Agentic Engagement for Adults | Toby Elmore | 4 Min Read

Those of you familiar with my blog will know my borderline obsession with the construct of agentic engagement. In the past I have posted regarding what it might mean to have agentic engagement as an overarching pedagogical and curricular goal as well as the ways that my thinking around agentic engagement has shifted as I have dug deeper into the literature. To this point, most of my research and work around agentic engagement has been focused on the relationship between classroom environments and students’ perceived agentic engagement. 

However, I have come to realize that agentic engagement can (and should) also be considered within the context of hierarchical supervisorial and coaching relationships. Several questions must be addressed in order to unpack the relationship between agentic engagement and adult professional relationships. First, what does agentic engagement mean and look like in the context of a supervisory, coaching, or collegial relationship? Second, what practices can be undertaken on the part of a supervisor, coach, or colleague to facilitate professional agentic engagement? And third, what strategies can be employed to measure the degree to which the supervisor achieves their desired outcomes? 

As with the learner/instructor classroom context, the control and autonomy dichotomy is critical to fostering healthy relationships. As Ryan and Deci (2000) posit in their articulation of Self-Determination theory, all humans have three basic psychological needs that need to be met to foster a healthy and constructive intrinsic motivation: competence, relatedness, and autonomy. Autonomy is not just for kids in school, we adults need it as well. Like, we really need it to be healthy in our respective work environments. While it might be easy for us to list off traits of controlling supervisors or colleagues with whom we have worked, it is helpful to take stock of what the literature says regarding how the continuum of autonomy and control plays out in the professional context. Let’s start with control. 

As Reeve (2015) writes, “Interpersonal control is the exertion of psychological and behavioral pressure to coerce someone to change the way they think, feel, or behave.” This can be particularly prevalent in hierarchical relationships where one person is deemed the “expert” or “veteran” or supervisor. This type of autonomy-suppressive behavior often uses damaging strategies such as shaming and guilt-induction (Barber, 1996). Perhaps most damaging is the conditional regard that often accompanies such behavior. As I wrote about some time ago, conditional negative and positive regard each have shown to result in undesirable psychological effects, from an extrinsic motivational approach to the use of controlling incentives and rewards, criticism-suppression, “directives without rationales or discussion”, and “impatience that demands quick and unconditional compliance” (Assor et al., 2002; Reeve, 2009). Research has shown that these controlling behaviors often work together in concert rather than being one-off approaches to supervision, mentoring, and coaching. The result being a significant and damaging perceived loss of autonomy (as well as competence and relatedness). 

It doesn’t have to be this way. When a supervisor frames their work through the lens of agentic engagement the result can create a mutually beneficial relationship built upon “intentional environment-enriching acts” (Reeve, 2015). Professionally-oriented agentic engagement honors both the structure often required of the supervisor as well as the autonomy support that has the potential to provide the space needed for the supervisee to learn and grow from their experiences. Actions and behaviors that facilitate this process are as follows: allowing for a shared “expressing of one’s preferences and opinions, asking for needed resources, asking questions to help one’s planning and learning, and letting one’s supervisor know what one is interested in and what one needs and wants” (Reeve, 2015). Developing a relationship such as this has the potential to develop a “reciprocal causation”, whereby the “partners come together…and join forces to move each other toward higher-quality motivation and engagement” resulting in “greater enjoyment of the other, greater attachment security with the other, greater emotional reliance on the other, greater vitality when with the other, and greater inclusion of the other in one’s own self-concept” (Deci et al., 2006). Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

As with so many idealized ways of operating in schools, the daily grind can inhibit our capacity to operate in this way. And that is okay; remember, we are chipped teacups, not those “perfect” un-chipped teacups. However, the research provided by those listed in the prior paragraphs can remind us that our daily interactions with those in our care makes a difference. What can feel like a quick, meaningless interaction with a colleague or supervisee can carry an unanticipated and significant positive or negative impact. I invite you to consider promoting agentic engagement among your colleagues to develop truly collegial and mutually supportive professional relationships. Our students stand to benefit from such an approach and it has the power to enhance the joy we feel in our work. 

This was initially posted on Toby Elmore’s blog on Chipped Teacups: Ruminations of a progressive educator, on Aug. 22, 2022.

You may also be interested in reading more article written by Toby Elmore for Intrepid Ed News.

Toby Elmore

Toby Elmore is studying at the University of San Francisco School of Education.

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