Skip to main content

Human Agency at Work: Towards a Clarification and Operationalisation of the Concept

Part of the Professional and Practice-based Learning book series (PPBL,volume 20)


This chapter proposes a conceptualisation and operationalisation of human agency in work contexts based on a larger literature review. In a first step, two conceptually different perspectives of human agency are discussed: (a) agency as something individuals do and (b) agency as a personal feature of individuals. Both perspectives are then integrated into a larger framework also including situation-specific context factors. In a second step, three distinct components of human agency as a personal feature of individuals are derived and discussed: (a) agency competence (i.e. the capacity to visualise desired future states, to set goals based on these states, to translate these goals into actions, to engage in these actions, and to deal with upcoming problems), (b) agency beliefs (i.e. perceptions of whether one is agentically competent or not), and (c) agency personality (i.e. a stable and comparable situation-unspecific inclination to make choices and to engage in actions based on these choices with the aim to take control over one’s life or environment). In a third step, the results of this theoretical discussion are then used to propose an operational definition of human agency that may be used in a range of empirical studies employing hypothesis-testing methods.


  • Human agency
  • Agency competence
  • Agency beliefs
  • Agency personality
  • Definition
  • Conceptualisation
  • Operationalisation
  • Proactivity
  • Workplace learning
  • Professional development

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Buying options

USD   29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-60943-0_5
  • Chapter length: 19 pages
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
USD   149.00
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • ISBN: 978-3-319-60943-0
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
Softcover Book
USD   199.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Hardcover Book
USD   199.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Fig. 5.1
Fig. 5.2


  1. 1.

    This definition is largely compatible with the definition proposed by Eteläpelto et al. (2013). However , Eteläpelto et al. (2013) do not conceptualise agency as a tendency and disposition but rather as something individuals’ do. The definition proposed in this chapter therefore shifts the focus more towards human agency as a personal feature by still being grounded within current discourses of the workplace learning literature.


  • Ashford, S. J., & Black, J. S. (1996). Proactivity during organizational entry: The role of desire for control. Journal of Applied Psychology, 81(2), 199–214.

  • Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191–215.

  • Bandura, A. (1978). The self system in reciprocal determinism. American Psychologist, 33(4), 344–358.

  • Bandura, A. (1982). The self and mechanisms of agency. In J. Suls (Ed.), Psychological perspectives on the self (Vol. 1, pp. 3–39). Hillsdale: Erlbaum.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, 52(1), 1–26.

  • Bandura, A. (2006). Toward a psychology of human agency. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1(2), 164–180.

  • Bateman, T. S., & Crant, J. M. (1993). The proactive component of organizational behavior: A measure and correlates. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 14(2), 103–118.

  • Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2007). Self-regulation, ego depletion, and motivation. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 1(1), 115–128.

  • Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2012). Self-regulation and the executive function of the self. In M. R. Leary & J. P. Tangney (Eds.), Handbook of self and identity (2nd ed., pp. 180–197). New York: Guilford.

    Google Scholar 

  • Billett, S. (2001). Learning through work: Workplace affordances and individual engagement. Journal of Workplace Learning, 13(5), 209–214.

  • Billett, S. (2006). Relational interdependence between social and individual agency in work and working life. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 13(1), 53–69.

  • Billett, S. (2011). Subjectivity, self and personal agency in learning through and for work. In M. Malloch, L. Cairns, K. Evans, & B. O’Conner (Eds.), The international handbook of workplace learning (pp. 60–72). London: Sage.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Billett, S., & Smith, R. (2006). Personal agency and epistemology at work. In S. Billett, T. Fenwick, & M. Somerville (Eds.), Work, subjectivity and learning (pp. 141–156). Dordrecht: Springer.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Bindl, U. K., & Parker, S. K. (2011). Proactive work behavior: Forward-thinking and change-oriented action in organizations. In S. Zedeck (Ed.), APA handbook of industrial and organizational psychology, Vol. 2: Selecting and developing members for the organization (pp. 567–598). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Bollen, K., & Lennox, R. (1991). Conventional wisdom on measurement: A structural equation perspective. Psychological Bulletin, 110(2), 305–314.

  • Bryson, J., Pajo, K., Ward, R., & Mallon, M. (2006). Learning at work: Organisational affordances and individual engagement. Journal of Workplace Learning, 18(5), 279–297.

  • Bunnin, N., & Yu, J. (2004). The Blackwell dictionary of Western philosophy. Malden: Blackwell Pub.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Burger, J. M., & Cooper, H. M. (1979). The desirability of control. Motivation and Emotion, 3(4), 381–393.

  • Clausen, J. S. (1991). Adolescent competence and the shaping of the life course. American Journal of Sociology, 96(4), 805–842.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Costa, P. T., & McCrae, R. R. (1992). Four ways five factors are basic. Personality and Individual Differences, 13(6), 653–665.

  • Crant, J. M. (2000). Proactive behavior in organizations. Journal of Management, 26(3), 435–462.

  • Cross, S., & Markus, H. (1991). Possible selves across the life span. Human Development, 34(4), 230–255.

  • Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The ‘What’ and ‘Why’ of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227–268.

  • Dweck, C. S., & Leggett, E. L. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95(2), 256–273.

  • Eden, D., & Aviram, A. (1993). Self-efficacy training to speed reemployment: Helping people to help themselves. Journal of Applied Psychology, 78(3), 352–360.

  • Edwards, A., Montecinos, C., Cádiz, J., Jorratt, P., Manriquez, L., & Rojas, C. (2017). Working relationally on complex problems: Building the capacity for joint agency in new forms of work. In M. Goller & S. Paloniemi (Eds.), Agency at work: An agentic perspective on professional learning and development (pp. 229–247). Cham: Springer.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Elder, G. H., & Shanahan, M. J. (2007). The life course and human development. In W. Damon & R. M. Lerner (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology. Hoboken: Wiley.

    Google Scholar 

  • Emirbayer, M., & Mische, A. (1998). What is agency? American Journal of Sociology, 103(4), 962–1023.

  • Eraut, M. (2007). Learning from other people in the workplace. Oxford Review of Education, 33(4), 403–422.

  • Eraut, M. (2010). The balance between communities and personal agency: Transferring and integrating knowledge and know-how between different communities and contexts. In N. Jackson (Ed.), Learning to be professional through a higher education e-book (pp. 1–20). Guildford: Surrey Centre for Excellence in Professional Training and Education.

    Google Scholar 

  • Esposito Vinzi, V., Chin, W. W., Henseler, J., & Wang, H. (Eds.). (2010). Handbook of partial least squares: Concepts, methods and applications. Berlin: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Eteläpelto, A., Hökkä, P., Vähäsantanen, K., & Collin, K. (2010). Recent notions of agency: Towards reconceptualising professional agency at work. Presentation held at SIG-14 Conference. Munich.

    Google Scholar 

  • Eteläpelto, A., Vähäsantanen, K., Hökkä, P., & Paloniemi, S. (2013). What is agency? Conceptualizing professional agency at work. Educational Research Review, 10, 45–65.

  • Eteläpelto, A., Vähäsantanen, K., Hökkä, P., & Paloniemi, S. (2014). Identity and agency in professional learning. In S. Billett, C. Harteis, & H. Gruber (Eds.), International handbook of research in professional and practice-based learning (pp. 645–672). Dordrecht: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fay, D., & Frese, M. (2001). The concept of personal initiative: An overview of validity studies. Human Performance, 14(1), 97–124.

  • Fox, A., Deaney, R., & Wilson, E. (2010). Examining beginning teachers’ perceptions of workplace support. Journal of Workplace Learning, 22(4), 212–227.

  • Fuller, B., & Marler, L. E. (2009). Change driven by nature: A meta-analytic review of the proactive personality literature. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 75(3), 329–345.

  • Gecas, V. (2003). Self-agency and the life course. In J. T. Mortimer & M. J. Shanahan (Eds.), Handbook of the life course (pp. 369–388). New York: Springer.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society: Outline of the theory of structuration. Cambridge: Polity Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gist, M. E. (1989). The influence of training method on self-efficacy and idea generation among managers. Personnel Psychology, 42(4), 787–805.

