21 | Nov | 2018

Who are you at work? Some musings on identity.

Author: Dr. Edwin Trevor-Roberts

"…forms of organizing, the institutional structures of employment, and the experiences of workers are intimately tied to what people do, how they do it, and to the social order that shapes and is created by work" - Prof. Stephen R. Barley, University of California 

How organisations are structured and the ways in which individuals are engaged by organisations is predicated on what people do at work and how they go about doing this work. For decades we have watched the trends that are changing work but are only now starting to grasp their significance. For if the very nature of what people do on a day-to-day basis changes, then everything changes - employment relationships, organisational structures, societal structures. 

At the very heart of this complex problem lies the individual worker and the connection to their work. Simply expressed, it is how we think about ourselves in the context of our work. These thoughts affect our motivation, engagement and productivity at work.  It has also been called our identity - the qualities and features that make us unique and that provide us with a sense of who we are as a person.   

What we do know is that identity acts as a regulatory mechanism which influences our behavior (the way we act), our cognition (the way we think and make sense of the world around us) and our affect (the way we feel). This mostly happens outside our conscious awareness.  

While the concept of identity has been around for many years, we are only now starting to realise its importance in the work context. It appears that one of the reasons identity is gaining in prominence is that the traditional markers of identity such as pay, status and job title are being eroded. Such objective markers of career success are being replaced by internal subjective measures which is a person’s internal experience and interpretation of their career. Establishing these markers of success involves integrating experiences into a person’s identity, deriving meaning from their working life and defining and achieving success.

Clarifying an internal sense of success is much harder than relying on traditional external markers. It is even more difficult in today’s labour market where organisations are rapidly experimenting with different ways of getting work done.  Organisations are responding to competitive market forces by using alternative forms of employment relationships to the traditional permanent job. These include a vast array of options including part-time, casual, contract, piece-meal among others. In our current discourse, the prevalence of gig-work and portfolio careers dominate such that the "permanent job" appears to have disappeared (of course the data doesn't fully support this assertion - see Professor David Guest's work)

Gig-work and portfolio careers are a double-edged sword. On the one hand authors such as Richard Sennett highlight the plight and suffering of such workers, arguing that uncertain work is a threat to the stability of society. On the other hand, writers such as Daniel Pink describes the contingent worker as eminently marketable through a unique set of skills and who find self-actualisation through their work.  Regardless of where on this continuum you sit, increasingly flexible work results in people feeling less connected to the organisation they work for and identifying less as an employee of that organisation.  

With all the ambiguity of these changes, there are two things we do know. 

  1. Identity is not fixed

Research on work identity by Herminia Ibarra from INSEAD shows that our identity is not fixed but instead is constantly changing and evolving as we derive meaning from significant life events, current experiences and our projections about the future. Ibarra coined the term "identity play" to describe how people experiment with possibilities for their career in the future. For example during a period of unemployment people may volunteer in different occupations or industries to learn if that sort of work or environment suits them (see our Design Thinking for an Extraordinary Career blog)  

  1. Identity is important

One of my mentors in the career development field is Professor Norman Amundson, a Canadian born academic and practitioner with a heart of gold and the demeanor of Santa Claus. One of his seminal pieces of research was how people deal with periods of unemployment. He found that during these times a rapid renegotiation of identity occurs. The closer the link between a person’s identity and work, the greater their difficulty in coping with the unemployment period. There is a certain logic to this argument. If you describe yourself mostly by what you do – as an accountant, nurse, teacher – then if you lose the opportunity to do that work it affects you more.  This doesn’t only happen when you lose a job. It can also happen if you have a negative experience while doing the work you love. This may be caused by a toxic manager or a bad customer experience. Such difficult times at work challenge the very beliefs and norms that we hold about work. As a result, how we think about ourselves – our self-concept changes because a significant proportion of our self-concept is derived from the work that we do. 

Amundson found that it is more effective for people's identity to be based on personal capacities and attitudes rather than on the traditional notion of a job, which may be subject to change at any time. These personal capacities transcend the job itself such as a strong relationship builder, a strategic thinker or a disciplined ‘get-things-done’ type of person. If we think about ourselves in these terms then when things do change, as they inevitably will, we are less affected.  

A lesson from the Greek God Proteus  

The ancient Greek God Proteus was a shape-shifter, meaning he could morph into any form he wished. Rob Hall used this metaphor to coin Protean Career Theory, which highlights how a successful career in the uncertain world we live in requires people to change and shift. Specifically, identity is argued to be one of the meta-competencies required to lead a successful career. Most people are unconscious of their identity, whereas approaches such as Protean Career Theory show how individuals can consciously create, form and change their identity over time.

For the vast majority of people their identity changes without them realising it. The experiences they have at work and the interactions with people constantly shapes how they think about themselves in the context of their work. The most successful people are aware of these changes and learn from their experiences to positively craft their sense of self.  

How do I live a life well lived? 

The researchers mentioned in this article are a small part of a burgeoning field of inquiry exploring the nature and role of our work identity with the purpose to shed light on one of humankind's fundamental life questions: how do I live a life well lived?”. 

Our working identity formed through our career impacts significantly on the answer to this question. It is a complex answer involving a dynamic interplay between individuals, organisations, occupations and society. It is a question that has a material impact on people’s lives.  

It is a question worth solving.  

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