As a leader, and as a human, there are plenty of big questions to be pondered in order to understand our place in the world and our contribution. Lately I’ve been pondering the concept of Human Agency.
From a positive psychology perspective, Agency is …
‘A mental state that ‘I can make a difference in the world’
Over 2000 studies have shown that when you can create that mental state in people you get Action, Innovation and Creativity.
Martin Seligman, recognised globally as a pioneer and world authority in the positive psychology field, suggests that there are three components of Agency:
Self-efficacy – I can cause a specific good thing to happen in the world
Optimism – I can make this specific positive difference in the world into the future
Imagination – I can run scenarios across possibilities that I see as a stretch, but ultimately possible AND I can see that when I put in that optimistic effort I can make a global difference in the world
The current levels of social unrest in mid- to lower- social economic classes and the increasingly potent and frustrating climate change debates – in particular the reported sense of doom from younger people across the globe around this issue – is in essence differing levels of Human Agency in play.
In a review of the past 14,000 years of human history it appears that generations where high levels of Human Agency were present( for example, the Bronze Age and the Industrial Revolution) were times when we see huge advances in living standards, technology and economic growth. Post-war, post-pandemic and post-depression periods are also typically times of increased Human Agency.
We are currently living in the Age of Progress – 1800 to 2021. In this time extreme poverty has reduced from 90% of the world’s population to 10%. Literacy has increased from 10% to 90% of the world population. Women’s right to vote, child mortality, freedom and hunger have all been positively impacted in this time. Not to mention huge advances in technology, landing on the moon and now leisure flights into space. Truly amazing. We’ve done some great stuff. It’s been a time of very high levels of Human Agency.
Of course, many individuals have been negatively affected in this pandemic time and all of us are increasingly concerned about mental well-being and the quality of social interactions in our communities, our workplaces and our schools.
So let’s look at the incredible opportunity presented to us in the moment of time. Every day we inch closer to post-pandemic. As our borders begin to re-open, as we reflect on the changes in our attitudes over the past few years – the reconnection with different values amongst many other shifts – we need to find ways to work at the individual, team and organisational as well as community levels to promote Human Agency – to promote a sense of self-efficacy, optimism and imagination.
Here’s the business case. People who are ‘agentic’ that is, have a mental state of agency …
- Try harder
- Are less depressed
- Are more productive
- Are more creative
- People who are ‘efficacious’ – have self-efficacy – the belief that they can make a difference …
Persist and keep going in the face of tragedy and obstacles
- Are resilient and recover
- Try harder and exert more energy
- Are healthier and live an average of 8 years longer
- Are innovative and creative
Optimistic people …
- Bounce back from depression
- Try harder
- Do better in school and work than their talents predict
- Are better in sports and get better in the face of defeat
- Live longer and have better cardiovascular health
- Are happier and have higher subjective well being and have better social relationships, do better work, and are better citizens (and team members).
And I could go on …. but hopefully I’ve made these important points.
- Human Agency is a potential game changer in organisations.
- Leaders need to understand this.
- We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to focus on this as we emerge post-pandemic and shape for the good of our teams and organisations.
And this is the work we focus on at Leading Humans. This is where human-centred, brain-based coaching and conversations skills can make an enormous difference. This is where understanding the science of humans and working with human behaviour, not against it, is the most critical tool a leader now needs in their toolkit. This is why our leaders need to learn NOW how to:
Show up differently
Engage differently so that people can
and increase or maintain their levels of human agency – their sense of control over their existence and environment.
Organisations must focus on measuring and developing Agency in their leaders first, then their entire organisations. Imagine the potential impact!
As you read this, take some time to ponder. What do you think the levels of agency are in your people or teams? What is your own sense of agency? Start a conversation with your peers or teams around this and ponder these questions:
Do I and my team feel like I can make good things happen in this organisation or industry?
Do I and my team feel like the difference we make will be sustainable and have a positive impact into the future?
Can I and my team imagine what the organisation could be like into the future if we make the efforts to make this difference now?