Building Confidence and Agency to Transform Your Culture

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Building Confidence and Agency to Transform Your Culture

While sitting in a master’s degree course about organizational management the professor was sharing the different organizing models that exist. There was the traditional pyramid, the matrix, network, and flat structures. He went on to explain a new one he described as a circle. The idea was, in a future perfect organization, we would not just work beside each other, but in a circle, which implied that we are not going to be competing or just doing our specific jobs. Rather, we would be working together, toward the same goals, as a “true team”. While it seemed interesting to me, and made some sense, he had no explanation of how this would work or how it would be achieved. Since then, I have been seeking this shift. And while I think about modern organizational thinking and as our workplaces try to incorporate this concept of “team” into our cultures, it is my experience that very few organizations achieve this level of organizational nirvana.

Mary Parker Follett, a pioneer in the field of management and organizational theory, emphasized the concept of “integrative unity” and the importance of harnessing the energy within organizations to achieve common goals. She believed that effective leadership (and teams) involve integrating the diverse energies and perspectives of individuals within an organization rather than imposing authority from above. Follett’s ideas on motivation were centered around the notion of tapping into the inherent energy and creativity of people, rather than relying solely on external incentives or coercion. Her vision, as I interpret it, is that if we can “release energy” in people, good outcomes will follow. While there are many theories and practices to motivate large groups of people, it just sometimes works. This is because the success of releasing energy of the team requires releasing energy of individuals first. This seems to be the challenge.

In the last half century, our organizations have tried to move in the direction of the circle (so to speak), with some significant success. System thinking like International Organization for Standardization (ISO), Six Sigma, and Kaizen all moved to help coordinate organizational actors, engineering processes and standards that individuals can follow in a synergistic effort. We also leveraged theories like the transparent and flat organization that attempt to remove rank as an obstacle, concepts of individual empowerment that encouraged people to make decisions and act independently and tolerate some low impact failures to allow teams to grow and vector into correct directions. We always emphasis cultural values like clear communication, trust and integrity, respect, and good corporate citizenship. All good. However, my experience is that our organizations still cannot do this well because our cultures and structures take precedent over these good ideas. Until we motivate and allow individuals to embody their true, authentic values and realize their power, we are just organizing pieces on a game board and not allowing the pieces to be their best. Until each person, each employee, embraces their own professional agency, our cultures will continue to fail to realize the collective power and potential success that we can achieve.

Another influential organizational consultant and writer, Charles Handy, wrote significantly on what he believed to be the solution and it centered around individual accountability. His idea was to remove the concept of employees and have each individual contributor act based on their individual goals and values. Specifically, he envisioned all employees as “contractors”, which has been coined as “portfolio workers”. If people were acting as their own agents, delivering their productivity where it was needed, just in time, with total accountability for what they produced, that self-accountability would result in better judgements, outcomes, and behaviors. He placed motivation, confidence, decision-making, and behavior on the individual. Therefore, the end collective (team) result was directly related to individuals being their best-selves in both what they produced and how they satisfied other individuals and the team.

The best comparison that I can make is one of an employee versus a contractor you may hire for an assignment (As Handy suggested). For example, if your organization hires a contractor to help design a new product, you would expect her to have the credentials she needs to do the job and be able to deliver it You would also expect that she worked well with the internal team, displayed good judgement, made creative and tactile decisions that would work, and most importantly behaved well and demonstrate good corporate citizenship. You would just expect more. If they did not deliver these values, you would let them go. In Handy’s theory, the portfolio worker is highly sensitive to being a better producer or they’re not doing a good job would reflect on them in the future and reflect on their portfolio. He also suggests that these individuals would continue to hone their skills both in knowledge and behavior to grow their portfolio. This is not to discount our best employees as they usually behave the same way as Handy’s portfolio worker. The difference is that this portfolio concepts only work if most or all the organizational actors behaved the same way.

All these futuristic theories have some merit. However, the values and advantages they predict won’t come true until our organizations begin to truly develop individuals to be accountable, motivated, and confident contributors. I am not sure we are doing this as well as we could. I suggest we need to grow individual professional agency.

