What is agency?
Calhoun (2002) defines individual agency as ‘the capacity for autonomous social action’, suggesting that the origins of the term lie in the distinction between principal and agent, in which the agent is granted the capacity to act autonomously on behalf of the principal.
The benefits of a more agentic approach
An autocratic leadership approach offers very little opportunity for individual growth and ownership with team members working prescriptively with little opportunity to problem solve. Pivoting away from this way of working can provide teams with much more opportunity to analyse how things are done, pose questions and take the initiative to make creative, problem-solving decisions for the good of the project (and team and workplace), which should all be part of the collaborative moral purpose.
Swaffield and MacBeath (2013) suggest that agency is the key ingredient to share and shape moral purpose and that if the right environment is created, it can link leadership and learning, thus building capacity and capability as a team.
Priestly et al. (2015) claim that agency is achieved through ‘ecological conditions and circumstances’ (p. 626). Biesta and Tedder suggest the concept highlights that agentic actors always act by means of their environment and not just ‘in’ their environment and that ‘agency will always result from the interplay of individual efforts, available resources, and contextual and structural factors as they come together’ (Biesta and Tedder, 2007, p. 137, as cited in Priestly et al.
They conclude that agency is not what someone has but what they do. Similarly, Calhoun (2002) describes the agent being ‘granted’ the capacity to act autonomously on behalf of the principal, highlighting the importance of creating the right environment and social structures whereby this becomes inherent in the way of working.
The qualitative research completed by Priestly (2011) in Scottish schools examining different forms of policy management and the impact on their enactment, identifies examples of agency used in opposition. Their examples illustrate that even if agency is tailored by societal pressures, it ‘can also act in opposition to those pressures’ (p. 102). They also posit that this includes knowing when to act and when not to, and that the exercise of agency may also mean that outcomes may sometimes deviate from the original plans. This is okay as long as such deviations are well thought out and well-informed. This is a critical element to identify when attempting to work in a more agentic fashion. It requires leaders to be cognisant of the fact that by creating environments that enable agency, they will give rise to the scenario of ‘agency as opposition’ Priestly (2011, p. 101) to emerge, but this too can result in positive change, albeit if not always in line with the original plans. It is important for leaders to recognise this.
Adopting a more agentic approach in your team
In order to avail of the benefits afforded by a more agentic approach, it is important to create a working environment that enables agency and that allows individuals to work, with positive intentions, both within the current social structures or to constructively challenge them for the good of the team or workplace.
It can be argued that the term ‘environment’ extends to both personal and professional elements of the workplace. Leadership activities such as: building a collaborative culture, aligning resources, creating high performance expectations, providing individualized support, building relationships and modelling values and practices can support the creation of such an environment (Leithwood, 2013).
By affording your team greater agency and autonomy you provide them with the ‘capacity to make a difference’ (Swaffield and MacBeath, 2013, p. 18). The success of this approach can be attributed to the social and cultural structures that are established and the values and beliefs instilled as a result of intentional leadership activities. In particular, by creating high performance expectations, providing individualised support and modelling values and practices, a sense of trust is established.
Calhoun, C. (ed.) (2002) Dictionary of the Social Sciences, Oxford, Oxford University Press [Online]. Available at www.oxfordreference.com.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/view/10.1093/acref/9780195123715.001.0001/acref-9780195123715-e-35?rskey=IWOaFQ&result=35 (Accessed 11 April 2021).
Leithwood, K. (2013) ‘Leadership and student learning: what works and how’, in Wise, C., Bradshaw, P. and Cartwright, M. (eds) Leading Professional Practice in Education, Sage, London/The Open University, Milton Keynes, pp. 25–37.
Priestley, M. (2011) ‘Schools, teachers, and curriculum change: a balancing act?’ in Wise, C., Bradshaw, P., and Cartwright, M. (eds) Leading Professional Practice in Education, Sage, London/The Open University, Milton Keynes, pp. 89–106.
Priestley, M., Biesta, G., and Robinson, S. (2014) ‘Teacher agency: what is it and why does it matter?’, paper presented at Teachers Matter – But How? Conference, Linnaeus University, 23 October.
Priestley, M., Biesta, G., Robinson, S. (2015). ‘The role of beliefs in teacher agency.’ Teachers and Teaching, Theory and Practice, vol. 21, no. 6, pp. 624–640 [Online]. https://doi.org/10.1080/13540602.2015.1044325 (Accessed 11 April 2021).
Robinson, V. M. J., Lloyd, C. A. and Rowe, K. J. (2013) ‘The impact of leadership on student outcomes: an analysis of the differential effects of leadership types’, in Wise, C., Bradshaw, P. and Cartwright, M. (eds) Leading Professional Practice in Education, Sage, London/The Open University, Milton Keynes, pp. 47–61.
Swaffield, S. and MacBeath, J. (2013) ‘Leadership for learning’, in Wise, C., Bradshaw, P. and Cartwright, M. (eds) Leading Professional Practice in Education, Sage, London/The Open University, Milton Keynes, pp. 9–24.