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You Have More Agency than You Realize

Updated: Jun 22, 2022

Challenging your assumptions and claiming radical ownership of your agency can bring peace and possibility

“What is the conversation you haven’t had, Amber?”

The line fell silent as the weight of that question sat with me. It hadn’t been silent in moments before. It had been filled with my venting and frustration at being stuck in dysfunction time and again. My coach had listened and helped me to see one fundamental truth….

I had more agency than I realized.

Up until that point, I was frustrated with my colleague for disregarding my needs yet again. I had come in fuming at their thoughtlessness and disrespect.

I wasn’t at the mercy of the circumstances around me. I didn’t have to feel miserable or stuck. That was my choice because I wasn’t taking my 100% responsibility for what I could own. I could have a conversation to invite a different dynamic.

The moment that I accepted that I had a choice, I felt peace. It didn’t solve the issue. But I had the chance to get out of the hamster wheel.

We often unwittingly write the recipe for our own suffering

At Leading Elephants, we see this pattern in so many instances. How many people do you know who assume that it is normal (and unfixable) to be unhappy in the workplace? There’s a whole comic strip in Dilbert that uncannily shows the dysfunction many think is just normal. As a society, we have normalized this to the point of laughing about it.

This resigned, mildly cynical feeling of “stuck” and “it is what it is.” are symptoms of a way of thinking that we at Leading Elephants call a “To Me” mindset. **(See attribution note below.)

Here’s where we’ll be provocative: Things don’t happen “to you.” They happen “by you.” It’s your choice. At least, it’s your choice in how you experience it.

Contrasting To Me v. By Me

Let’s unpack this a little bit more. The “By Me” mindset claims 100% responsibility for my contribution to the situation. It says that so many parts of me - my narratives, assumptions, actions, inactions, etc. are contributing to the situation and my experience of it.

“To Me” says that I’m at the mercy of the experience and I can’t change what is happening. “By Me” invites me to look at the situation and see where I have helped to cause it.

Let’s look at some examples:

I can’t believe they made me do this extra project.

Hm - if I take on this extra work, I’ll need to work with my supervisor to reprioritize the rest of the work on my plate.

My boss always makes me work in my evenings, weekends, and vacations. Sheesh.

​I need to have a conversation about my accessibility and capacity. I think we need to first get clear on our preferences and non-negotiables on both sides.

My boss doesn’t understand the issues I’m dealing with.

How can I keep my boss in the loop and aware of the issues I’m dealing with?

Things didn’t follow according to the plan I laid out.

Where am I setting this up to be too rigid and linear? How can I incorporate more agile or iterative approaches so I won’t always be overwhelmed by change?

They won’t listen because they don’t report to me.

​How do I be intentional about inviting and influencing people into a place of partnership?

Being fired is a game ender for me. I’m toast.

​This experience may be a gift to open me up to new opportunities. How can I craft an open-minded narrative of this?

The Possibilities with a “By Me” Mindset

As we look at these examples, we hope you will see:

  • How one side holds a place of judgment and blame, while the other holds a place of openness and curiosity

  • One assumes others must meet our expectations, while the other seeks to create alignment that works for all parties

  • One focuses on the content and limitations, while the other is evaluating the context and options

  • One assumes a fixed mindset and storyline, while the other allows for growth and acknowledges that story narratives can be rewritten.

In essence, a “By Me” worldview puts so much more possibility into the world. It allows us to question the limiting assumptions that are constricting the options in front of us, and it invites us to be an active learner and driver in the experience of life.

Of course, we hope that the people and conditions around us are favorable to us. At Leading Elephants, we passionately speak to all sorts of ways that we hope leaders create conditions for thriving.

But ultimately, we have to take ownership for our own thriving. No one can make us do it. And on the flip side, because that is our choice, no one can hold us back from thriving when we approach with a “By Me” lens.

Hold Up: When An Oppressive Situation Makes It Hard to See Any Agency at All

Before we go on, let’s address the elephant in the room. It can often feel really challenging to see any agency in a situation where one feels marginalized and oppressed. Our message here is not some Pollyannaish optimism that one can simply speak their mind and everything will change. We can only take responsibility for our portion of the dynamic, and we are NOT in control of an outcome.

It can be really disheartening to attempt to change our circumstances and feel like our efforts won’t change anything. Power dynamics are real. And it is no fun to be on the receiving end of this. And, our compassionate, provocative push is that there is still likely more agency in your situation than you are giving credit for. Here are a few perspectives from others who have been in a place of oppression that might help you claim what is still within your locus of control.

  • Conversations with a “By Me” mindset feel different for the receiver. If you’ve tried to have conversations about your needs, and it hasn’t yielded the shift you needed, it may be that there is a different, heartfelt conversation you need to have. Conversations with a “To Me” tone can convey a sense of blame and defensiveness. Sometimes people soften with a conversation willed with compassionate authenticity.

