What Personal Agency Has to Do With Change

Never before in history have we seen so many best-selling books with one-verb titles that pop, like Nudge, Switch, Blink, and Drive. Helping people and organizations change was once the business of clinical psychologists, social workers, and organizational development consultants. Now it’s the business of a popular new field called Behavioral Economics, which is a wide tent for a motley cast of characters that includes journalists, economists, psychologists, sociologists, and business advisors.

These popular advice books on change take contradictory views about how much personal agency we have to change the course of our lives and the places where we work. On one end of the spectrum is tremendous optimism, which is inspired by stories of extraordinary superstars who have transcended their circumstances through the power of their personal agency. On the other end of the spectrum is cautious pessimism, which is supported by popular research suggesting that people must be coaxed by business and government to make choices in their self-interest about food, energy, and money.

These all-or-nothing views on the importance of personal agency in making change happen may sell glossy books and inspiring ideas. But neither perspective captures the true nitty-gritty of cultivating the powerful but realistic sense of personal agency that actually drives people and organizations to change.

In their business bestseller on change, Switch, Dan and Chip Heath tell the vivid story of the determined middle manager of a manufacturing company who convinces the executive team to make changes in the company that will save a lot of money on factory gloves. The story is that the manager piles up 424 pairs of the same factory gloves – each with a different price tag ranging from $5 to $17—on a conference room table and invites in the executive team. The Heath brothers’ point is that showing rather than simply telling will motivate people to change by appealing to their feeling side as well as their rational side.

The advice in their book may make you want to floor your boss with an attention-grabbing display of your best ideas for reworking company practices. But the intervention in the story still attempts to work around the reality that the business world hasn’t gotten so egalitarian that middle managers suddenly have the power to critique the company to their bosses without concern for their job security. Perhaps changing the business context to enable more middle managers to weigh in on company decision-making would have greater results than relying on a few brave souls to speak up despite their limited authority to do so.

In their bestseller, Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein show that when grocery stores and school cafeterias rearrange the placement of the food, people make healthier choices than they would if left to their own devices (or to the conventional arrangement of food in the supermarket). But even when experiments in changing the context of people’s food choices show impressive results like these, they don’t engage people’s personal agency to change their attitudes and behaviors in ways that stick, regardless of the restaurant or store where they are selecting their food. Perhaps increasing consumers’ and school children’s awareness of nutrition and how the placement of food unconsciously affects their choices would create more lasting behavioral change.

Neither of these views is particularly motivating. The first feeds our hope that the power of our personal agency can help us beat the odds against extraordinary success. The opposite view feeds our collective wish for convenient, cost-efficient, and shorter-term solutions to the messy business of change that can occur without engaging our personal agency.

The power of real change, however, comes from striking a balance between personal agency and a realistic awareness of our context and circumstances. The middle ground doesn’t have the same glossy sales appeal as those one-verb titles that pop, but the good news is that we all have the personal agency at our fingertips to make change happen no matter what our circumstances.

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