The work we do and who we are as individuals are deeply intertwined. When someone says, “can you please introduce yourself?”, what do you find yourself saying? Even if the question isn’t specifically about work, we often reply with our occupation. When we find ourselves in social situations like these, our jobs allow us to define and position ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with hinging ourselves off of a 9-5. The problem arises when our self-worth is too closely connected to our careers.
What is Workplace Identity (WI)?
According to M.M. Sulphey in his work published by the International Journal of Environment, Workplace identity (WI) is a multilayered and multidimensional phenomenon that describes one’s self-concept and understanding in terms of his/her unique work role. People’s respective work roles have a profound and alluring impact on their work environment. There may be drastic differences between individuals at the workplace, but ultimately, WI develops. A person’s workplace identity could be shaped by a variety of factors, ranging from their professions, job specifications, workplace, or team identities.
The importance of Workplace Identity is undeniable as it acts as an anchor for fostering a sense of attachment to the workplace. Furthermore, it correlates with a variety of work-based constructs, such as influential leadership, collaborative learning, work values, group identification and commitment among others. WI helps you develop a solid work ethic that can help distinguish you from the pack. It is, however, important that you must be able to identify your holistic sense of identity not just your workplace identity — which is but a segmented aspect of your full self. To do this, you must be able to answer the question “who am I?” without restricting it solely to your work role.
It is not uncommon for us as human beings to label and objectify ourselves in order to understand our role in the world. Society reinforces our definition of self-worth by telling us that success is contingent on how we look, our social status, class, and political preferences but most especially, our achievements at work. Of course, that is a fallacy. It is a trap! This trap is enforced when you unintentionally associate your full identity and self-worth with work making it increasingly difficult to separate the idea of meaningful work from a meaningful life. It becomes even more difficult to develop a healthy sense of attachment to the workplace without having a well-defined personal identity. This is why discovering one’s personal identity is imperative.
What do personal identities have to do with an organization’s work?
Self-image is what gives you your unique identity as a person. It is shaped by your personality traits, abilities, qualities, likes, and dislikes, belief system, and values. When people are able to describe these aspects of their identity easily, they typically have a fairly firm grasp of their own identity which is a very important asset in this social clime where there are multiple voices speaking to compartmentalize a person into what they want them to be rather than who they truly are. An inability to name more than a few of these characteristics may be indicative of an unclear sense of self.
It can be tricky to know exactly what you want or to take on a stable workplace identity if you don’t feel confident about who you are. For example, if you feel uncertain or indecisive when important decisions are to be made, you may end up making no decision at all. The implications of this can be devastating for a company that relies on the flat structure type of leadership where every employee is expected to display some level of self-leadership. There are two extremes to look out for in those who lack a sense of personal identity and choose to develop only WI.
The first extreme is that they are externally motivated and in seeking external validation, they can become prone to certain emotional vices such as people-pleasing, impostor syndromes, second-guessing their every decision among others. This is especially risky for leaders who sometimes have to make tough choices to help the organization’s growth. Such individuals develop a work identity that is unstable because their loyalty to the organization is dependent on how they feel they are perceived by those they are supposed to lead or on other extrinsic motivators. It is true that extrinsic motivators will elevate performance immediately, but they will also negatively affect performance later when a “reward” is not offered or the motivation is withdrawn. Also, if the promise of a reward is broken, performance will fall even further. This is not healthy for any organization as it directly affects productivity and turnover.
The second extreme is directly tied to the individuals themselves rather than the organization. When one’s sense of worth is tied completely to their performance in the workplace, they cannot take any form of criticism without feeling personally attacked. They easily engage in unhealthy competition and see every potentially smart employee as a rival thus fanning the flames of insecurity. This is risky for any organization because human beings are biologically wired for self-preservation. When a threat is introduced, one is bound to find ways to neutralize that threat even if it means deliberately sabotaging others to secure your position. Such behaviours can cost the organization greatly. Because these persons have their personal identities rooted in their work, if that work is taken from them, it can emotionally affect them even to the extreme of tampering with their will to live.
Whichever the case, an understanding of your personal identity makes it easier to accept your entire self, both the traits you’re proud of and those you’d like to improve. If you do feel dissatisfied with certain aspects of yourself, you’ll have an easier time addressing those areas when you have a strong sense of your innate qualities and abilities. When you receive feedback from work, for example, you will not feel personally attacked because you know who you are. Successful organizations take into account the various identities of their employees in order to facilitate a thriving work environment and meet the needs of everyone involved. Organizations need to understand that personal identities impact the experiences of their employees, and should set structures in place to ensure all employees feel welcomed, respected, supported, and valued.
Taking time out from your career to refocus on your self-worth and well-being may be appropriate if you have become so consumed in your professional identity that it affects your well-being. Maintain a healthy perspective by separating who you are from what you do, That’s the only way you can truly give your best both at work and in your holistic life.
PS: In subsequent posts, we will delve into how to develop a healthy identity. If you enjoyed this post, kindly share it with your friends and networks. Together, we can cultivate wholesome workplace environments.