“Agency’ is the word used in social sciences to refer to the ability of an individual to act and make free choices. ‘Agency’ is limited by ‘structure’ (gender, religion, social class, ethnicity, culture). So the question is who wins, and by how much, in the balance agency/structure. People, you and me, need to exercise a certain degree of agency to feel they have some control over their lives, their views, the impact of their contributions. Being completely trapped, and losing agency, leads to, in two extremes, depression or revolution. Simple concepts!
Agency, or lack of, or perception of lack of (which is the same) won the US election, and Brexit, and will win any situation in which the principles of agency are at stake.
In the recent elections and referendum, as it has been historically on other occasions, many people’s minds worked on this four part mental algorithm:
- Something that belongs to me, or I am entitled to, is taken from me (immigrants, taxes, big government)
- I want to regain control (borders, laws, my own personal needs)
- Those in the establishment don’t care, don’t listen, don’t have respect for us
- We, ‘the real people’ vote for the fixing of all of the above (no EU, no Washington elite, yes to borders, yes to our protection, we will make X great again – pick a country).
Regaining agency, or the perception of some people that they would, has won. Promising full agency was/is/will ever be the most attractive of all promises.
When you put together the US election, Brexit, and far left and far right political platforms across the world, you have two things:
- Ideology, in the traditional ‘party way’ becomes secondary. Left, right and centre are concepts many ‘agents’ don’t care/don’t understand.
- You now have one single question in the ballot: would you like to have independence, not be dictated to by others, recuperate what has been taken from you, control your own destiny, your voice counting at last, and be proud of your X country as a bonus? Yes, or yes?
Agency one, political ideology nil. Maybe 3-nil.
By the way, once you have made the decision to go pro-no-and-pro-me, cognitive dissonance (something our minds are brilliant at, unconsciously defending the solidity our own decisions) kicks in: all men think that way of women any way, he does not really mean that, he ‘tells it as it is’, we all have defects, who can throw the first stone? Which justifies, forgives and deletes any unforgivable, unjustifiable and un-delete-able thing. And suddenly, before you noticed, hatred and bigotry are normalised. Oops!
Corollary: leaders of all sorts and shapes, come down from ivory towers, dump the party manifesto, the MBA manual, read people, act. Your leadership of a ‘human company’ needs to be redefined.
Leaders in organizations would be fool to think that these macro-political phenomena, ‘as seen on TV’, have little to say in the leading our cosy and manageable business organizations. Frankly, if you want to be serious about ‘employee engagement’ you’d better look at those social sciences manuals again. We don’t have ballots or referendum. We lead benign people waters compared with the political tsunamis seen. But, at the very least, we should seriously reflect on things such as ‘agency’, irrationality and black swans, for that matter with a fresh pair of eyes.
The greatest liability that ‘management thinking’ has, and it has lots, is to assume that what happens inside organizations and the macro-social arena are two distinctive worlds. So, we, as leaders of well bordered, well behaved, business organizations, have little to learn from, macro-social movements. We have sheltered our management thinking under a tribal HR/OD/Management jargon and magical thinking, so that what we do pretends to be immune to the vagaries of universal human being dynamics.
I have little to say about the foolishness of it all.