When Your Job Is Your Identity, Professional Failure Hurts More18 June, 2019 / Articles
Jake is three and he is tired. He wants to be picked up and held. “It’s okay sweetie,” his mom, Kate, sings as she reaches down to pick him up. Midway through the lift Jake writhes, throws his head back, and knees her in the stomach. Kate knows she should not take this breakdown personally, yet sometimes she does. But most days she knows that “mom” gets kicked; it is part of the job.
But when Kate takes a kick at work—when her report is criticized in a meeting—she does take it personally. It is harder for her to remember the difference between “Kate” and the role she fills as a “senior analyst.” And when you take professional kicks personally you compromise your own ability to recover and see the bigger picture. You fail to read the kicks as a symptom of a bigger organizational dynamic or challenge.
Your formal organizational role is an important anchor: It grounds you in your task, helps you know how to relate to others and to the organization. But when you bring most of yourself to your role—your experience, training, abilities, knowledge, effort, quirks, and passions—you feel as though you are more than just your role. This is especially true when you are always on and never quite leave work. You can quickly forget you are filling a role in order to accomplish a task on behalf of an organization’s or group’s purpose. You cannot reflect dispassionately on organizational challenges, seeing your work and role as one piece of a larger puzzle. Instead of maintaining a bird’s-eye view of the system you are in, you place yourself at the center of what looks like “your” problem in a workplace drama. This weakens your judgment and makes it even more likely to take the criticisms and decisions personally. This pattern worsens when you conflate your role with self-worth, thinking you are only as valuable and useful as the role you formally fill.
It is critical that we learn to distinguish and differentiate our roles from our self. We get into trouble when we lose ourselves in our role instead of thinking in a detached way about how the role is viewed by others. It can be very rewarding to throw all our education, training, talent, and passion into our work roles, but we forget that others in our organizations are reacting to the role we represent in their work lives, not necessarily the interesting and thoughtful people we think we are. Here is some insight gathered from courses at Harvard Kennedy School, where students learn to disentangle themselves from their roles so that they can be better leaders and make the differences they want to make.
The role you fill belongs to your organization, institution, group, or family. Other role-holders have expectations of you in your role, and those expectations may be reasonable (that you perform your tasks well) or unreasonable (that you speak on behalf of all women, represent your minority group, or always be the person who takes meeting minutes). Meeting those formal expectations and managing those informal ones is essential to retaining your role. Your role may also come with conflicting expectations from different authorizers of a particular role (your boss, your clients, for example)—never mind the multiple roles you fill at any given time, each with their own set of authorizers. This is a dynamic process that must be actively managed. Chances are, when you lose your perspective on your different roles, you’re misreading the organizational dynamics.
Kate shared two instances when she lost sight of the difference between her role and her self—lapses that left her feeling bruised. The problem was that Kate overidentified with her role and the consequence was that when others had trouble dealing with her in her formal role, she took their responses too personally.
Consider: As an analyst, Kate worked hard to organize complex sales data in a way that her colleagues could quickly understand. To do the job right, analysts must sometimes share unpleasant information; disappointing colleagues is inevitable in the role. When Kate’s colleagues didn’t like her findings, they often pushed back and questioned her methodology. Their resistance often left Kate feeling angry and insecure.
Kate needed to remind herself that her colleagues’ rejection had everything to do with her role and nothing to do with her personally. When teams are confronted with their poor results they feel embarrassed in front of their supervisor, get defensive, and scapegoat the analyst and her work. Their feedback to Kate said more about them than it did about Kate. But that was hard for her to see when she couldn’t distinguish herself from her role.
When Kate was promoted to director and her peers became her direct reports, her social interactions at work changed dramatically. She was left off an invite for a team happy hour, and colleagues who used to be friendly became guarded. These changing dynamics are a reminder that people relate to you through the role you play in their lives. When Kate’s position changed, the role she played in her colleagues’ work life changed and they struggled with how to relate to Kate the Senior Analyst. Kate herself struggled as she took these shifting relationships personally, resenting her colleagues for primarily reacting to her role and not maintaining their warm and candid relationships.
Kate did not know how to be a boss and a friend at the same time. At first, she doubled down on the friend role, insisting to her colleagues that nothing had changed. But as she developed a new appreciation for the challenges of management, it was harder for her to sit by as her team complained about their bosses. As much as she wanted to be one of the gang – the relationship was different. Her role as director meant that the team needed her to guide them. Again, Kate felt kicked and bruised as she and her colleagues wrestled with how to relate to each other.
Once Kate embraced the responsibilities of the role and the inevitable authority dynamics that come with it, she was able (through much reflection) to draw the line between that role and herself. Identifying less with her role allowed her to live into the role more fully and happily. She was able to achieve a level of resilience that enabled her to perform well at work while maintaining a healthy sense of self.