“What do you do?”
There it was. I had been at this event for about four minutes. “Barbara,” as I saw printed in big letters on her name tag, stood waiting for my answer.
Did we have to go there so soon? Can’t we talk about something more fun and less serious for a minute?
Me: “I’ve built and led organizational development functions at tech companies for the past 20 years.”
Barb (she said I could call her that): “Huh?”
Me: “I coach leaders and identify solutions to help individuals and organizations become more effective.”
Barb: “Oh, so training! My daughter wants to do that.”
Me (button pushed): “Well, no. While developing individuals is important, we also look at developing the organization—setting up processes and resources for employees to make decisions, track objectives, and help teams work together better.”
Barb: “Uh huh.” (Meaning, “I really don’t get it and we should probably switch over to me now.”)
Me: “So, what do you do?”
Barb: “I’m a pediatrician.”
Boom. So clear. So nicely packaged. And while I wasn’t envious of Barb’s tidy work identity, I did get tired of having such a clunky answer to the ubiquitous question.
I had recently left my job. Which made answering this question that much more difficult and that much more interesting. What am I doing today? Not going to an office. Who am I today? Not an SVP of Talent at a high growth company. I’m just, well, Melissa. I knew what I wasn’t doing and who I wasn’t, but I wasn’t as clear about what I want to do next and who I am today.
As someone who might have been called a workaholic a time or two throughout her career, not having a job was both unraveling and rebuilding my sense of self, my identity. Instead of going into the usual mode of asking “what’s next” and responding to recruiting calls to help find the answer (not to mention validate the identity I knew), I decided to stay in the liminal, in between space. This is the space of uncertainty that holds both our fear and our liberation. We get to choose which one we follow. While I intentionally chose liberation on a daily basis, there were definitely days when an uncomfortable amount of fear snuck in.
One particularly concerned colleague shared that lurking fear and said, “Whatever you do, please don’t put ‘taking a break’ on your LinkedIn account. You are a strong executive, not some flaky chick who is trying to find herself.” It made me laugh, but pause, too. Why are we so scared to look at who we are, especially without socially-affirmed roles to hide behind? And why can’t I just take a damn break without coming off as lazy or in some sort of breakdown? Why did I have to label this time, or me, at all?
However, admittedly, I struggled with this fear as well. I felt like a walking paradox. I liked my labels. I earned my labels. Yet, I prided myself on being an authentic leader who helped others grow personally and professionally while ensuring I did the same. During this interlude, I found I had been identifying more with the work roles than the roles I play with family, friends, and even myself. Was I becoming a better person or just a better executive? I was struck to discover how much work has defined me.
I decided to take an extended period of time to dig deeper into this identity inquiry. Identity, at its core, is the culmination of all we have done, all we have experienced, and all we have learned. It’s who we are when nobody, and everyone, is looking. To deny or downplay certain parts of our identity is to miss the opportunity to bring all we’ve learned, all our wisdom, with us everywhere we go—including to work.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how the various companies and leaders with which I’ve worked have encouraged me to express or suppress my personal identity. And how I, as a leader, have both encouraged individuals to express identity and inadvertently suppressed it so we could achieve our goals. Companies have gotten too habituated to considering only organizational identity. Psychologist Susan David shared in her viral Ted Talk that individualized consideration is needed more than ever in organizations. “Diversity isn’t just people,” David said. “It’s also what’s inside people—diversity of emotion.” I will add diversity of thought.
As I reflected on the interplay between individual identity and organizational identity, key questions kept coming up.
How can we build organizations to create more room for individual identity?
As leaders, we hire people for their uniqueness, their depth, their tapestry of experiences in hopes that this tapestry can bring texture and perspective to the organization. Yet, all too often, we overly assert organizational identity—what we often hear referred to as “values” and “culture”—at the expense of individual identities. Just as organizations need to scale their business processes, they also need to scale their organizational ones. Often, organizations hang onto practices or cultural rituals because that’s what has always been done. The concern is that a core part of the culture will be lost if that particular event or practice goes away. However, as an organization evolves into a more diverse, mature group of people, such experiences may, at best, no longer serve or be comfortable to a larger population or, at worst, begin to impinge on an individual’s ability to express the diverse and unique perspectives for which we hired them.
