Some Notes on Agency at Work
Making sense of autonomy, control and careers
I’ve been trying to make sense of my work recently. Launching the SEO MBA kind of bifurcated my possible futures into “consulting” and “course creating” - different types of work with different kinds of audiences. My consulting work is with senior executives and founders while the SEO MBA is aimed at SEO professionals.
How to reconcile these possible futures and possible selves?
Through a bunch of conversations with close friends - maybe the common throughline is increasing agency.
Specifically - the idea of increasing agency for people’s work selves. This feels promising as a potential north star because it neatly aligns with the big things I’m spending my time on:
- Consulting work: My consulting work these days is mostly about two things - it’s about bringing strategic clarity to executives and helping organizations build new capabilities. My best client work involves very long engagements where I get to know my point of contact very well. This work blurs the boundaries between consulting and coaching. And it’s all about increasing agency - increasing the clarity and sense of forward momentum.
- SEO MBA teaching: The courses I’ve built (especially the course on Executive Presence) help people increase their personal agency. It’s not really about teaching skills as much as it’s providing new vantage points and new ways of conducting yourself so that you can take on more senior work. There are plenty of stories of people taking the course and then getting a new job. This is more than just “upskilling” - it’s about increasing agency.
- Indie consulting book: The core thesis for the book is how to build a sustainable independent consulting practice. And much of the writing is about how to maintain autonomy and agency despite pressures to standardize your work and narrow your focus. This is very much in line with an idea of “increasing agency for indie consultants”.
So in effect you could argue that I’ve been focused on increasing agency for: executives, SEO professionals and indie consultants.
Feels right. I certainly get a kick out of this kind of work.
One of the first distinctions to tease apart is the difference between fulfilling work and high-agency work. From David MacIver with some great notes on fulfilling work:
And there are aspects of employment I miss a great deal, even if there are other aspects that I do not miss at all.
To me it feels like there's some sort of central human experience which has all of the following components:
- A group of people, working together on a problem.
- The problem has an actual (even if small) impact on the world.
- The problem is difficult and without working hard on it they will fail.
- All (or most) of the people in the group actually care about the problem and want to succeed.
- No member of the group could succeed at the problem on their own.
- Each member of the group is an active participant in the process, and the end result depends on how well they fulfill their role.
Possibly this list isn't sufficient, but it all seems necessary to be an example of the thing I'm pointing to, which one might as well call something like "fulfilling work".
David goes on to suggest that work almost never meets these criteria, and that’s partly why chasing “fulfilling work” might be the wrong objective. Work with purpose and meaning sounds nice but might be impossible to reach? It’s not quite what I’m getting at with increasing agency.
High-agency work is almost independent of work with purpose and meaning. Except my hunch is that these two concepts are actually deeply intertwined…
More to unearth and think about.
I sketched out this 2x2 for the kinds of “joy of work” that we might talk about. Just a sketch:
- High Skills / Inner World: This is the kind of raw skills of personal productivity. Within your own personal sphere can you optimize your ways of working? This might involve organizing your work, inbox zero, clearing up your calendar, etc. I think this kind of work is appealing when you’re early in your career because it doesn’t require anyone else giving you permission and can be done in almost any context. Level up your own personal systems as a way to control your work.
- High Skills / Outer World: This is your ability to create systems of influence. To be able to improve the systems and processes around you. This is appealing as you get more senior and develop more “executive presence”. This kind of work scales all the way up to formal management roles where imposing clarity, systems, process and order onto teams and systems is appealing. Essentially, can you control the world around you?
- High Meaning / Inner World: This is the idea of doing day to day work that is stimulating. Are the tasks in front of you energizing? If you like spending time in spreadsheets are you spending time in spreadsheets? If you like designing, are you spending time in Figma? This is where the concept of flow comes in - are you spending chunks of your day in enjoyable focused work.
- High Meaning / Outer World: This is the big idea of “work with purpose” - fulfilling work that has meaning in the world around you. This has high ideals of purpose and doing good - but could also be measured as impact. Is the work you’re doing creating a tangible impact in the world?
When you put together a course, you’re supposed to focus on the personal transformation, not the skills. Complete the phrase “After taking this course you will ___”.
The more aspirational you can make this the better your course will sell I think. People like to aspire to be someone new.
But this brings up a subtle point: what are the boundaries of who you believe you can become? How much personal transformation is possible? This is a very individual and personal question but an important one. As I begin to explore the research literature around this concept of agency I see there’s a term “bounded agency” which investigates personal agency as a complex interwoven set of dependencies:
Bounded agency is a feature of actors’ engagements in the complex social ecologies of work, learning and social responsibility. The spaces in which human agency is exercised are regulated by professional bodies, through the setting of professional standards and by public policy, through the regulation of the employment relationship and through wider systems for the management of employment and government interventions directly targeted at the workplace.
The development that takes place through the exercise of human agency is not that of the self-propelled autonomous individual but, rather, relational and profoundly social in nature. What binds us also contains affordances that enable us to think, feel and act.
And, surely, our sense of agency changes over time through our careers.
As we’re emerging:
Individual agency is not uniformly effective throughout the life course. It is less needed when individuals move on well-buffered and institutionally regulated paths, i.e. during primary and secondary school, after having decided for a study major (Heckhausen 2010; Heckhausen and Shane 2015), or when entering a well-supported vocational training program leading to relatively stable vocational careers. Individual agency is most needed at times of transition, when individuals leave a pre-structured path, such as at the end of compulsory schooling, when they enter a new path or field and are assuming new social roles.
And later, submerging:
Te Papa employs approximately 600 people. A percentage of these are long-standing professionals (across a range of practices) who are coming to the end of their full-time or paid working lives. The negotiation of the final period of your working life inside a museum is, I think, worthy of as much attention and support as that emerging / entry period. And yet it is something that is rarely discussed out loud. How to accommodate, enjoy the benefit of, and celebrate people who are late in their careers, who are going through family changes, health changes, financial changes, and for some a massive change in their identity, as they contemplate leaving a career (and sometimes a single institution) to which they have dedicated decades' of mental, physical and emotional energy. Not to mention the subtle (or unsubtle) pressure of the generations behind these people, who - frankly - want the jobs they currently hold. While there's a lot of emphasis on internships, promotion and career development, there aren't similarly strong shared frameworks in place for how to reduce working hours, responsibilities, or shift the emphasis from producing outputs to transferring knowledge.
This piece by Courtney Johnston btw is an absolute gem. Definitely go read it.
Finally, agency is about doing things. Applies equally well to kids and grown ups:
The act of creation causes imagination, not the other way around. To understand this is to understand the ecology that fosters the unique. Agency is precious because the lucidities that purposeful work and responsibility bring are the real education. The secret of the world is that it is a very malleable place, we must be sure that people learn this, and never forget the order: Learning is naturally the consequence of doing.
Some questions I’m mulling as I think more about agency:
- What language do I use to describe this? Is it increasing agency or increasing joy? The joy of work? Is clarity a component of agency?
- What is the existing literature and research into agency? Is this a field that people are studying?
- On a spectrum from “working 1:1 with a CEO” to “teaching groups” to “self-paced courses” which formats are most transformative? And which formats do I find most energizing?
- To what degree is increasing agency a function of skills, experience, perspective and opportunity?
- Am I most interested in increasing agency for early/mid/late career folks?
More to come.
February 16, 2024
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This post was written by Tom Critchlow - blogger and independent consultant. Subscribe to join my occassional newsletter: