Juggling identities at work

Most of us have a range of different identities, and this is certainly true at work, where we may be a manager and a salesperson, or an innovator and a project manager.

A recent study highlights the challenges of juggling these different identities, and the importance of successfully doing so for our performance levels.  For instance, if we believe our various identities enhance each other, we become more productive, but if our identities are in conflict, the opposite occurs.

“We tend to think of our work role identities one at a time, as if they were completely separate,” the authors say.  “But this research shows that the interactions are important. The way we manage and think about our different roles could be affecting how well we do our jobs.”

Identities at work

The challenges inherent in juggling our various identities have been well explored, but significantly less attention has been given to our workplace roles and identities, and how we reconcile them.  The study reminds us that not only can we have difficulties in doing this, but they can have real implications.

“If your employees feel they have to make trade-offs between different role identities in the workplace, they may not do as good a job,” the authors say.

In the study, several hundred employees were monitored who had to switch identities as they represented various brands of credit cards.  For instance, they might have had to behave a certain way for a fashionable clothing brand than they did for a stodgy bank.

The researchers tested performance by monitoring for the additional products and services sold by employees during the course of their work.  How would identity conflict impact this ability?

Identity crisis

To test for the various identities on display, the researchers asked each participant to name two of the brands they worked with the most.  They then rated the level of agreement with various statements that were designed to measure the identification they had with each brand, and whether these identities were in conflict.  For instance “Life would be easier if I represented only one of these brands and not another”.

When the data was analyzed, it revealed that the hypothesis was correct: those employees with conflict between their identities reported lower than average sales in the four months after the survey was taken.  By contrast, their peers whose identities were more cohesive scored better than average sales.

“There are real-world effects for not being able to successfully juggle your identities,” the authors say. “Your performance can suffer, as we found in this call center.”

In further studies, it emerged that in those whose identities complimented one another, the intrinsic motivation levels were higher, which in turn led to higher performance.

The results suggest that we need to do more to help employees both identify the various identities they have at work, and then to ensure they mesh well together.

“There needs to be connections between the identities that make sense to your employees. If there is conflict, your employees will ruminate, take up their mental energy, and struggle with their jobs. But if the connections are there, it can help,” the authors conclude.


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