Reading for Leading #21: Exploring the identity we construct around our work

Exploring the identity we construct around our work

Reading for Leading is a weekly leadership tip shared every Monday morning as a pithy suggestion, question or reflection. You can find the whole series here.

Recently I’ve been taking a fascinating evening class that’s looking at our beliefs about identity – what it means to be who we are and how that causes us to successfully relate (or fail to connect) to others. One of the most striking exercises in the course so far asked us to look at the identity that we choose to construct for ourselves and explore how we feel when we examine those roles, choices and beliefs in more detail.

“Mum said that if the wind changes I’ll stay this way!”
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I’ve adapted the exercise to help us consider the identity that we create for ourselves in our workplaces. Note: there are no right or wrong answers – the exercise is about stepping back and taking the time to reflect on something that we may not normally consider in our daily routines. As our reflections unfold, we can consider if there’s anything we’d like to change, or if we’re content as we are.

You’ll need at least 20 mins for this exercise and some quiet time and space where you won’t be disturbed.

Take 10 slips of paper, or small post-it notes. And on each one write the answer to the question “Who am I at work?”. Your answers might reflect a role that you think you play e.g. “Decisive leader”, a characteristic you think you show e.g. “calm under pressure” or anything else that comes to mind. Just jot down a word or short phrase – nothing more.

When you’ve written something on all 10 slips, now consider which are most important to you and order the sheets in a pile so that the most important is face up on the top and the least important is at the bottom. Flip the pile upside down so that you’re looking at the underside of the least important characteristic from the bottom of the stack.

Next, turn over the sheet and silently say to yourself “At work I am…” and read what you’ve written. What does being this way look like at work? How does it influence your relationships with your colleagues or collaborators? Now, scrunch up the sheet of paper and drop it to the floor. What happens now that you’ve let go of this trait? How does your work life look different if you’re no longer the thing you described?

Repeat for each answer on your pile in the same way, discarding each after contemplating the characteristic described.

When you get to the last characteristic, you have a choice of whether to discard or keep it. Which did you choose?

Finally, once you’ve worked through all of the slips of paper, open up the scrunched balls and reclaim any of the ones that you’d like to keep.

How did the exercise make you feel? Are you considering anything about your role at work differently as a result of doing it?

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