Professional Agency

Professional people, of any rank and role, want more. There has been an evolution of social changes that are completely different today than ever before in history. When we talk about generational shifts, we recognize there are different values at work today. My Dad taught me to work hard and keep my head down, not to expect much, and the marathon of work will pay off. If you work for 30 years for the same company, someday retire, and eventually sit on a beach. My son rejects this notion and wants to be self-actualized now. Meaning, he wants to work on something he cares about, feel safe and fulfilled, and work with good people within a good culture. Because he has more choices than his dad did, he seeks this best work reality now. And when we think about that, we all desire the same thing. My son wants to hold his own agency, his own power, and have a sense of well-being.

Professional agency, as I conceive it, is the sense that I will manage, release energy, be accountable for the outcome, and act with a group of other individuals who want the same thing. This makes concepts like empowerment, transparency, good communication, and trust even more important, but adds the sense of personal accountability, self-confidence, and motivation as cornerstones. Agency is each person realizing they have the power to find self-actualization in the work they do. It ramps up personal responsibility for outcomes and the personal responsibility to own one’s productive behavior. Both in terms of results and personal character.

My point is this: to release productive energy in people, it must be done at the individual level. With the greater organization acting in only a supportive role. Otherwise, we’re still sitting in a circle looking towards each other for action. Individuals must be accountable for themselves before they can be accountable to and for the organization. When people have permission to act, be accountable for the action, feel a sense of confidence they can do it, feel safe and supported by the team, and believe in the journey towards their own success, all benefit.

A few years ago, I worked with an executive team in a start-up medical instruments organization that was growing. This team was very capable, smart, and at the top of their professional expertise. The team had been working together for 5 years, with most of them having terminal degrees and many years of experience in their domains. They successfully worked together in what might be considered a typical start-up. They worked in the same space, but as agents of their own domains. Whenever new opportunities and challenges arose, they acted quickly in an empowered way. As they grew, they needed to get organized, which they did in a traditional sense. They created org-structures, hired more people, created process maps for decision-making, and started to feel the challenges of any larger organization. They all got further away from the customer and struggled with communication across the organization. To deliver and meet necessary productivity, they became more careful acting within the new structures.

They wanted to be a better team and my role was to help them lead the larger organization better. In the first meeting they acknowledged they had struggles with communicating efficiently, decision avoidance, lacked strategic focus, and poor conflict resolution. Really good people in a typical situation. They were stuck in the same place even the best organizations I work with get stuck.

When I asked them to define the organization they wanted, they pointed towards trusting each other’s decision-making, relying on each other to deliver what was needed to outside the system they created. They wanted to trust their employees more, create grit in their teams, and have everyone be accountable for their work. They wanted to spend more time strategically creating and expanding capacities. Yet, they spent most of their time putting out personal fires, and covering for teams that missed their goals. They were convinced that if they could create a culture like what they had when they first started, they would be better. They all intuitively gravitated towards a vision of creating an organization that embraced professional agency.

Elements of Professional Agency

The baselines for motivating others are many, including both situational and inherent. The situational theories rely on setting conditions for people to release the energy Mary Parker Follett suggested. These can include goals, a sense of fairness, rewards, the expectation of success, and having one’s values fulfilled. These conditions work in many instances but, from my perspective, these are only hygiene needs – the cost of doing business. Quite simply, if you pay me well, I will be motived (sometimes). If you treat me fairly and fulfill some of my important values, I may or may not be motivated.

But there are items called self-determined values that we, in the organization, try to fulfill for people but often fall short. These values include individuals feeling they are competent to do something, working autonomously, and feeling connected to the value they are providing. I can hold an advanced degree but still not feel prepared to feel confident about an assignment. My organization can tell me I am able to work without supervision, but still feel I need approval for everything. I may feel connected to the organizational mission, but if I don’t feel trusted and respected by others, I will doubt myself. These are some of the professional agency factors I am recommending. Let’s explore more of these factors and suggestions for growing a culture of agency.

Self-Trust and the Ability to Learn

When faced with unfamiliar situations, our confidence may waver, leading us to dive into the subject matter to gain as much knowledge as possible. Initially, we might perceive these challenges as overly complex, burdened by the belief that we could never acquire sufficient knowledge to make informed decisions or assume responsibility. The critical question then becomes: How do we overcome such doubts, rather than succumbing to avoidance or outright rejection of these new experiences? The key lies in fostering self-belief and trusting in our capacity to learn what is necessary. By embracing this mindset, we reach a pivotal moment in our journey, often realizing in hindsight that the obstacle was not as daunting or intricate as we had initially feared.