  • Gist, M. E., & Mitchell, T. B. (1992). Self-efficacy: A theoretical analysis of Its determinants and malleability. Academy of Management Review, 17(2), 183–211.

  • Goller, M. (2017). Human agency at work: An active approach towards expertise development. Wiesbaden: Springer VS.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Goller, M., & Billett, S. (2014). Agentic behaviour at work: Crafting learning experiences. In C. Harteis, A. Rausch, & J. Seifried (Eds.), Discourses on professional learning: On the boundary between learning and working (pp. 25–44). Dordrecht: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Grant, A. M., & Ashford, S. J. (2008). The dynamics of proactivity at work. Research in Organizational Behavior, 28, 3–34.

  • Hair, J. F., Hult, G. T. M., Ringle, C. M., & Sarstedt, M. (2014). A primer on partial least squares structural equations modeling (PLS-SEM). Los Angeles: SAGE.

    Google Scholar 

  • Harteis, C., & Goller, M. (2014). New skills for new jobs: Work agency as a necessary condition for successful lifelong learning. In S. Billett, T. Halttunen, & M. Koivisto (Eds.), Promoting, assessing, recognizing and certifying lifelong learning: International perspectives and practices (pp. 37–56). Dordrecht: Springer.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Harwood, J., & Froehlich, D. E. (2017). Proactive feedback-seeking, teaching performance, and flourishing among teachers in an international primary school. In M. Goller & S. Paloniemi (Eds.), Agency at work: An agentic perspective on professional learning and development (pp. 425–444). Cham: Springer.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Hitlin, S., & Elder, G. H. (2007). Agency: An empirical model of an abstract concept. Advances in Life Course Research, 11, 33–67.

  • Hökkä, P., Eteläpelto, A., & Rasku-Puttonen, H. (2012). The professional agency of teacher educators amid academic discourses. Journal of Education for Teaching: International Research and Pedagogy, 38(1), 83–102.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jaccard, J., & Jacoby, J. (2010). Theory construction and model-building skills: A practical guide for social scientists. New York: Guilford Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jack, K., & Smith, A. (2007). Promoting self-awareness in nurses to improve nursing practice. Nursing Standard, 21(32), 47–52.

  • Jacobi, C., Brand-Jacobi, J., Westenhöfer, J., & Weddige-Diedrichs, A. (1986). Zur Erfassung von Selbstkontrolle. Entwicklung einer deutschsprachigen Form des Self-Control-Schedule und der Desirability of Control Scale [About the measurement of self-control. Development of German form of the self-control schedule and the desirability of control scale]. Diagnostica, 32(3), 229–247.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jarvis, C. B., MacKenzie, S. B., & Podsakoff, P. M. (2003). A critical review of construct indicators and measurement model misspecification in marketing and consumer research. Journal of Consumer Research, 30(2), 199–218.

  • Kanfer, R. (1990). Motivation theory and industrial/organizational psychology. In M. D. Dunnette & L. M. Hough (Eds.), Handbook of industrial and organizational psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 75–170). Palo Alto: Consulting Psychologists Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kanfer, R. (1992). Work motivation: New directions in theory and research. In C. L. Cooper & I. T. Robertson (Eds.), International review of industrial and organizational psychology (Vol. 7, pp. 1–53). London: Wiley.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kanfer, R., Wanberg, C. R., & Kantrowitz, T. M. (2001). Job search and employment: A personality-motivational analysis and meta-analytic review. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86(5), 837–855.

  • Kerosuo, H. (2017). Transformative agency and the development of knotworking in building design. In M. Goller & S. Paloniemi (Eds.), Agency at work: An agentic perspective on professional learning and development (pp. 331–349). Cham: Springer.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Kombarakaran, F. A., Yang, J. A., Baker, M. N., & Fernandes, P. B. (2008). Executive coaching: It works! Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 60(1), 78–90.

  • Kreuzer, C., Weber, S., Bley, S., & Wiethe-Körprich, M. (2017). Measuring intrapreneurship competence as manifestation of work agency in different educational settings. In M. Goller & S. Paloniemi (Eds.), Agency at work: An agentic perspective on professional learning and development (pp. 373–399). Cham: Springer.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Kristiansen, M. H. (2014). Agency as an empirical concept. An assessment of theory and operationalization (NIDI working paper no. 2014/9) (pp. 1–36). The Hague: NIDI.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lent, R. W., & Hackett, G. (1987). Career self-efficacy: Empirical status and future directions. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 30(3), 347–382.

