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“We are three people: the person we think we are, the person others think we are, and the person we really are.”
Employees’ perceptions of themselves are shaped by many factors, but in particular, what others say about them. Here’s what we know, in most cases, employee identity crisis usually leads to dissatisfaction and poor work performance. It can, therefore, be detrimental for an employee to become too enmeshed in who their peers think they are or say they should be as it can, in many ways, distort them from contributing effectively to their workplace in the way that comes most naturally to them. If there is no system in place to ensure that employees have the latitude to self-discovery, the resultant effect is a workplace culture that misrepresents, misunderstands, and underutilizes employees. When there are employee identity crises, organizations will struggle with growth, innovation, and the ability to pursue opportunities.
As humans, it is an innate desire to want to feel valued, respected and loved irrespective of one’s hierarchical positioning or ranking. This is not out of place. In recent dispensation, with the increasing awareness of mental health, employees want to be a part of an organizational culture that allows them to discover their identities and thrive on that discovery so that they can give expression to their fullest potential. Of course, this is beneficial to any organization. Unfortunately, a supervisor or boss lacking emotional intelligence or caring more about advancing themselves than serving others can short-circuit this discovery process which ultimately leads to employee identity crises in the workplace.
With the upsurge of economic downturns, job competition and high unemployment rates, more people are turning up for employment where they don’t quite fit; exchanging their happiness and full potential for a salary. It’s in situations like this that employees find themselves underperforming and unfulfilled without a well-defined identity to serve as their anchor. Whenever employees get caught up in office politics or are constantly concerned about how they appear in the eyes of others, they will find it difficult to freely contribute to the team. If employees are not constantly in touch with their identities, over time, their work becomes a monotonous duty rather than a discovery process. Instead of developing competencies and expanding in capacity, they become stuck and confused and that is because their identity has become a compendium of the expectations and definitions of others rather than theirs. This can breed a disengaged workforce and when your workforce is out of alignment, how can you effectively lead?
The building of workplace environments that allow employees to express their authentic identities is crucial as organizations continue to reinvent themselves. You must stay aware of the following five workplace dynamics that can lead to employee identity crises so that your organization remains highly productive with a talent pool that is maximized and kept on track:
It was Steve Jobs who said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” Every employee is an important part of the larger machine — your organization. Every part of the machine should be allowed to function effectively. Just imagine for a second that your car’s engine decides to function as the door, the carburettor, and the shock-absorber rather than providing oversight leadership like it currently does. Or imagine your brain wanting to be the digestive system, the excretory system, the reproductive system, and the respiratory system, all at the same time rather than providing ‘leadership’ to these systems to function in their designated capacities. Do you realize the overload and destruction that is bound to happen? That is exactly what micromanaging does. Do you really know your employees and what they represent in your company? Do you understand their natural potential or are you boxing them into a box you think they fit? Do you know them well enough to provide the best guidance and utilize them in the most strategic ways? These are hard questions employers should try to answer. It’s easy for employees to fall into an identity crisis trap when the person that influences their advancement at work continually misrepresents, misunderstands and (perhaps unknowingly) undermines their capabilities to do more than the basic job description. Allowing your employees to function with your delegated authority will give them room to explore their capabilities and possibly proffer even more creative solutions than you could imagine. Theodore Roosevelt said, “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”
2. Disruptive Feedback
Feedback is a science and an art. Feedback has the capacity to emotionally incapacitate an otherwise emotionally healthy employee. Rather than inspire an employee to become better and function effectively as a team player, disruptive feedback can make them feel as if they don’t fit in the organization. It is possible for your feedback as a supervisor to disrupt employee performance if you have not mastered the “how” of feedback. Talented employees are seeking ways to be noticed, and want a workplace culture that allows them to express themselves freely. When feedback is improperly given, employees can lose their identity. They can spend too much time being so critical of everything they’re doing so that they can satisfy so many different people – except themselves. We advise that when employees receive feedback, they should be taught to consider the source [knowing why it was said and from what emotional state it is coming from] and filter through so that they can receive feedback constructively without taking a blow to their identities. Disruptive feedback is one of the major reasons employees’ loyalty to the organization is vulnerable.
3. Poor Intra-structure
Intrastructure is the basic cultural structure needed to ensure solid chemistry within an organization and seamless interaction among employees themselves and their supervisors as well in order to encourage optimum productivity. When your workplace doesn’t have cultural integrity and intrastructure, it becomes challenging to solidify employee identity. There are two common ways that poor intrastructure is manifested in an organization: 1) an artificial, inauthentic workplace culture dictated by a prescriptive operations manual, rather than the actual experiences of employees; and 2) diversity is undervalued and not viewed as a competitive edge. When intrastructure is not prioritized, it subtly implies that personal identity and its contribution to strengthening the organization’s values is not of importance. A poor intrastructural policy does not reward individual differences and does not create a workplace environment that appreciates uniqueness; rather, it forces employees to conform to the status quo and not tap into their creative energies. It is why mergers and acquisitions cannot be taken lightly. On paper, things are usually well thought out but in actual execution, executives must take the extra effort to ascertain the pulse and cohesion of the different personality types and cultures of the merging entities as it is one of the most critical success factors. With poor intrastructure, you’re underutilizing your employees and creating an unfavourable workplace environment for them and invariably, you.
4. Leadership Identity Crises
A popular Latin Proverb quotes, “it is absurd that a man should rule others, who cannot rule himself” but this is becoming common in the workplace. It is true that people are a direct reflection of their leader’s actions (or inactions). It is important for every leader, every associate, and every supervisor, to understand who they are and what their personal vision/purpose is as it will help to have a full grasp of their sphere of influence and the role they play in accomplishing the organization’s goals and objectives. When an organization lacks a strong leadership identity, it disrupts the identity of the entire organization – especially its employees. Do you have a full grasp of your leadership identity? Is your organization’s leadership identity in sync with the organization? Perhaps it’s time for an identity rekindling.
5. The Tyranny of The Urgent
Employee Identity can get lost in the urgency of the immediate. It is important to infuse, as organizational culture, the need to ensure that the tyranny of the urgent never replaces what is truly important. Employees must gain mastery in identifying ‘the urgent’ from ‘the important’ and categorizing them appropriately. Urgency can derail one’s focus, and one can lose the consistency and fluidity required for one’s identity to thrive and create sustainable impact. The goal is to influence the advancement and growth of the business by strategic focus and guidance that comes from a place of deep understanding of who you are rather than a reactive non-methodical approach that is a direct response to the sequence of urgencies one has to deal with.
In the same way that dynamics in the home can fuel a personal identity crisis, this is how the workplace contributes to employee identity crisis. Be aware of the dynamics that are adding fuel to the fire, and don’t let yourself become a replaceable commodity. This has little chance of happening if the person you think you are, the person others think you are, and the person you really are – are all the same person. In Herbert Swope’s words, “I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure, which is: Try to please everybody.” Discover you and do you.