  • Clarifying your purpose can refine what really matters. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr said “Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?’” Sometimes the limiting circumstances we are in can become the megaphone, helping us to refine our purpose. And conversely, purpose can help us keep perspective on what matters. It can give us resilience and courage. And it can help us to know where to let go and let be. Thought leader Jovian Zayne says it this way “When a person taps into their purpose, they become unleashed, and like a lit candle, they have the power to light others.”

  • You can claim any situation for your learning. Viola Davis described this concept: “As black women, we're always given these seemingly devastating experiences — experiences that could absolutely break us. But what the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls the butterfly. What we do as black women is take the worst situations and create from that point.” Every single situation can be an ally for one’s learning and growth. We can see where our ego still reigns. We can cultivate empathy and compassion. We can choose to stay soft when a situation might harden us.

  • While there may be many things you cannot choose, you can always choose how you feel in a given situation. In the face of oppression or frustration, we can choose to find contentment and peace. That search for equanimity comes as we seek to make sense of suffering, loosen our attachments to one right way, and source our approval and serenity from within ourselves. Sojourner Truth taught us, “Life is a hard battle anyway. If we laugh and sing a little as we fight the good fight of freedom, it makes it all go easier. I will not allow my life's light to be determined by the darkness around me.” How will you keep your light burning?

For those of you who feel marginalized and diminished, our hearts are with you. Ultimately, we hope that you are energized by the possibility that you can choose how you want to approach your current situation. The world needs what you have to offer, and we all benefit from each step of courage that someone takes. We hope that claiming a bit more agency magnifies your light.

How Do I Shift to a “By Me” Perspective?

Let’s look beyond the benefits of a “By Me” mindset and explore how we might get ourselves there.

One of the fastest ways you can shift your perspective on your current situation is to start naming the contributors that are currently forming your current scenario. In our coaching, we invite leaders to write a recipe for how they have created the current situation they are in. For example you might:

- Get explicit about the actions you generally take or don’t. (“Tell people that you will be on vacation. But don’t put it on anyone’s calendars, and never start planning to be away.”)

- Name the beliefs that you have to hold to make the current situation a reality. (“Convince yourself that the world will stop if you miss the coordination call while you are out of office.” “Find pride in being a martyr and treat every hour you had to work late as a badge. Believe exhaustion makes you legit.”)

- Describe the conversations you are never allowed to have (“Never ask if we can we push this meeting to when I get back”), or the things you are required to fixate on (“Lay at night imagining all of the things people will say for you taking time away.”)

We encourage you to be playful with this! Another, more basic way, is to ask yourself how you are contributing, and to look with curiosity for a generous narrative that might describe another person’s behavior.

Once you see your current situation, there are several actions we invite you to take:

  • Begin with compassion for yourself. Often the tensions we face come as we seek to feel valued, to belong, and to feel a sense of control. It’s totally understandable that we can feel stuck or right in the assumptions we are holding. The goal isn’t to guilt our way into a new way of thinking. Rather, let’s compassionately loosen our hold on some of the assumptions we feel so convicted about.

  • Decide on a few areas to experiment. Now that you have named what you are currently doing, you can see areas that you could operate differently. Choose a few and experiment with doing something the opposite!

  • Consider whether you need to establish a clearer boundary. Often our blurry boundaries contribute to a messy situation. Cleaning those up can allow for greater clarity and accountability in the future. You can redistribute the burden you’ve unwittingly been carrying for other people, and you can invite them to be co-creators in a new future.

  • Check for where you might benefit from a conversation. Let’s face it: you are likely operating with incomplete or inaccurate information in whatever situation you find yourself. We say this because in most cases, drama is fueled by unsaid assumptions and unvoiced requests. Amber’s story at the beginning is a ripe example of the case where a conversation left unsaid was limiting her ability to change her situation.

Your first conversation doesn’t need to be bold and aggressive. (Often people over-index toward blunt and heavy handed conversations when they seek to change. You can hold a firm boundary but discuss it softly!) But open yourself up to seeing where a little shared meaning could go a long way to creating a different reality.

  • Bring a learning mindset and reflect on what you experience differently! Remember that learning is part of the goal in a “By Me” world. Every opportunity for learning keeps us open to new possibilities.

Wishing You the Best in the “By Me” Journey

Our sojourn in “By Me” has been an empowering, peace-filled experience, even if we sometimes revert back to the world of “To Me” at times. Our hope is that it will open up new possibilities and greater joy for you, as it has for us.

Viktor Frankil said (or he is one of many who have been attributed to this…): “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.””

Here is to growth and freedom, learning and peace. You deserve no less.


**We want to give credit to the Conscious Leadership Group and to the work they have done with Kaley Warner Klemp for some of this “To Me / By Me” language and wisdom. The psychology research also uses the terms of an “internal locus of control” and “external locus of control” to showcase how this orientation influences health, life satisfaction, and other variables in a meaningful life.


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