Identity Part 2: What are we stepping into?

In October I shared my view that if we, as leaders, can let go of the norms that define and constrain our work identities, we can continue to encourage our team members to bring more of themselves to work. I was inspired by the leaders I coach as they reframe their own identities and support their employees in doing so. And I was informed by the insights of Berger and Achi and their description of identity as four forms of mind. Their work captured the accounts that many have given of their lockdown transition – the sense of release from social and organisational constraints towards a deeper, personal sense of purpose and priority.

I want to continue this invitation to grasp our opportunity, as leaders, to rethink how we shape and share our identities so that we can all bring more of ourselves to our work. But I also want to extend the challenge. Is it enough that we encourage our team members to own their purpose and values? What more can we do to help them continuously redraft their identities in response to the change and uncertainty that we are learning to accept and navigate?

As our world gets messier, it needs more of us

By stepping out of our clearly defined workplace identities, what are we stepping into? By keeping our distance from our workplace cultures, what are we aligning with? By sharing more of ourselves – all the complex values, insights and responsibilities of our other roles and identities – what are we acknowledging about the realities of our context?

We’re living through the biggest reality check in living memory. Our experiences now reflect something of the true extent of our world’s complexity and uncertainty. In Unchartered: How to map the future together, Margaret Heffernan calls on us to kick our addiction to prediction, to “stop being spectators and become creative participants in our own future.” And she warns us that “No single efficient process, profile or narrative will prove robust enough for an environment characterised by change.”

How can we live and lead in such complexity and uncertainty? I believe we can do it when we release our best, independent thinking. When we think with rigour, courage, grace and imagination. And when we ignite open and independent thinking in others.

What does this ask of us? What demand does it make on our values and identity, as well as our capabilities? How does our identity liberate or limit each one of us in bringing our unique talents to the work we do, the roles we fulfil and the impact we wish to have?

Are we ready for the next challenge to our identity?

This pandemic has given so many of us the chance to get to know uncertainty. And lockdown has released us from workplace identities that were shaped by the constraints and expectations of our workplace cultures, values and relationships. Many have been fortunate enough to build a broader identity informed by their inner authority. They’ve rewritten their story: their purpose, meaning and guiding values.

But there’s a paradox. The tighter our script, the more it contains beliefs and assumptions that limit our capacity to embrace change. Berger and Achi show us that a further shift in self-image is needed, one in which we transform our self-authored mind into a self-transforming one. We can think of this as the next phase in the maturity of our identity. Having created a version of ourselves based on our own purpose, beliefs and values, we open up to a purpose bigger and to perspectives and experiences beyond our own. We’re ready to anticipate and seek out the next challenge. We allow life to transform us.

How do we help others shapeshift?

Self-development at this level – deep enough to mature our self-image and release more of our independent thinking and capability – is a huge challenge. How can we do it for ourselves as leaders? And how can we support others through this process?

Berger and Achi offer three great questions that can prompt this depth of development:

  1. Why do I believe what I believe? An invitation to question the origins and sources of our beliefs.
  2. How could I be wrong? An invitation to open up to new possibilities.
  3. Who do I want to be next? A call to look beyond our next action or job to the person we might become.

These questions resonate strongly for me. They mirror the approach I take when I create a Thinking Environment for a leader and ask:

  1. What are you assuming that is stopping you from accomplishing your goal?
  2. Do you think this assumption is true?
  3. What is true and liberating for you instead?

Why the Thinking Environment process? Because it establishes the conditions for psychological safety. Because it doesn’t curtail us, judge us or lead us, and instead frees us from fear of reprisal for what we think or say.

Why these questions? Because they connect a leader’s specific challenges to their broadest possibilities, defined in their terms, not mine. Because they encourage us to ask the questions we shy away from, to experiment, to take risks, to face choices, to make connections.

We now know that our world will remain complex and uncertain. And there’s no leadership playbook to help us predict what lies ahead. But we can still prepare. Rather than let uncertainty threaten our identity, we can allow it to strengthen our capacity for creativity, discovery and exploration. As Margaret Heffernan asks: “In an unchartered world, who is content to be left hugging the shore when we could use our freedom to explore?” And what is our role – as leaders and coaches – other than to be alongside others, supporting and encouraging them in this quest?

Thanks for reading!

If you’ve enjoyed this article, I’d love to hear from you. If you think it can help others face their opportunities and challenges with a more flexible identity, please pass it on.

If you want to create an environment – physical or virtual – that helps people develop, share and shift who they are at work, 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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