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Developing personal agency for career growth

Does life happen to us or are we possibly drivers of our own future? Nathan Iverson, PhD argues first for a mindset of human agency and second outlines practical steps for building agency for career growth and job satisfaction in ourselves and others.  

The vast majority of our day-to-day decisions are made automatically (Kahneman, 2016). From brushing our teeth, to hopping in the shower, even making coffee and having breakfast, these are decisions that we make without thinking. Extending beyond our mornings, much of our day is made up of little decisions that we do not realize we are making. While these small automatic decisions may leave us feeling robotic, the idea of agency sets us as humans apart from other species.

Albert Bandura (2016) argues that we are more agents than victims of our day-to-day circumstances. Unlike other animals, we have the capacity to craft a path towards our desired destination. Certainly, many things in life are outside of our control. Nevertheless, leading with a philosophy of human potential, this article argues that we have the capacity to contribute to our life circumstances.

Now how do we get there?

Difficult experiences are the necessary, even required, ingredients to our growth. Experience-Driven Leadership Development suggests that the vast majority of our leadership development happens on the job through challenging circumstances. For those who want to bring their leadership to the next level, there are three key methods for building agency in ourselves and others (Bandura (1986)).

1. Experiences

Most learning happens through experiences (McCall, 2010; Wong, 2004). The well known 70-20-10 model suggests that 70% of our development happens on the job through difficult experiences, 20% through mentors and role models, and 10% through formal education. Under this model, failure is the catalyst for growth. The assignment and discovery of stretch assignments can be potent gateways to upward mobility.

2. Mentors and Role Models

There is no such thing as a perfect mentor, rather the research suggests building your network to include a spectrum of mentors and role models in one’s life (Gallo, 2011). Fortunately, there is career benefit for both mentor and mentee to engage in the relationship. Mentorship is associated with positive career outcomes such as upward mobility, job satisfaction, and retention. It also can be a powerful tool to bridge societal barriers in upward mobility for underrepresented groups.

3. Verbal Persuasion

Whenever someone of perceived authority chooses to speak potential into another, it can raise that person’s potential. This particular intervention can be done with little to no cost to the organization. In essence, managers get the performance they expect (Eden, 2016). This principle called the Pygmalion effect has been shown to be true across classrooms, workplaces, and personal relationships. The life or death we speak to others has a way of becoming reality.

Many of us allow the agency of our lives to be sold away too cheaply. We tread through life as victims rather than actors shaping the stage. We have the capacity to shape our own narrative. However, many of us give that agency away to perceived holders of authority in our lives.

My own research and the Career Innovation Company CareerPulse has found empirical support for the idea of personal agency. Nearly half of our job satisfaction may be within our control on a day-to-day basis. And the most powerful thing we can do across every culture we studied is connecting with others at work. Making a new friend today may be the most powerful thing you could do to take control of your life (Iverson, 2018).

As Shakespeare said, “life is a stage”. Now it is our responsibility to take the stage and begin acting as best we can with the cards we have been dealt.

Nathan Iverson PhD is Program Director, Industrial-Organizational Psychology and Assistant Professor of Psychology at California Baptist University

Develop personal agency for career growth with the Be Bold in your Career programme.

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