Identity Economics explains how two people with exactly the same economic circumstance will make different decisions, in other words a marketplace is founded on identity rather than money. Similarly in the workplace, “A worker’s self-image as jobholder and her ideal as to how her job should be done, can be a major incentive in itself” (Akerlof & Kranton, 2005)
What is professional Identity?
Sylvia is a project-manager. At least, that’s how she used to introduce herself before she got fed up being defined by, in her words, a “rather boring job title”. Like many others during the pandemic, Sylvia used the long lockdown months to reflect on the role that work played in her life. One of her conclusions was that – though she may do project-management work – this is not what defined who she was in her professional life.
“Project-management is just one of the things I do”, says Sylvia. “But everyone is a project-manager now. As I reflected on my career, I realised that the red line running through all my jobs was relationship-building: establishing trust and credibility with others engaged in the projects. I also do this in my community work: it’s not just confined to my day-job.”
Sylvia is one of an increasing number of people who seek to define their professional identity. This is about WHO they are in the workplace, not just WHAT they do. It’s the red line running though all roles (past or present): the fingerprint they leave on anything that they do.
“It’s how I am remembered” says a former financial controller. “When I bump into ex-colleagues, they remember the times I was helpful to them. Many of them cannot remember my exact job title.”
Why is professional identity significant?
Like Sylvia, many people are now rethinking the relationship between their lives and their work. The pandemic has sparked a global re-think of how Life and Work fit together. If Work and Life were a couple, they are now in couples counselling: renegotiating boundaries and perhaps even questioning the entire relationship.
As well as a post-pandemic existential crisis, we also have longer working lives and multiple careers, so who are you throughout these career-shifts? Job roles and titles are becoming increasingly hard to explain and fail to describe all that you are. What happens during extended periods of transition, how do you define and introduce yourself, when you are between jobs? Who are you then?#
I see professional identity as a framework, which allows a person to define themselves in their own way. This can take into account personal values, strengths and it’s not dependent on any organisation chart. As such, it’s much bigger than a job-title or even a next career-move. It gives deeper meaning to work because people are motivated from their own personal aspirations. It’s a source of energy and confidence. Within a matter of days, I’ve often noticed how as soon as people clarify their identity, they are able to do things that they could not do even the week before.
Professional identity is a means to raise the value of HR work. At all touchpoints along the employee journey it is significant. It is a game changer from the very beginning – recruitment. Without exception, every organisation we have worked with on professional identity has embedded a clear message into their recruitment campaigns: “we develop your professional identity”. Why? Because they have found that this is exactly what their recruits are looking for.
Nobody wants to be hired as just another “human resource”. Today’s professionals are seeking development in their own right, so the message “we develop your professional identity” is exactly what they want to hear. Of course, they want organisations to follow-up on that promise. A system wide inclusion of professional identity is not limited to L&D, it can also be incorporated into: appraisal & review, best practice managerial style, self-management and wellbeing.
If organisations recruit talent based on extrinsic rewards (pay, conditions, perks etc.), then they invariably attract candidates who are motivated by those extrinsic rewards, who will leave the moment someone offers them more attractive rewards. But if you seek to attract candidates based on developing their professional identity – and genuinely follow-up on that promise – you are offering something much deeper. You are offering intrinsic rewards: roles that will develop their identity. This attracts people who are intrinsically committed to you, not just to the perks.
Consequently when the agreement between employee and employer is founded on a deeper psychological contract you can raise the bar of employee engagement and retention.
John Niland is the author of The Self-Worth Safari