Identity Part 1: What are we letting go of?

Photo by Joshua Coleman on Unsplash_LI

We knew who we were when we went to work. We stepped out of our front door and left aspects of ourselves at the threshold. We stepped into a car, a bus or a train and settled into our work identity. We eased ourselves into the role that would maximise our sense of purpose, meaning and self-esteem in the day ahead. And we wore the clothes, values, behaviours and language that helped us feel that we fitted in.

That was then. Now everything has changed. We’ve learned that we can stay at home – at the kitchen table, in comfortable clothes, with the kids, cat or dog pottering around in the background – and still get the job done. Our colleagues have glimpsed into our lives and seen our other roles and identities. They’ve seen more of who we really are.

What happens when we bring more of ourselves to work?

For many of the leaders I coach, working from home hasn’t been easy. It’s demanded new levels of adaptability. It’s presented more high-tech challenges and everyday distractions. Without the physical boundary between office and home, many have experienced the blurring between their work identity and their other identities – as parents, spouses, community members – and they’ve found it uncomfortable. We usually keep each of our identities happily in their comfort zones, protected from risk, fear, pain and failure. For leaders who ‘put on’ their work identity along with their business suit, lockdown has eroded the clarity that came from stepping neatly between compartmentalised roles, behaviours and expectations.

But many have discovered a richer range of capabilities – in themselves and those they lead – as the skills, insights and values they’ve developed in their other roles inform their work. And many leaders have noticed a deeper confidence in themselves and their team members as a result. As the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

We’ve had to show more initiative, make more decisions, choose between priorities, respond to others, adapt to sudden changes and fix more problems ourselves. And we’ve had to learn to trust our colleagues and team members to do the same. We’ve questioned many of the expectations and limitations that our workplace roles defined. And we’ve let go of the co-dependencies that shaped our workplace identities.

Can we give more by letting something go?

Back in January, a McKinsey article described four ‘forms of mind’ that we shift through as we develop our leadership identities. According to authors Berger and Achi, most of us transition from the identity we shape in response to our relationships with important others (the socialised mind) to the identity we build from our inner authority (the self-authored mind). As we write our own stories – developing our own sense of purpose and guiding values along with our capabilities – we let go of the reassurance that comes from simply fitting in with what our colleagues tell us and what our leaders expect from us.

We mature as professionals. We think with greater independence. We start to engage with the true complexity within our organisations – the tensions between different goals, priorities and values. And we do so from a stronger sense of who we are and what we can give. 

Can we help others give more just by being themselves?

Lockdown provided the space for many more of us to make this shift. The sudden breach in our working norms gave us all more choice in how we fulfil our roles. And the demands of balancing our work role alongside our home-based roles meant we had to let go of anything that got in our way, including our previous workplace identity. 

As leaders, it’s our responsibility to support this transition. We also have a unique chance to make sure it doesn’t reverse as people gradually return to the workplace. We can do this through the questions we ask:

  • What new experiences have you encountered working from home? What impact have they had on you?
  • How has it changed your role? What new approach are you adopting?
  • What new responsibilities have you accepted? How are you balancing them alongside your other responsibilities?
  • What new expectations are you facing – or choosing? What unhelpful expectations do you need to let of?
  • What new working relationships have you built?
  • What new capabilities have you developed? What’s helped you to do this?
  • How has working from home strengthened, shaken or changed your values?
  • How has it changed how you see yourself and your contributions?
  • If you knew that all of who you are is exactly what our organisation needs right now, how would you see yourself? And how would you go about your role?

Leaders embody their organisations’ cultures and values and promote them to impact their team members’ performance and work identities. And whether people return to the workplace or continue working from home, leaders have a rare opportunity to rethink how work identities are shaped and shared. By letting go of the norms that constrain them, we can encourage those we lead to bring more of themselves to work.

Thanks for reading!

If you’ve enjoyed this article, I’d love to hear from you. If you think it can empower and enable others – working at home or in the workplace – please pass it on.

If you want to create an environment – physical or virtual – that helps people develop and share more of their identities and contributions, come along to our Time to Think Foundation Programme or our Thinking Partnership Retreat.

Connect with me on LinkedIn or simply get in touch with me.

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