For example, I have had the pleasure of being on several non-profit boards and have served on many governance committees where we were called upon to find fantastic new board members. When I first asked a potential candidate, they may say something like “I’m not qualified…”, “Why do they want me…” or “I feel I need to learn more about the organizations domain before I can take this on…”. People want to be good, and prepared, and it can feel overwhelming if they do not feel prepared. When I point out their vast experience in a parallel domain, or the fact they are a president of a bank or a leader in their space, they think about it and realize they might be prepared to add value after all.

Therefore, the solution is that people need to feel that they have the ability and confidence to learn something new and they trust their mind to figure it out. Anything you have accomplished in your life started this way. Only when we are pushed by mentors, or a situation, do we do it, and eventually build our confidence.

What Leaders and organizations can do is allow this new learning to take place. First, you must create opportunities where people can experience new areas of growth. This may look like making your team members give that big presentation, sit on a committee with other functions of the company, allow people to shadow big assignments, or give them that big assignment. It’s not unusual for us to make a high potential employee we are grooming spend time in many areas of the company, so they develop confidence and working knowledge of other areas. These leaders report that having some sense of these other areas and experiences made them realize they could play an executive role. They then say, “I got this”. We are creating confidence that they are capable of learning and figuring out these seeming difficult challenges.

Self-Expression and Finding Your Voice

I was coaching a young capable woman who was promoted to VP of HR for a large organization. She reported to me that she was genuinely scared of speaking up in meetings. I worked with her on finding her voice. Some things she said to me included “Who am I to have an opinion with these other leaders”, “They will think I’m a know it all” or “I’m afraid I won’t have anything worthwhile to say”, to name a few. If we do not feel we can speak up, we don’t, and we may be perceived as weak.

When we think about things we do well and we feel comfortable with a group, we find our voice. Someone in accounting may feel perfectly fine sharing an idea with her peers, but when in front of the boss she clams up. This can be for many reasons, including the respect we are trying to show to others, or the boss is not inviting the dialog. In today’s world we champion flat organizations and empowerment, yet do we really practice that?

I was invited to be on a committee many years ago filled with executives I had total respect for, these were the best thinkers with fantastic accomplishments. I sat on that committee for a year holding back any comment as I felt unworthy. Then they asked me directly and said, “we want to hear more of your voice”. So, I offered my ideas and realized that I’ve been holding back because I lacked the confidence I needed. Once I began expressing myself, I probably spoke up too much, but I found my voice and today it stands in my mind as an amazing experience.

What organizations can do is hold a value that others’ ideas matter, and the diversity of those ideas are paramount to finding the right answer. This may mean that the ideas you allow others to express may not be fashioned elegantly, or the ideas might seem impractical, or even strange. We need to tolerate these forms of self-expression without judging or diminishing them. I’ve never heard leaders say, “that was a terrible idea”, and if they do, the organization has the wrong leader. By including alternative ways of thinking and making others feel that they contributed, employees will feel a sense of connection and purpose to the effort. If people seem overly quiet in a meeting, go around and ask for their ideas directly and whatever they say should be acknowledged, regardless of what was said. You can create a practice of ensuring that in any meeting you hear from everyone. You are teaching the organization to feel confident and connected to the challenge which produces self-ownership and professional agency.

Self-Control of One’s Destiny

Sometimes people in an organization feel that they have little or no control of outcomes for themselves. If we believe that anything that happens to us is pure luck or circumstances out of our control, why bother? Yes, there are factors that may be limiting. Unfortunately, we live in a world with many biases and judgments about others. You may not have gotten that promotion because you did not go to the right school, have the right experience, or even gender or color. These are true and real obstacles. However, you have a choice to make, which sometimes means switching departments or leaving. But there is another mindset you can adopt, and that’s where you realize you are CEO of yourself. Maybe you don’t have the right experience, or the other candidates were just better on paper. What were you missing? Who do you need to influence the next time? Did you fully express yourself about matters that concerned you?

When my son was in grade school we noticed, and realized he had ADHD. My wife and I called all the right doctors, had him tested, spoke to the school, all towards really feeling nobody cared, and the terror of not doing for our son what we needed to do. We hired an ADHD coach, who said to me “How can you be CEO for your son?”. I immediately found my voice, trusted we had enough information, and prescribed what we wanted his school to do. They resisted, and only when I told them exactly what they would do, and argued our case did they do what we asked. It seemed too easy after months of feeling we had no choices.

If we go through life thinking that everything can be accounted for out of sheer luck, we won’t be motivated to do anything. Again, sometimes circumstances are unavoidable, but we do have choices if we look for them and direct ourselves towards them. Once we feel that we are in control of our destiny, we will carry that in all parts of our lives.

Organizations need to encourage people to know they have some control. This does not mean they get everything they ask for, but there is a path to a destiny that they can design if they choose to. This includes asking every employee during their performance reviews about what they want in one, five, or ten years. The reality is that you might not be able to provide that for them, but you can help them get there. Would you rather someone leave after trying to win a new position, or perhaps keep them engaged by allowing them to test their skills in other areas or allow them the confidence that there are some alternative solutions. They might just stay for another 3 years and then find what they want somewhere else. You just saved 3 years of a good worker finding their power and well-being.


I was in a big meeting one time when my boss was asked a question that she was not prepared for. I was embarrassed for her thinking she was going down with the ship when she told them “I don’t not have that answer, but I’ll find out”. The executives agreed and moved on with alternative ideas. She looked like a hero to me. She lost no credibility and strengthened her brand as someone who is accountable, respectful, and honest.

If we walk through life feeling we must be perfect, we are doomed to being overwhelmed and frightened of every question. I’m not saying that we don’t do our homework, in fact I advocate that you do what you can within reason to be prepared but know that you won’t know everything. Think of how freeing that is.

Organizations should champion the ability of people to think on their feet. Imagine you’re faced with a difficult decision that must be made in the heat of the moment. Your peers provide some ideas that you listen to carefully. Nobody conceptualizes the answer, but you all begin dialoging your ideas. You are thinking through the problem in real time. We are not trained to do this, we are trained to have answers, and to have the right ones to get an “A”. Life is not like that. We need to promote, allow, and champion thinking through problems, out loud, and be humble enough to show others we don’t know either. I’ve only seen people get in trouble when they make stuff up, never for being humble about the situation.


It does not matter what you try to do to produce professional agency or develop your teams unless people feel safe. If someone makes a mistake they should not get fired; unless it is something unethical or they are unable to learn from the mistake. Nobody will speak up in a meeting, show humility, be open to learning, or have any sense that they are in control if they don’t feel safe.

Safety has many benefits, Including openness, innovation, and engagement.  Feeling psychological safety requires the entire organization to practice active listening, being respectful to others, allowing vulnerability, champion inclusivity, and allowing for individual differences, personality, and styles. Organizations seek stability and they do this by creating unwritten standards of expectations. Yes, everyone should be honest and respectful, but these come in many forms.

Some people are naturally introverted, accept that. Some people talk too much, accept that. Some are stern and direct while others are more subtle. Organizations can accept and allow it all if the intentions are in good faith. I once worked for a manufacturing team where everyone told me about Mike. He was the Director of Engineering, very passionate about his department and his work. When I sat with Mike what I witnessed was what other people did, but what came through to me was he was misunderstood. When I reported to the team, I asked them why they don’t accept Mike for who he is and get past his abruptness. I know this sounds counter intuitive, but nobody is ever going to make Mike less passionate and direct. Once everyone realized that Mike’s intentions were good, they felt safe. Of course, Mike needed to work on his awareness of his effect on others, but Mike was really a kind and caring person in the shell of someone we had been trained to fear.

Organizations can create psychological safety through practicing good corporate citizenship and allowing diversity at all levels. It is a fact that diversity in teams, including background and personality, creates safety by displaying and experiencing different people. Once we witness other people, we appreciate them more and get to know them a bit better. When among a diverse audience, people usually are on their best behavior and become a bit more measured and professional.

One further note. I’m not talking about harassment or allowing bed behaviors that are debilitating to the organization. In fact, if people’s intentions are dysfunctional to the culture, I feel they should be removed as quickly as possible. This also promotes the message and the fact that these bad cultural behaviors have no place here. This will also motivate others to feel good about where they work.


While working with an executive team of an international engineering firm, the primary challenge was that they could not make decisions, which created a lot of frustration, finger-pointing, and dysfunction. These were very accomplished executives working in a very progressive company and shared all the same values of the items I spoke of above. So, what could be the problem? It seems there was such a level of professionalism there was a fear of letting each other down, and this respect and care for each other created an environment where every decision needed to be in the “circle”. When trying to strategize how to improve, they kept trying to engineer the problem. In other words, they wanted to create flow charts for how decisions are made, and meeting so that they can all agree on certain matters. From my perspective, this is the worst thing they could do. So, I ran an impromptu discussion about a recent decision that they struggle to make. They described how they didn’t want to release a product because it didn’t have everybody’s approval. When I asked them at each stage in the decision process why they didn’t each make their own decision about what to do with the product, they described that they didn’t want to be accountable alone for the decision. They wanted “the team’s” approval. The interesting thing is that everybody agreed on the same decision. However, in their over politeness, they kept waiting for the others to agree, and it held the whole project up.

I feel that our organizations, society, and us, as individuals, have all been weaned off being accountable for the sake of the team. I’m not saying the teams are not good, but being a team does not mean that we all must agree with everything. It means we must trust each other on the team, and the team must trust us to make decisions for the good of the mission. I know I’m describing nirvana here, but if I’m responsible for quality, and I reject the part because it doesn’t meet the criteria or cause harm in the market, I stop the line. That’s going to require my peers, including marketing and sales, finance, and administration to trust me that I stopped the line for a good reason. If I wait for the committee to report on this, I might deliver hundreds of parts that’ll just have to be recalled later.

Accountability is a mindset that requires us to be responsible for the decisions we make. This is akin to signing our work, putting our stamp on it, taking responsibility for the decision. And quite honestly, organizations do not hold people accountable. We often allow people to make mistakes repeatedly for fear of hurting their feelings, don’t give appropriate feedback that they need, or allow tenure employees to behave badly for too long before taking any action. I understand the rules and laws that HR must follow regarding how to act, but we need to teach the entire organization to not only be accountable but hold each other accountable. I would rather a peer of mine decide, even if I disagree with it, rather than hold up the whole affair because they don’t have the courage to make the decision. Of course, this will not work if the organization is filled with people that make bad decisions. But if that’s the case, we have other problems.

My message about accountability is useless or just a fantasy until leaders and organizations decide they’re truly going to allow people to be empowered, be trusted, and held accountable. I don’t mean we fire them if they make a mistake. I mean if they make a mistake, we must process that and figure out a way not to do that again, learn from it, and move on. If people continue to make mistakes, we need to move them to another part of the company where they’re going to be learning and growing at their capacity. This might sound harsh, but if we truly want people to have personal and professional agency, they need to also accept that they’re accountable. With humility and openness, we learn and grow, feel safer, and feel like we’re controlling our own destiny.

How to Create an Agency Culture

Create Coaching Culture

My highest recommendation to building confidence in people, creating accountability, improving communication, and building people with professional agency is to teach them to coach each other. Create a culture of coaching. This will teach and allow people the practice and experience of helping their colleagues solve their own challenges, conflicts, and crises of confidence when they happen. If your peer is struggling with a problem, take 10 minutes to coach them. If your employee is afraid to give a presentation, sit with them as they process the challenge. If someone is rude or creates conflict, coach them to build awareness of both the problem and solution. This is powerful stuff.

This can be done through a few activates: Make coaching one of your company’s core values where it is an expectation that it will be practiced. Teach people basic coaching conversational skills through coaching training, creating a shared language around whatever coaching methodology you choose. Have each executive and manager go through a 360-degree assessment where they must present their findings to their peers and employees. If everyone is involved and understands, they eventually will do a 360, you will get their attention, and model all the agency skills in this article. Coaching should not be a flavor of the month, rather a core value and expected behavior.

Facilitate Strategy Combined with Play

To build a team, people need to know each other and understand the contributions of their peers. This is not done with drinks after work, through an ice-cream social, or putting a pool table in the break room. True teamwork is built while doing important things together. Regardless of whether your people are onsite or remote, bring them together once a quarter and work on real challenges and opportunities. Facilitate whole working days putting them in diverse groups and give them challenges to solve, in a safe and collaborative format. Most organizations have many challenges and employees know how to solve them. A little consulting secret for you: when you hire an expert to come into your company to help solve a challenge, the first thing they do is talk with your employees to glean what they know and what ideas they have. Why not do this first, and create a whole bunch of skills, build relationships and connections, inform people, and allow them to express themselves and build collective organizational confidence. You will also be building professional agency.

Accept People for Who They Are

There are as many personalities, styles, and approaches to problems as there are people. Some are introverted, extraverted, drivers, consolers, confident, timid, direct, and the list goes on. We should accept people for who they are and leverage their styles. Not to suggest that anyone should be disrespectful, but we should not allow a different style to affect our own confidence. We talk a lot about diversity, but we naturally want to be with people like us. Greatness does not exist in an echo chamber. If we hold our own and allow others agency, personal power, and confidence, we will not allow ourselves to feel less-than. It is up to us to stand in there and manage what is coming and meet others where they are however they present themselves. We all want to be accepted for who we are and be understood and not judged for our style. We can all improve our style and adjust when we need to, but we also need to just accept each other and not allow other people to take our power so easily.

Honest and In-The-Moment Feedback

Professional agency requires people to build awareness of how they are doing and be able to share with others what they need and what is not working. I get that we always want to be polite and respectful, but these are worthless if not combined with honesty. It is very difficult to share with someone that you expect more, or that they need to change directions on a task or behavior. We often let honesty slip by for fear of upsetting others and just make the problem bigger than it needs to be. To be clear, we are not just walking around pointing out every little problem or making people feel bad. Rather, we are showing we care for them and want to help them be better. This is where good coaching and mentoring skills come into play. One organization I worked for allowed project managers to report mistakes they made during the week, showing humility for growth, and helping the team be better. These managers didn’t always like doing it but felt supported and did not make the same mistakes again.

Transparency is Kind

Kind is not being anonymous. It is understandable that some matters require discretion, but not most things. If you have ever received negative feedback about your performance, it is kind and clear when you can understand the details of that feedback. For example, a practice partner came to me once to tell me that someone in the team felt uncomfortable about what I said in a meeting. Feeling terrible about the feedback, I asked specifically what I said and who reported it. She told me she could not tell me. This paralyzed me, not knowing what to correct or what relationship I needed to improve. For several meetings I lost my confidence and became overly careful. It’s not unusual for me to be called into a situation to hear that my client received an anonymous complaint through HR. Okay, so what does my client work on? No idea. Knowing the context can help facilitate resolution. If fact, if that person just went to my client and had a coaching conversation, both parties would build their awareness, confidence in each other and grow their own agency.


Professional agency and creating an organization that embraces a culture of agency will create workplaces filled with confident, empowered, and respectful people. Dysfunction hides in secrecy, silos, and competitive workplaces, where it is necessary to win and protect yourself. The solution is not going to be engineered by just producing decision trees, process maps, or a list of corporate values. Each of us has a different personality, approach, motivation, and set of values which organizations struggle to control. It is the role of leaders to tap into the best-selves of people, utilize their strengths, accept each other’s beautiful diversity in perspectives, skills and behaviors and truly get in it together. When people feel confident, they become responsible and accountable. When people are self-motivated, they become better peers and empathetic leaders. When people find their voice, they collaborate better to grow the organizational mission.

Our organizations are not neat boxes, today they are messy. Until we can control every interaction, we must realize that people are messy too. To extract the best of people and have them feel a sense of well-being, we must work on improving each other. We have to allow people to be CEO’s of themselves and hold them to that accountability.

About Sojourn

Sojourn Partners is a results-driven executive leadership coaching firm that empowers the professional workforce to think differently in order to realize the full return on investment in themselves and their companies. Professional leadership thinking and intervention, based on years of research and experience, place Sojourn Partners at the forefront in executive leadership coaching, organizational development, strategic planning and culture and climate change.


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