Study explores the role identity plays at work

work-identityWhilst it’s seldom a good thing to burn ones bridges at work, with employee engagement at such low levels there is inevitably many a thought given to how best to storm out of work in a pique of anger.

Alas, a recent study from Cambridge University’s Judge Business School suggests that this image of the temper driven resignation is largely a myth.  Indeed, the study finds that rather than increasing our chances of quitting, anger can actually reduce the likelihood that we’ll storm out.

Identity matters

Of crucial importance is the identity we have, or don’t have, with our employer.  When we strongly identify with our organization, anger can result in a reduction in our propensity to quit because we are so attached to the organization that we want to strive to make it better.

By contrast, when we don’t identify with our employer, anger can increase our likelihood of quitting, largely because we simply don’t care enough about them to stick it out and try and fix that which makes us so annoyed.

Identity is crucial because when we identify with our employer it becomes a part of who we are, so this anger is almost a case of self-blame and therefore we’re much less likely to disengage from the situation.

Emotions are not black and white

As such, the authors suggest it is unwise to automatically believe that anger is a negative, or indeed a positive, emotion to display at work as things tend to be a bit more nuanced than that.

“The study suggests that company policies that are designed to promote positive emotions or minimise negative emotions may in fact not have the intended effect,” the authors say. “So rather than seeking to suppress certain workplace emotions, companies should instead adopt practices that seek to encourage greater organisational identification.”

The study also explored a number of other emotions, such as pride and guilt, and found that they too tended to provide positive and negative aspects of workplace life.  For instance, pride is usually associated with a desire to remain loyal to a company, but it can have a downside too.  When employees lack a connection with their employer, for example, their personal pride can prompt them to seek fulfillment elsewhere.

The issue of identity is multi-faceted, with employees often having identities related to their profession as well as their employer.  Whilst this professional identity was found to play a part however, it was not as big a factor in the rate of staff turnover as that of the employer.

The findings do add further grist to the mill regarding the prickly issue of purpose at work.  It’s something that I suspect most managers have a great deal of ignorance about as I can’t recall many formal or informal conversations with managers about just what it is that gets me up in the mornings.

There are no shortage of requests for managers to get better at such things, and maybe this study will provide a further prod towards that slightly more enlightened state.


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