Agents of Ourselves: Part Fifteen

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.


Mark O'Brien
Mark O'Brien
I’m a business owner. My company — O’Brien Communications Group (OCG) — is a B2B brand-management and marketing-communication firm that helps companies position their brands effectively and persuasively in industries as diverse as: Insurance, Financial Services, Senior Living, Manufacturing, Construction, and Nonprofit. We do our work so well that seven of the companies (brands) we’ve represented have been acquired by other companies. OCG is different because our business model is different. We don’t bill by the hour or the project. We don’t bill by time or materials. We don’t mark anything up. We don’t take media commissions. We pass through every expense incurred on behalf of our clients at net. We scope the work, price the work, put beginning and end dates on our engagements, and charge flat, consistent fees every month for the terms of the engagements. I’m also a writer by calling and an Irish storyteller by nature. In addition to writing posts for my company’s blog, I’m a frequent publisher on LinkedIn and Medium. And I’ve published three books for children, numerous short stories, and other works, all of which are available on Amazon under my full name, Mark Nelson O’Brien.

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  1. Great post, Mark.
    I would include self-efficacy in the word salad because if we don’t believe we can influence anything we might not even try. Your posts are called “agency of ourselves” which to me sounds like self-efficacy.
    This is in contrast to the agency that involves getting others to change what they are doing. (I am always hesitant when I see the word “power” applied, because there is the power that lifts others and the power that suppress others. Too often it is used for the latter purpose.)

    You are unfortunately so correct that showing up as our true authentic selves may not be what the workplace is prepared for.
    However, if a few types of people are allowed to be almost authentic and, consequently, they don’t need to turn themselves into pretzels to fit in but everybody else does, it stands to reason that more of their cognitive resources can be applied towards their work goals. This perpetuates a picture that some types are more effective than others while in reality some have a perpetual and unpaid task of making their colleagues comfortable in their homogeneity.

    • Charlotte, I’m so grateful for your comments. I have the sense you comprehended everything I meant to convey.

      Yes, your self-efficacy and my agency are very much in line. And we are very much in agreement on the subjects of power and control.

      This probably won’t be popular in these days of fashion shows, popularity contests, entitlements, participation trophies, and “they’re lucky to have me”, but Michael Gerber wrote this in The E-Myth Revisited:

      “Everyone who works here is expected to work toward being the best he can possibly be at the tasks he’s accountable for. When he can’t do that, he should act like he is until he gets around to it. And if he’s unwilling to act like it, he should leave … the business is a place were everything we know how to do is tested by what we don’t know how to do, and the conflict between the two is what creates growth, what creates meaning … A place where the generally disorganized thinking that pervades our culture becomes organized and clearly focused on a specific worthwhile result. A place where discipline and will become prized for what the are: the backbone of enterprise and action, of being what you are intentionally instead of accidentally.”

      Thank you so much for your comments.