Agency and the Pandemic

kayak in the water

The word agency is gaining favor and has become the new buzzword to describe having and exercising power and influence. Many felt the pandemic took their agency away. During the worst of the Covid crisis, the power to control and influence our future pretty much disappeared, and has not fully returned in many cases. Those of us with the ability to do so Zoomed with family, friends and co-workers. But no one thinks it took the place of a hug, a deep conversation, or a glass of wine and a good meal together.

Dr. Adam Grant recently wrote an article for the New York Times entitled “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing.” He gives a description of the blah feeling we all experienced—and may still be experiencing—from the pandemic. Three different people forwarded it to me, saying “Aha! This is how it’s been for me!”

Dr. Grant saysa friend told him:I didn’t recognize the symptoms that we all had in common. Friends mentioned that they were having trouble concentrating. Colleagues reported that even with vaccines on the horizon, they weren’t excited about 2021. A family member was staying up late to watch ‘National Treasure’ again even though she knows the movie by heart. And instead of bouncing out of bed at 6 a.m., I was lying there until 7, playing Words with Friends.

It wasn’t burnout — we still had energy. It wasn’t depression — we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless. It turns out there’s a name for that: languishing.”

Then someone sent me another New York Times article, this one by Dani Blum, entitled “The Other Side of Languishing is Flourishing. Here’s How to Get There.” The article describes ways to overcome languishing and begin flourishing. Suggestions include savoring and celebrating small things, doing five good deeds, trying something new, and looking for community and connection. The idea is that when we are flourishing, we have agency. When we are in action, we have more control and influence over our lives.

Even as we get back to a more “normal” life, the pandemic continues to shape our actions. Many of us are making decisions about things that have been on our mind for years. We are questioning whether we will continue to work so many hours, or even if we have the right job, relationship, friends, location – city, town, state… The basic answer we’re seeking is what will give us power and influence over our life and the satisfaction, happiness and well-being we crave.

This period of questioning is so deep that leaders and organizations are asking themselves how they can improve well-being and satisfaction at work. There is a huge movement to redesign work itself. Many families, while perhaps not enjoying the home schooling or restrictions, found that they loved the family time, just playing games and being together. They intend to restructure their lives post-pandemic to have more time for those activities. Some are moving to locations where life is slower. Others are writing that book they have wanted to write for years. We are all taking stock and making decisions to get agency back in our lives.

Engaged leaders will find that the future expects them to use their agency to be more self-aware and open to feedback, and generally to make leadership better and become better leaders.

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