What does 'agency' mean here? I've looked up the meaning of 'agency' in dictionaries but none of them seems a good explanation of what it means in this sentence. Could someone explain what this sentence means in other words?


  • Did you look up agency in a dictionary? Did nothing fit? – Xanne May 23 '19 at 8:02
  • Hello, fantasticid. It would help if, in your question, you tell us what you found in a dictionary. Then you could explain why none of the definitions seem to work. In the online Oxford dictionary, four main definitions are offered. The first two have become the most commonly used meanings and would not help you. But what about the second two? – Tuffy May 23 '19 at 8:14
  • Try American Heritage definition 2. Most of the other dictionaries seem to prioritise the "organisation" definition of agency, so I understand why you might find it tricky if you've looked up "abridged" dictionaries. Edit your question if you're still confused. – Pam May 23 '19 at 10:01
  • "Responsibility without authority" is another common way of saying the same thing. – tchrist May 23 '19 at 13:19
  • Merriam-Webster meaning #2. – Chappo Says SE Dudded Monica May 24 '19 at 8:04

Agency in this context means "power" (to arrange affairs, influence the behaviour of other people, etc).

In a similar vein, it is common to refer to a government "in office but not in power", meaning that they are saddled with responsibility for outcomes (usually adverse), but have no ability themselves to intervene in the causes or determine the outcomes.

What your phrase is really expressing is that the fastest way to lose good people, is to blame them or penalise them for adverse outcomes (or threaten or imply your intention to do so), when the outcomes for which they are being held responsible are not reasonably under their control.

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