Sense of Agency, not Urgency

“Simply giving employees a sense of agency- a feeling that they are in control, that they have genuine decision-making authority – can radically increase how much energy and focus they bring to their jobs.”
― Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

How often do you hear a leader claim, “We need people to have a sense of urgency?”  I have heard this as a matter of routine throughout my career in organizational and executive development.  Most of the time this statement is emanating from the anxiety of the person making the claim.  Essentially, what one is saying is “I need everyone else to be as anxious as I am.”

A sense of urgency can be defined as the sense that prompt and decisive action is warranted, without delay.  This is appropriate if there is a fire, a medical emergency or you are being chased by a tiger.  However, in situations that require a deeper understanding of multiple variables, with multiple options that will impact outcomes in multiple ways, a sense of urgency reduces depth of thought and leads to emotionally-based reactive decisions/actions.

A troubling dimension of an urgency mindset is that leaders operating this way create a “double bind” for those they lead.  They demand that people take greater ownership of decisions and actions, yet their own anxiety drives them toward telling people what to do.  They themselves become the biggest impediment to the very thing they want.  Leaders who operate out of a sense of urgency (anxiety) are more likely to be intrusive and get in the way of people doing their jobs.  In the end, the attempt to promote greater responsibility has the effect of promoting the opposite. The outcome: talented, motivated people leave, and others become more passive.

Is there a way out of this predicament? I believe there is.

A tenet of great cooking is “find the best ingredients and don’t mess them up.”  In other words, allow the essence and qualities of the ingredients to be expressed without covering up those qualities with over-seasoning and too much fat, etc.

In organizations, talented people are akin to the best ingredients and a leader’s intrusiveness, fueled by his/her own anxiety reduction needs, are the over-seasoning and too much fat.  As with many improvement efforts, the path here begins with taking a look at oneself and learning to regulate one’s own anxious reactions.

But what else can a leader do?  Better said, if you are going to stop telling people what to do, what do you do? What are the conditions which when present, have the effect of promoting a sense of AGENCY, not just a sense of urgency?

Conditions I have consistently observed across many systems that have the most proactive, responsible level of workforce engagement include:

  • Clear goals: All employees can articulate the most important strategic goals for the organization, including the short and long term more tactical goals for their own functional areas and their own individual performance
  • Clear connection to goals: All employees can articulate why the goals are important and how what they do every day contributes to the accomplishment of strategic and tactical goals
  • Clear feedback: All employees know how progress is being assessed and have access to real-time data that shows how the organization, their functional area and they themselves are doing
  • Engagement in adaptive thinking: All employees are engaged in assessing progress based on real-time data and have an opportunity to provide input into improvement plans, especially when decisions made will affect how they do their jobs
  • Learning culture: The primary focus is on learning over punishment when something is not working.  Data is used for learning and learning is translated into new actions in the form of refined goals, plans and processes
  • Clearly defined culture: There are clear expectations for how people in the organization collaborate, integrate functionally and respond to challenges and problems, with courageous leaders who uphold the expectations in BOTH words and actions
  • Regulated leadership: Leaders continuously work on their own capacity to contain their anxiousness in favor of delivering higher-value coaching and mentoring, discerning when it’s time to observe and when it’s time to step in and be more directive

For anyone wishing their workforce was more proactively engaged in addressing challenges, one place to begin is to get a gauge on how well his/her organization lines up with the above conditions and cultural characteristics. This can be done formally through surveys, but there is also no replacement for just getting out there and talking to people informally.

The final question here is: Do you REALLY want to know how your employees would assess their experience against the above criteria?  If so, how will you get that information?

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