Saturday, May 31, 2008

Job and identity

Recently, I left the job that I had been doing for the past three years and took up a different type of job with another organization. I also got the opportunity to take a 3-week break in between - the first in my career that I have done so. I spent most of this time outside Bangalore - with some of my close relatives. This also meant that I met a lot people (the friends/relatives of my relatives) - and I was meeting most of them for the first time. One side effect of this was that I had to answer the question "So Prasad, what are you doing now?" - roughly 3 times/day - about 40 times in total, over a two week period.

Initially, I tried the answer "I am on vacation" - but that did not seem to work. People would wait for me to say more and if I did not say anything more they would ask me something like "What do you do for a living?". To this I tried to give the answer "I work mainly in the area of Organization Development". But even that answer did not seem satisfactory. Sooner or later people would ask me "Which company do you work for?". To this I tried answering "I am in between jobs" (or "I am taking a break") - but this also did not appear to work well (and sometimes this answer elicited a confused and/or sympathetic look/expression also). So finally I was forced to answer "I was working for company 'C1' till date ' d1' and I would be joining company 'C2' on date 'd2' ". While this turned out to be 'satisfactory answer' (from a social perspective), I did feel quite uneasy.

My uneasiness was mainly at two levels. At the 'social level' I was bothered about how would I have handled this question if I was not in a position to say that "I would be joining company 'C2' on date 'd2' ". At more personal level, I was wondering whether I can articulate a clear answer (just for my own consumption) to our initial question ("So Prasad, what are you doing now ?"), without referring to any of my employers (past, present or future!) or to the job titles. After I thought about it for a while, I felt that uneasiness at the first level was not a very important - as it was arising mainly from 'social desirability' and 'norms of polite communication in a particular social group' - and hence it should not bother one unduly so long as the 'economic viability' angle has been taken care of. The uneasiness at the personal level was more difficult to address. Once I resisted the temptation to 'destroy the question' by resorting to philosophical answers (e.g. one should be bothered about 'being' as opposed to 'doing'), the real issue became "Have I wrapped my identity too much into my job/career ?". I feel that this is an important question that needs to be looked at more carefully.

There are conflicting trends operating here. On the one hand, many of us spend a very large part of our waking lives at work. Many of the jobs are very demanding and they occupy a lot of our 'psychological space' - much beyond office space and office hours. Our 'passion for work', might make work and the achievements at the workplace very important for us. It has also been argued that in an environment where the role holder has the opportunity to shape the role to a large extent (and/or where people are expected to be responsible for managing/developing their careers), role identity and career identity are essential for success/effectiveness. On the other hand, these days many people routinely change jobs or even change careers. Again, often people are forced out of their jobs and careers by organizational changes(right sizing, restructuring etc.). Thus, if your identity is wrapped up in what you do, a change of job or a change of careers (especially if they were forced on you) becomes traumatic (much more so in the case of a job loss).

So where does this leave us? Developing and understanding our identity as individuals is essential for personal effectiveness. This would serve an anchor point for us when everything around us are changing. While job and career identities are useful from a job/career effectiveness/success point of view, they can't define who we are as individuals. Jobs and careers are like the cloths that individuals wear and change. Just as we can't let our cloths define us (though some of us might choose to express some aspects of ourselves through the way we dress), we can't let our jobs and careers define us completely. So it is very important for one to examine one's current definition of oneself and if the results don't show anything beyond job and career identity, it is time for investing significant time and effort for expanding the boundaries of those definitions. Of course, developing and understanding our identity as individuals is a lifelong process.

By the way, there is another reason for being careful about this 'sense of identity wrapped up in job' . It has been argued that 'sense of identity wrapped up in job' is one of the factors that could predict the risk of violent behavior at the workplace. So now the relevant questions are - "Are you at risk ?" and "Are you a risk ?" !!!

Related Link: HR carnival at Strategic HCM blog