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High-agency people get things done, even in the presence of obstacles and unknowns. They constantly look for a way forward and own their mistakes and outcomes.

Conversely, low-agency people follow the default path. When faced with an obstacle, they wait to be told what to do. Because they only work on someone else’s to-do list, they do not own their mistakes or outcomes.

Obviously, you would like your team to be high-agency.

However, most managers believe that agency is not a trainable trait and hiring is the only way to increase their team members’ agency.

They are wrong. Not on hiring – that’s still the most effective way to get higher agency people in your team – but on whether agency is trainable. It is largely trainable. You just need to know how to do it (it’s because most managers do not know how to do it that it looks untrainable).

The trick is to understand how agency works.

How agency works

In the words of Eric Weinstein, “When you’re told that something is impossible, is that the end of the conversation, or does that start a second dialogue in your mind, how to get around whoever it is that’s just told you that you can’t do something?”

That second dialogue is agency.

Having that second dialogue is an action, albeit a mental one, and like any action, it is gated by motivation.

In other words, you have this second dialogue only if you believe it’s worth having it – which depends on your previous experiences with having that second dialogue.

If someone has low agency, it’s usually because, in the past, having that second dialogue led to bad experiences.

You teach agency by letting your people experience that having that second dialogue leads to good outcomes.

How to teach agency

First, let me tell you how you would do it in an idyllic world.

    1. Assign one of your subordinates the smallest task requiring agency you can think of. It has to be job-related and meaningful, but it doesn’t have to be big. In fact, the smaller, the better. For example, “Find two ways we can lower our costs and verify their feasibility.”
    2. Make explicit that you expect them to use agency. For example, “I expect you to tackle any unexpected problems.”
    3. Make a concrete example illustrating the previous point. “For example, if you do not know how to do any part of the task, I expect you to google that, and only if Google doesn’t have the answer, ask a colleague.”
    4. Get them to work on the task.
    5. When they complete the task, acknowledge their successful outcome, specifically pointing out your appreciation for their display of agency. This will teach them not only that they have the skills to be high-agency but also that it’s easier and worth it.

Bam, that’s it. Doing this a few times with each of your subordinates should be enough to transform 30%-80% of them into high-agency people.

The problem is that, in the real world, if you ask low-agency people to do something high-agency, they might still try to do it the low-agency way.

Hence, there are three things you should be paying attention to:

  1. The task must be as simple and easy as possible. Of course, it should still be relevant to their job and require some agency, so don’t come up with a trivial task. But it should be something that ideally can be completed in no more than a couple of hours. The larger the task, the higher the chances they fall back into low-agency mode.
  2. You should be extremely explicit and specific in your request for them to be in high-agency mode while completing the task. Give them a few concrete examples of what completing the task in low-agency mode would look like, and tell them it won’t be enough. For instance, if the task you assigned was to invite a client to a customer event you’re organizing, you can say something along the lines of, “Just inviting the client to our event is not enough; you must make sure they read and accept the invitation, and if they really cannot come, find ways to set up a later meeting with them. No excuses.”
  3. Follow up with them frequently while at the same time avoiding micromanaging them. Ask them how it’s going. But if they face any obstacle, do not solve it for them; just encourage them and/or repeat your expectations that they will overcome it.

If you follow all three points above, the chances are that you will succeed. It won’t work all the time, not with all your employees, but it will work most of the time with most of them.

Keep in mind at all times that low agency is a learned reaction to a past experience that taught them that it’s not worth it to be high agency. 

Your job is to make them undergo experiences that teach them the opposite.

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