  • Linnenbrink, E. A., & Pintrich, P. R. (2003). The role of self-efficacy beliefs in student engagement and learning in the classroom. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 19(2), 119–137.

  • Lipponen, L., & Kumpulainen, K. (2011). Acting as accountable authors: Creating interactional spaces for agency work in teacher education. Teaching and Teacher Education, 27(5), 812–819.

  • Little, T. D., Snyder, C. R., & Wehmeyer, M. L. (2006). The agentic self: On the nature and origins of personal agency across the lifespan. In D. Mroczek & T. D. Little (Eds.), Handbook of personality development (pp. 61–80). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    Google Scholar 

  • Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American Psychologist, 57(9), 705–717.

  • Major, D. A., Turner, J. E., & Fletcher, T. D. (2006). Linking proactive personality and the big five to motivation to learn and development activity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(4), 927–935.

  • Marshall, V. W. (2005). Agency, events, and structure at the end of the life course. Advances in Life Course Research, 10, 57–91.

  • Mensmann, M., & Frese, M. (2017). Proactive behavior training: Theory, design, and future directions. In S. Parker & U. K. Bindl (Eds.), Proactivity at work: Making things happen in organizations (pp. 434–468). New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Messmann, G., & Mulder, R. H. (2017). Proactive employees: The relationship between work-related reflection and innovative work behaviour. In M. Goller & S. Paloniemi (Eds.), Agency at work: An agentic perspective on professional learning and development (pp. 141–159). Cham: Springer.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Multon, K. D., Brown, S. D., & Lent, R. W. (1991). Relation of self-efficacy beliefs to academic outcomes: A meta-analytic investigation. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 38(1), 30–38.

  • Oser, F. K., Näpflin, C., Hofer, C., & Aerni, P. (2012). Towards a theory of negative knowledge (NK): Almost-mistakes as drivers of episodic memory amplification. In J. Bauer & C. Harteis (Eds.), Human fallibility: The ambiguity of errors (pp. 53–70). Dordrecht: Springer.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Parker, S., & Bindl, U. K. (Eds.). (2017). Proactivity at work: Making things happen in organizations. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Parker, S. K., & Collins, C. G. (2010). Taking stock: Integrating and differentiating multiple proactive behaviors. Journal of Management, 36(3), 633–662.

  • Parker, S. K., Bindl, U. K., & Strauss, K. (2010). Making things happen: A model of proactive motivation. Journal of Management, 36(4), 827–856.

  • Pincus, A. L., & Ansell. (2013). Interpersonal theory of personality. In I. B. Weiner, T. Millon, & M. J. Lerner (Eds.), Handbook of psychology (2nd ed., pp. 209–229). Hoboken: Wiley.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pintrich, P. R. (2005). The role of goal orientation in self-regulated learning. In M. Boekaerts, P. R. Pintrich, & M. Zeidner (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation (pp. 452–502). San Diego: Academic Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Raemdonck, I., Thijssen, J., & de Greef, M. (2017). Self-directedness in work-related learning processes. Theoretical perspectives and development of a measurement instrument. In M. Goller & S. Paloniemi (Eds.), Agency at work: An agentic perspective on professional learning and development (pp. 401–423). Cham: Springer.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78.

  • Sadri, G., & Robertson, I. T. (1993). Self-efficacy and work-related behaviour: A review and meta-analysis. Applied Psychology, 42(2), 139–152.

  • Schlosser, M. (2015). Agency. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Stanford: Stanford University. Retrieved from

  • Schunk, D. H. (1981). Modeling and attributional effects on children’s achievement: A self-efficacy analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 73(1), 93–105.

  • Schunk, D. H., & Pajares, F. (2009). Self-efficacy theory. In K. R. Wentzel & A. Wigfield (Eds.), Handbook of motivation at school (pp. 35–53). New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Schwarzer, R., & Jerusalem, M. (1995). Generalized self-efficacy scale. In J. Weinman, S. Wright, & M. Johnston (Eds.), Measures in health psychology: A user’s portfolio. Causal and control beliefs (pp. 35–37). Windsor: Nfer-Nelson.

