Article: How to craft a stable identity in the modern workplace

Strategic HR

How to craft a stable identity in the modern workplace

In a professional world that allows you to and demands of you to reinvent yourself every few years, to be able to craft a homogenous professional identity is an opportunity and simultaneously a daunting necessity.
How to craft a stable identity in the modern workplace

The question of who we’re meant to be in a professional environment, or because of it, has hurled an entire generation searching for alternate careers and skipping firms. Perhaps the most obvious paradox of the modern workplace is that it fails to offer a structure for the modern worker to navigate up to a successful end. The problem an average worker faces today is not of navigation, but that of discovery and creation. 

You can see the need for control in one’s career translate into a need for empowerment in one’s job, and the search for a coherent identity manifest itself as a search for meaning and purpose. While the firm’s response to the surface level anxiety lies in the emergence of an over 40$ billion wellness industry, the deeper problem is less simple.

In a professional world that allows you to and demands of you to reinvent yourself every few years, to be able to craft a homogenous professional identity is an opportunity and simultaneously a daunting necessity. 

In a sense everyone today struggles with some problems only entrepreneurs saw two decades ago, the primary one being a lack of direction. With organizations offering lateral moves the number of choices at any point is immense. Even if you’re an amateur reader of behavioral economics, you know it’s not best change. Add to that an increased propensity to experiment in the average worker. The need to reskill yourself, pick up a new certification is a constant concern, while the thought of ‘starting something of my own’ is an everyday thought.

While the future maybe an acceptable subject of thought, the here-and-now isn’t. Most of our jobs lack the demanding rigor, the transformative experiences, or even the comfort of stereotypes to define who we are when we work a particular job. There’s no accepted or expected understanding of who an HR manager, a marketing executive or a customer relationship manager ought to be. When I say ‘who’, I talk about identity and not the individual. More importantly, we lack the archetypes of successful professionals.

To top the problem the modern workplace has conflicting expectations. You are expected to be creative, outspoken, an emotionally intelligent leader, and supremely energetic all at once. I recently saw a job description that demanded the candidates to have a good sense of humor; the position was not of a standup comedian. 

The question remains – in a world that offers you multiple opportunities to adapt, develop and discover yourself, how can you maintain or develop a sense of self that works for you? How do you choose who to become when you can be anyone?

On Crafting a Professional Identity 

While some of us, by means of decades worth of experimentation and social validation, are able to consolidate and bring a sense of self to the workplace, most would spend years trying to resolve a duality. The duality between the id and superego in Freudian personality development theory, or between the child and parent in transactional analysis, between Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, between who you might be and who you’re expected to be can overwhelming to resolve in a professional environment.

A possible resolution of this duality has emerged in a recent study published in the Administrative Science Quarterly called ‘Fast tracks and inner journeys: Crafting portable selves for contemporary careers’. Petriglieri & Wood talk of development of ‘portable selves’ that are “an adaptation to contemporary careers and a defense against the anxieties they provoke”.

A ‘portable self’ is an identity that’s independent of the firm, tethered to it only to get the most out and simultaneously tethered to a potential future firm. The idea to create a self that is valued within and beyond the boundaries of the organization is a workable compromise. The question then is how do you do that with all the resources you’ve got.

The study attempts to analyze and chart the two approaches amongst a group of B-school students with prior work experience. This next paragraph is a concise summary and demands a slower read.

A more practical reading of the research suggests two routes of development of these portable selves. The first (externally anchored) views work as a platform where individuals pick up skills, improve through feedback and fast-track their careers by staying flexible to what comes their way. The second (internally anchored) views work as a setting of self-expression where individuals seek clarity, reflect using other’s feedback, and take an inner journey by demonstrating a resolve to stay on.

The difference between an instrumental ‘do-whatever-works-to-get-ahead’ approach and a humanistic, ‘realize-my-innate-latent-potential’ approach is evident. While the instrumental approach would draw and enforce a RACI matrix to push through a stuck project, the humanistic approach would try to analyze why projects get stuck. 

The process of learning in any role then transcends into a process of “(controlled) becoming instead of the accumulation of knowledge” as one start accumulating experiences that qualify either of the two criteria. 

What does this mean for you?

Both approaches may lead to immense personal satisfaction and career growth; both will require a quiet patience. Although there may not be enough empirical evidence to support one approach over another, the one you choose as ‘better’ would inform you of your own personal inclination. 

In my conversations with young professionals one defining question to ask yourself seems to be whether your goals are personal (the aspiration for mastery in a certain field), or externally driven (defined by your social status, the aspirations of your family, or competition at work).

Those with personally driven goals tend to wait for the right opportunities to emerge, and those with externally driven goals tend to jump at the next best thing. While this isn’t definitive or prescriptive, the following may help you choose.

  • The process starts at defining goals for your professional self. Whether you’re looking to fast track your career by taking and adapting to most opportunities that come your way. Or do you only take up opportunities that allow for self-expression, and in turn create something unique. Whether you adapt to the environment or you choose your environment
  • It may be wise to observe the approach the most successful people in your profession have taken. Also, take a stock of your resources and limitations. For eg, if you have a mentor, whether he/she can help you with directive feedback (instrumental) or assisted introspection (humanistic)
  • The scope of choice and eventual work on the path would also depend on the current setting you work in. Whether the organization offers you a chance to work multiple assignments for strenuous hours, or does it allow space for creative and thought-led work

All being said, I intend to initiate a conversation and thought amongst struggling professionals. Petriglieri and Wood comment, “When members stray from one pathway or stand between the two, they experience confusion and anxiety that having separate pathways keeps at bay”.

Put more simply, everything remains possible until you make a choice; but then nothing really happens. This analysis to decide on one approach is better done sooner than later.

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Topics: Strategic HR, Learning & Development

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