The story of agency

Another kind of story that I’ve encountered in my exploration of coherence narratives is the story of agency. Again, it’s loosely borrowed from the Four Needs Framework and plays a catalytic role similar to that of the story of belonging.

The story of agency is all about going it alone. It’s about striking out on my own, finding our own path, independence, and self-sufficiency. It can also be about perseverance, toughing it out, defending, and standing tall.  The story of agency is deeply woven into American culture, celebrated on July 4, in remembering the Alamo, and oh so many movies with a lone heroic protagonist.

Just like the other catalyst story, the story of agency leans on the structure of another story. Combined with the story of an opportunity, it celebrates uniqueness and breaking with convention as the precious ingredient. Mixed into the story of a threat, it uses the same qualities to draw the bright line between life and death.

Looking at various organizations, I am picking out two distinct patterns. First, the story of agency often plays a role in diminishing coherence. It is the story of break-ups, of abandoning the common goal, of “this is not working out.” Behind every tense conversation, irreconcilable disagreements, and teams deciding not to collaborate lurk stories of agency.

Second, the stories of agency and belonging tend to blend into this curious nested-doll relationship that increases coherence. The story of agency provides the lens to evaluate the external environment, while the story of belonging sets the tone for internal: “we come together to be unique and different from others.” This is also a very common strategy in marketing. Apple’s “Think Different” poster immediately pops to mind when looking for an example of such a nested doll. I buy your product to stand out, while at the same time becoming part of a group.

Through this symbiotic relationship of two stories, organizations and any groups of individuals create boundaries. The story of belonging is what defines the in-group, and the story of agency — the out-group. The story of a threat, catalyzed by the in-group’s story of belonging, is often based on the story of agency: the threat from whom? — the out-group, of course.

For example, a team’s narrative might be about building something truly revolutionary (story of agency + story of opportunity) while persevering in a rapidly shifting, or even hostile conditions (story of a threat + story of belonging). If such a narrative is particularly resonant and crisp, it tends to live for a very long time, sustaining coherence of a group and becoming this group’s identity.

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