My seeming obsession with agency has had some people asking what agency means to me. And some ask what the difference is between agency and authenticity. I’m grateful for both questions and happy to distinguish between the two.
I take this as an operative definition of authenticity:
authenticity (noun): the quality of being authentic; genuineness
In contrast, I take this to be my operative definition of agency:
agency (noun): the capacity, condition, or state of exerting power or influence
The difference in that distinction is this: One can be authentic — true to oneself in word and deed in any set of circumstance — without manifesting one’s agency — the power to affect those circumstances. In the absence of that distinction, we run the risk of disillusioning or imperiling some people. Here’s how:
If we’re encouraging people to be their authentic selves in contexts — particularly employments contexts — in which said authenticity is neither wanted nor welcomed, we’re setting those people up to put themselves in harm’s way. Especially if they’re not terribly astute readers of tea leaves, they may very well put their jobs in jeopardy if they attempt to exert their genuineness if they don’t have the hierarchical authority to do so.
Here’s an example, albeit an absurdly extreme one:
Herb: From now on, I’m going to be my authentic self.
Boss: What does that mean?
Herb: I’m going to crusade to get better air quality here at work.
Boss: Dude. This is a sewage-treatment plant.
Had I, in any corporate position I ever held, expressed my authentic self, I’d have been shown the authentic door and told not to let it hit me in the authentic ass on the way out.
Should we encourage employees to act with authenticity? Yes. But first, we have to convince leaders to give their people the responsibility and authority that constitute agency on the job.
Leaders and employees in harmony. That feels like success.