    Google Scholar 

  • Seibert, S. E., Kraimer, M. L., & Crant, J. M. (2001). What do proactive people do? A longitudinal model linking proactive personality and career success. Personnel Psychology, 54(4), 845–874.

  • Seligman, M. E. P. (1972). Learned helplessness. Annual Review of Medicine, 23(1), 407–412.

  • Seligman, M. E. P. (1992). Helplessness: On depression, development, and death. New York: W. H. Freeman.

    Google Scholar 

  • Shanahan, M. J., & Elder, G. H. (2002). History, agency, and the life course. In L. J. Crockett (Ed.), Agency, motivation, and the life course: Volume 48 of the Nebraska Symposium on Motivation (pp. 145–186). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Shanahan, M. J., & Hood, K. E. (2000). Adolescents in changing social structures: Bounded agency in life course perspective. In L. J. Crockett & R. K. Silbereisen (Eds.), Negotiating adolescence in times of social change (pp. 123–134). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Skår, R. (2010). How nurses experience their work as a learning environment. Vocations and Learning, 3(1), 1–18.

  • Skinner, E. A. (1995). Perceived control, motivation, & coping. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Skinner, E. A. (1996). A guide to constructs of control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(3), 549–570.

  • Smith, R. (2006). Epistemological agency in the workplace. Journal of Workplace Learning, 18(3), 157–170.

  • Thompson, J. A. (2005). Proactive personality and job performance: A social capital perspective. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90(5), 1011–1017.

  • Tornau, K., & Frese, M. (2013). Construct clean-up in proactivity research: A meta-analysis on the nomological net of work-related proactivity concepts and their incremental validities. Applied Psychology, 62(1), 44–96.

  • Tynjälä, P. (2013). Toward a 3-P model of workplace learning: A literature review. Vocations and Learning, 6(1), 11–36.

  • Vähäsantanen, K. (2013). Vocational teachers’ professional agency in the stream of change. Jyväskylä: Jyväskylä University Printing House.

    Google Scholar 

  • Vähäsantanen, K., Saarinen, J., & Eteläpelto, A. (2009). Between school and working life: Vocational teachers’ agency in boundary-crossing settings. International Journal of Educational Research, 48(6), 395–404.

  • Vähäsantanen, K., Paloniemi, S., Hökkä, P., & Eteläpelto, A. (2017). An agency-promoting learning arena for developing shared work practices. In M. Goller & S. Paloniemi (Eds.), Agency at work: An agentic perspective on professional learning and development (pp. 351–371). Cham: Springer.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • White, R. W. (1959). Motivation reconsidered: The concept of competence. Psychological Review, 66(5), 297–333.

  • Wiethe-Körprich, M., Weber, S., Bley, S., & Kreuzer, C. (2017). Intrapreneurship competence as a ‘manifestation’ of work agency – A systematic literature review. In M. Goller & S. Paloniemi (Eds.), Agency at work: An agentic perspective on professional learning and development (pp. 37–65). Cham: Springer.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Wilson, T. D., & Dunn, E. W. (2004). Self-knowledge: Its limits, value, and potential for improvement. Annual Review of Psychology, 55(1), 493–518.

  • Wrzesniewski, A., & Dutton, J. E. (2001). Crafting a job: Revisioning employees as active crafters of their work. Academy of Management Review, 26(2), 179–201.

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michael Goller .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 2017 Springer International Publishing AG

About this chapter

Cite this chapter

Goller, M., Harteis, C. (2017). Human Agency at Work: Towards a Clarification and Operationalisation of the Concept. In: Goller, M., Paloniemi, S. (eds) Agency at Work. Professional and Practice-based Learning, vol 20. Springer, Cham.

Download citation

  • DOI:

  • Published:

  • Publisher Name: Springer, Cham

  • Print ISBN: 978-3-319-60942-3

  • Online ISBN: 978-3-319-60943-0

  • eBook Packages: EducationEducation (R0)