have a great idea for an upcoming presentation. You don’t have to make everyone in your office do the local 5k, but encourage your employees to move throughout the day. Many of my check-ins with people in Philly involve us taking a walk. At first, it felt a bit odd to not be sitting across from each other, notebooks or laptops in hand, but now we find that it’s a much better way to connect, and it helps breaks up the day. As the authors say. “Take a stand at work – literally.”
#4 Position Yourself as a Learner
I think one of the most important attributes any employee can have is the willingness —really, the enthusiasm —to embrace and learn new things. Often our jobs ask us to become very, very good at one or two things that help the company the most. But we need to keep learning. Encourage your employees to be curious and give them opportunities to learn new skills and work with different groups of people. I bet the best people at your organization are not just smart and great at their jobs, but are genuinely interested in solving problems and looking for new ways to do things better. Positioning yourself as a learner means better listening skills, control of strong reactions that lead to impulsive decisions and more empathy —all the things you want from your employees. This is a familiar refrain these days, but your employees must be allowed and even encouraged to try and fail —and have true psychological safety.
#5 Manage your Emotions and Beliefs
I think this one has huge implications for all of us at work, especially as we become more experienced in our careers. It’s like that old adage, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” Create an environment where employees scrutinize their ideas and beliefs and encourage them to stretch their horizons. Often when departments are at odds with one another or people are having a conflict at work, it’s because they are only seeing the issue from their wants and perspectives. The authors state that this is the most challenging of the seven principles, but the most rewarding for the clarity it gives you.
#6 Check your Intuition
This part was a bit confusing to me at first. As you see in #5, the authors talk about checking our beliefs – and now you’re asking me to pay attention to my intuition? However, the authors make a point about separating intuition and emotions/beliefs. Emotions are what we are feeling at a certain moment (my boss yelled at me in front of my co-workers and now I am embarrassed/mad). Intuition is something deeper, tapping our past experiences and insights. Perhaps you said all the right things at Tuesday’s internal meeting, but you feel that the team was unhappy you didn’t address xyz, Or maybe everyone is thrilled with your outline for the big presentation, but you know something about it feels off. Working on #1 (controlling stimuli) often clears a path to more intuitive thinking.
#7 Deliberate then Act
Most of us have jobs where we are required – and rewarded – for making quick decisions. Other times, important projects languish for months because no one wants to make a decision. The authors suggest using a 6-step model for effective deliberation: get in the right frame of mind; use critical thinking about the problem; generate options; manage emotions; draft a plan and take action. I think what this means in the workplace is (again) giving employees psychological safety and encouraging different points of view. The other piece of this principle is that you can never be completely sure if your plan will work, so at some point, you have to be decisive and act before events unfold and act on you.
One final thought: while we want to control the amount of non-essential information we send to employees (see #1 above), a loss of agency in the workplace often comes from employees feeling out of the loop or without a voice. There will always be important, sensitive information that you won’t be able to share organization-wide, but strive to keep your employees informed about big changes, and try to establish an environment of empowerment. I highly recommend The Power of Agency, which you can find here: