“Someone gave me the information. I read it.”
“I opened the envelope and it said….”
“I was only following orders.”
It’s been an interesting day so far. Very early this morning, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway announced the wrong winner of Best Picture at the Academy Awards. And then Seth Godin’s morning thought (which he wrote and scheduled long ago) was about the need to “own our actions, to speak up, stand up and act up when we’re asked to do the wrong thing.”
Webster defines agency as “a person or thing through which power is exerted or an end is achieved.” Social scientists add “agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.”
Back to the three opening quotes. You may have recognized the first as what Donald Trump said when called out on his claim to have had the biggest electoral college victory since Ronald Reagan. He’s suggesting that he did not have a free choice about what he said. He was fed the envelope by someone else.
The second quote is part of how Warren Beatty explained what went wrong at the Academy Awards. To be fair, he had tried to fix things before they announced the wrong winner. He knew he had the wrong envelope. He emphasized that the award was for best picture, looked to the wings, hoping that someone would save the moment. But he did not stop. He was not explicit with his concern. And things went very badly.
Note that when the PriceWaterhouseCoopers partner heard the wrong winner being announced his first words were “He (Beatty) took the wrong envelope.” This was about deflecting instead of accepting accountability.
The third quote is the Nuremberg Defense – which doesn’t work. Individuals get to make choices (subject to constraints).
A Brave Approach To Agency
No more blind agency for any of you. From now on, commit to being thinking agents. Taking a brave approach across behaviors, relationships, attitudes, values and the environment can help:
Consider the context. Be aware of what’s going on and the constraints in which you are operating. Different things are possible over different time frames.
Values are the things you will not walk by, things on which you will not compromise. As Procter & Gamble’s Bob Goldstein said “A principle isn’t a principle unless it costs you something.”
This gets you to your first decision point. If you are being asked to do something that violates one of your fundamental values, don’t do it. Walk away. Accept the consequences of your failure to comply.
Attitude is about choices, how to achieve what matters and why. Beatty chose to pause. It wasn’t enough. He could have stopped, turned to the person that gave him the envelope and said something like “I think I may have the wrong envelope. Can you check?”
Relationships matter. Creating, strengthening and preserving them matters. Consider relationships when you’re struggling with a choice as an agent. But the order matters. Starting by worrying about your relationship will bias you to follow blindly. Starting by considering the context, your values and principles and the right choices will help you think through the right choices first and then think about how to preserve and strengthen your relationship with those choices.
All this leads to thinking before you act. All this adds up to the impact you choose to make in the moment and over time.
Perhaps Trump would have responded differently to Peter Alexander’s challenge of his alternate electoral college facts had he thought things through. Or perhaps not.
Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway certainly would have done things differently if they knew how things would play out.
And you’re going to think differently and behave differently going forward. As an agent, you will, by definition, be a conduit for others. That means some constraints. But you do have some degrees of freedom and always have the ability to think before you act.