Agency in L&D

Human Agency.

Our self‐understanding as human agents includes commitment to three crucial claims about human agency: That agents must be active, that actions are part of the natural order, and that intentional actions can be explained by the agent’s reasons for acting.*

I often wonder in L&D if people are attracted to the profession (in whatever form of the profession they enter) so that they can impart their wisdom, as opposed to believing that people have agency as described above. And I wonder if there are people who want to tell people what to think, that’s not L&D at all. It’s evangelism.

Part of the world that L&D inhabits is to impart knowledge. It’s the fundamental purpose of the function / profession. My question is less that we impart knowledge, and more about how it’s done.

I observe that there are trainers / facilitators / presenters who simply want to tell people what to think. And to tell them what they must be thinking. And to prove their cleverness by inferring on someone’s behalf. I see it often. And whenever I do, I become more alert. I become more alert to the person and their lack of belief in others and their agency.

A while back, I realised that I can only share things as I know them. That I know things in a certain way means it makes sense to me in a certain way. I learned that I could be challenged on my thinking and from that challenge I am forced to address my understanding. It also meant that I could only speak on behalf of me. I realised I could not, and should not, presume to talk for anyone else.

It has become my fundamental way of being. My belief in others that they have the freedom, permission and support to explore their thinking, to arrive at their own answers, and to decide a course of action as is best seen by them.

Which sometimes works against the loved frameworks of L&D we are comfortable with. In most courses and programmes and solutions we deliver, we explicitly take away a person’s agency. We essentially design learning solutions in such a way that says “you do not know, this is how you will know, you are now better for knowing”.

When I have the platform to speak with others, be that at a conference, in a workshop, on a panel, on a webinar, or any other platform, I am very aware that I cannot prescribe thought. I can share what I know, and invite people to explore that with me. If that takes them to a place of insight, that’s good. If it doesn’t, that’s also good because they have their agency.

I am concerned that there are people who do not realise agency is fundamental to human learning. That there are many out there who are willingly and confidently and enthusiastically misunderstanding how to support learning in others. That they believe they can hear the words a person is saying and then speak for them. That they can tell a group what they must be thinking because they are so insightful. That they can tell an individual what they need to do, because they’ve been there and done it.

And I’m aware in writing this, I am suggesting agency should be a fundamental design aspect of L&D. Maybe I’m right. Maybe I’m wrong. It’s up for debate.

*taken from the abstract for Understanding Human Agency, Erasmus Mayr


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

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