If a company wants to remain competitive, it needs to be agile and adapt to changing external and internal circumstances. When it comes to adapting culture, leaders should focus not on the specifics of rituals but on their objectives. They should routinely solicit individual perspectives about the relevance and effectiveness of these rituals as circumstances evolve. Instead of letting sentimentality or rigid thinking dictate rituals or cultural anchors, leaders would be wise to ask what needs to change to emphasize inclusivity without losing the essence of organizational identity.
By really hearing employee feedback, a company can continue to benefit from the perspectives of all individuals within it and safeguard individual voices as the company and its strategies develop. If we don’t listen, employees will leave. Or worse, they lose trust and stay.
How do we give individuals the time and space to learn about and express their identities?
The full range of individual experiences, in work and life, must be openly and explicitly welcomed to help break the company out of groupthink, strategic ruts, toxic environments, hiring biases, and the very cultures that are bringing down powerful people and powerful companies. Individuals, not groups, are vital to keep a company culture from pushing out the diversity of thought and ideas that make great companies great. Individuals make up diverse and collaborative teams. Collaborative teams make up great cultures.
In this interlude, I have wondered how I could have been different as a leader had I not been over-identifying with my work role and under-identifying with all my other roles. Had I allowed my full self to show up to work every day, might I have been more empathetic to the needs of those around me? Might I have more readily spotted inclusivity issues and felt more convicted in voicing concerns? Might I have helped make more individuals feel comfortable conveying their perspectives so that we could benefit from the richness of them? I’ve come to believe these are the kinds of questions leaders must pursue so they can embody, not just speak, an intent to simultaneously promote organizational identity and protect individual identities.
What if instead of work giving us our identity, our identity gives to our work?
Our jobs give us endless opportunities to explore and evolve who we are and who we want to be at work and in the world. But only if companies meet us halfway. Many organizations are starting to pay more attention to individual identity in the form of personalized learning curriculums, clarity in the hiring process about the role and the kind of person needed for it, and building systems that support and encourage both individual and organizational identity.
Organizations must do better at protecting all the individual identities that comprise their companies so that individuals can bring those textured perspectives with them into the office every day. Work is the place where we’ve all thrived through some of our biggest accomplishments and grown through some of our biggest mistakes. Yet, it can also be the place that chips away at our identity, or worse, prevents parts of our identity from being expressed.
The organizations that will thrive are the ones that recognize building and iterating on a great culture is about letting individuals share and broaden their perspectives. An obvious place to ensure this is being done is to review the practices and engrained distinctions around three significant inflection points of the employee lifecycle: hiring, onboarding, and developing.
- Hiring (complement vs. fit): “How can this person be complementary and add to our organization?” vs.“Does this person fit here?”
- Onboarding (integration vs. assimilation): “What have you learned before that you want to bring or try here?” vs. “How fast can you get up to speed on how we do things around here?”
- Development (better vs. better for the company): “Since storytelling is a skill we want everyone to have here, how can I help you develop yours as you put together the All Hands presentation?” vs. “Do you think you will be able to make up a story and get that presentation done before the end of the week?”
David Whyte, one of my favorite poets who writes and speaks about the connection between identity and work, says, “Our personal identity, which we think is based upon our beliefs and opinions, is actually more of a function of our ability to pay attention to the world around us.”
As leaders, we need to pay more attention. We need to welcome the questions, the concerns, the pushback from employees. We need to exemplify the kind of behavior we expect to see in others. It’s what will allow us to always remain vigilant about both promoting organizational identity and protecting individual identity so that they work with, not against, each other.
What we do is only part of who we are, but who we are must be part of what we do.