Are You Just a Job Title? Work and Identity Explored

We spend more time at work than we do sleeping, eating, resting, playing, or with our families. Work, for most of us, is the defining aspect of life and thus of our identity. When someone asks us ‘what do you do?’ we nearly always reply with our occupation. The dictionary defines identity as:

Who a person is, or the qualities of a person or group which make them different from others

We derive our sense of identity from comparison with others, those we are like, those we differ from. So changing our job can change how we are seen and who we identify with. Through our work we find an identity, we can find status, intellectual stimulation as well as wealth which enables us to buy comfort. We can work out our place in the world.

However we don’t have just one identity, we have several.

Our identities are multiple, multifaceted and dynamic. Identity is actually a complex and changing representation of self. Because identity is created in relationships with others, we are not just our job, we have an identity as a son/daughter, as a sibling, as a spouse, as a parent, as a friend or sports team member. We may be aware of behaving differently in those relationships from the way that we behave at work; a passive son can be a firm leader, a compassionate friend may be a dispassionate adjudicator. If these differing roles create competing demands there can be real internal tension, (e.g. caring parent with conscientious worker) – this is called dissonance and people have to employ coping strategies to reduce the conflict; either by segmenting their identities and creating strong boundaries or by dis-identification with one of the identities, or moving jobs.

I am not suggesting that there are no constants in life. Personalities, values and underlying beliefs about what the world stay constant and will influence what career people choose. In the past, child followed father in his job or profession but today an individual’s beliefs, values and preferences guide their choice. A young adult whose belief is that resources are scarce in the world may choose an occupation with great security whilst one whose belief is in abundance may choose something riskier. Traditional career counselling (influenced by John Holland) suggests that finding those values, preferences and beliefs and choosing a career path that is congruent with them, is the key to both professional success and contentment. Our sense of who we are either in work or out of work propels us to towards certain careers.

It is also clear that our working identities can change over time, our identity and behaviours as a young graduate are different from those of the professional expert and from those of the senior leader. Our ability to develop our identity is critical to our ability to be successful in a range of career roles, we need to shed our old identity and add new elements. The professional expert with their eye on the detail and expert knowledge needs to develop an identity and set of behaviours to support strategic thinking and the cultivation of external relationships.

But our work identity also drives our behaviour: Jung says every call or profession has its own characteristic persona and that people can become identical with their persona: the professor with his textbook, the tenor with his voice. At an extreme level people can become subject to ‘role engulfment’ and lose all sense of themselves except as they exist through work. For those people the loss of work or being forced to change career through redundancy or retirement can provoke a severe identity crisis, with people asking : ‘Who am I? What am I if I don’t work?’.

So is a new job the route to a new you? Well yes and no. Some people actually have an ability to be flexible and adaptable as a part of their personality and of their identity; they thrive on change and easily adapt. Others find that changing jobs may result in a changed work identity but not their personality. The beliefs that drive your actions, the values that determine your preferences will remain constant. If you move to work that is more in line with those values and beliefs then you will achieve more congruence, less stress and greater success. If you move into an environment which is at odds with those values and beliefs you will find it uncomfortable.

We each have a picture of who we are and what we will/won’t can’t do in our heads, once formed our brains garner the evidence that it is a true picture and ignore evidence that suggests that it is not true. So people say ‘I don’t do numbers’, ‘I don’t do detail’ ‘I don’t do preparation’, they believe it and make it true. ‘I can’t do sales’ becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. But if you are in enforced job change you need to examine those beliefs and that sense of identity to see how grounded in reality they are, how helpful they are, and consider personal change. We can change our beliefs, actions and thus our identity through experimentation, practice and conscious self discipline. The public servant can take on the mantle and the role of an entrepreneur, excelling at sales, the professional expert can become the strategic leader enjoying the broader canvas, the banker can become the teacher, revelling in the sense of fulfilment and purpose of their new role.

In an age where career progression may lead us into new environments and sectors it is ever more important to challenge our sense of self and explore whether you can create ‘a new you’ by changing the beliefs you hold about yourself and the world in order to develop and expand your career options.

By Mary Hope

Mary Hope is the founder of Mary Hope Career Success, she works with executives and managers to support them get paid more, promoted faster and feel more satisfied. She has 30 years experience of HR, training and headhunting both private and public sectors, is a published author and career coach. Follow Mary on Twitter @maryhopecareers