Managing Identity at Work: Changing Tasks, Changing Roles, Changing Selves

Cites consultant Kenneth Eisold

We like to think that we are always the same person. If, after all, we always inhabit the same bodies, why shouldn’t we always produce the same Myers-Briggs scores, the same IQs, the same lovable or hateful personalities, the same stable identities across time?   But the fact is that our selves are more malleable that we normally think. Different environments, different expectations and demands, different roles bring out different configurations of self.

The issue is an important one now — it comes up as a thought that we need to think — because, I believe, we are in the midst of a profound transformation in our own culture of what it means to be a person, to be or to have a self. This has been a topic of concern for some time — though usually it has been raised in alarmist terms. We have been seen as a culture of narcissists, of conforming organizational men, of inauthentic, too easily adaptive, shallow individualists. Not that there isn’t cause for alarm about what is happening in our society — but alarm makes it hard to think clearly about what is actually happening.

The traditional view of the self — a view which promotes this alarm — is that it is or ought to be consistent, firmly integrated, resistant to influence. Development theories stress integration and wholeness, allowing for periods of experimentation or fluidity, perhaps, such as in adolescence or adult mid-life; but the purpose of such periods of disorganization is usually seen as preparing for a new and better reorganization of the self, a new stronger, clearer and more stable sense of who we are, firmly bounded off from other selves.

This is now coming to be seen as a limiting and out-moded conception. Increasingly it just does not seem to fit the facts of daily experience where discontinuities and disparate anomalous inner voices and shifting interpersonal perspectives are now coming to seem normal to us. This “post-modern” view of the self is reflected in our arts, even in popular culture.

But I believe the primary reason that this notion of the fluid and changing self comes up now is that the nature of work relations in our culture is changing — profoundly. Instability, rapid transformations, sudden reorganizations have become the permanent features of worklife. As a result, constant reorganization of the self is required. Today, the self must be radically adaptive, able to shift in and out of different roles as required and adapt to ever changing demands. Moreover, because it is increasingly clear that we work together in groups, the self has to be responsive to the mobile circumstances and shifting demands of group membership.

In the “good old days,” when families tended to be stable in membership as well as across time and space, when our social institutions changed slowly if at all, when large corporations offered not only secure jobs but also careers that unfolded over time in predictable ways, when fundamental values seemed immutable — in those days, it made sense to idealize a self that came to know who it was and stuck to it through all the challenges it faced. Anchored in the family, the self had to be strong enough to resist temptations to abuse or exploit its sexual and aggressive powers at home. Parental selves had to determinedly monitor the boundaries between the family and the external world, both defending the family from outside incursions but also preparing members for the rigors of the real world. In those days, the developing self had to figure out what sort of professional or work identity it was going to assume, consistent, of course with the class and ethnic identities that were already set for it. And then it faced the task of sticking to it.

Now, in an age where families not only have lost much of their stability and familiarity but also where so many other institutions have assumed its functions, with schools, sports organizations, day care centers not to mention TV constantly overlapping the authority of parents, the self has to negotiate and mediate a variety of influences. Instead of being firmly anchored in the control of one’s inner impulses, the self of today has to be more flexible, fluid, able to restructure itself in response to external pressures. It’s relation to sexuality and aggression, primary under circumstances of the enforced intimacy and isolation of strong family units, now becomes secondary to the problem of maintaining its integrity, its consistency over time, achieving recognition, regulating self-esteem, adapting to change. (See Mitchell, 1994.)

In short, the demands of our changing world of family and work now require a self that is more nimble, adaptive, heterogeneous, pervious, fluid. A self that is stable and consistent, that always knows who it is and what it expects of itself, is at a disadvantage.

My purpose in this talk is to look as this issue as it affects the workplace. How can we think of management and work relationships in the light of this understanding of the self. I want to begin by describing a young man with whom I have worked as a psychoanalyst. My purpose in this is to give something of a deeper look into the kinds of conflicts and dilemmas that come up for people in relation to work these days. I then will turn to an organizational consultation I am in the midst of, and attempt to address the question of how one can take into account usefully an understanding of such matters. I do not expect to give definitive formulations of these issues — much less solutions — but I do want to begin a process of thinking about them.

I have chosen my analysand, Al, to talk about here because I believe he is perfectly representative of the you’s and me’s of the workplace. Don’t judge him because he chose to go into psychoanalysis. Indeed, intelligent, attractive, highly motivated and successful in many respects, I see it as a sign of his healthy mindedness that he sought help to improve his life.

The oldest son in a stable, well educated and prosperous family in the mid-west — his father was a surgeon — Al had come east to attend a prestigious ivy league university, and he stayed on. After graduation, he took a job teaching in a private school in the same city as his university, a job which he successfully held for several years. He then moved to another city where he worked, again successfully, for a number of years in advertising. The management changed, he didn’t get along with the new director of the company and, more or less amicably, he left to find another job. But, having accumulated some savings, and feeling that he did not know what he really wanted to do, he decided he needed a moratorium in which to think about his future — and he decided to seek help in thinking about it.

What quickly emerged was that many of his relationships, including his work relationships, were charged with intense anxiety: he constantly anticipated being criticized by others. As a result, he continually took up defensive postures designed to anticipate or ward off these criticisms. He agonized over decisions, frequently deflecting attention from major decisions to minor ones such as what sort of shoes to buy or subway route to take. He hid out in minor and familiar roles, rather than exposing himself to greater visibility and risk of criticism. Thus while his job for several years following graduation from college — teaching in a private school — aroused his parent’s disappointment and disapproval about his lack of professional ambition and low social status, in holding that job he avoided greater dangers from more ambitious roles. He also stayed in a position closely identified with his youth, and his mother.

The constantly anticipated criticism that paralyzed him derived from his parents, of course. We were able to describe a pattern of frequent and insistent comments and criticisms emanating from his parents, particularly his anxious mother. His efforts at independence seemed to make her fearful, and so she developed a means of undermining his self-confidence — probably, I imagine, much as her own self-confidence and independence had been undermined. She was not malevolent. I don’t think that she intended to harm him, but she brought him up in the manner she knew from her own experience, probably duplicating the way she had been treated as a child. For her, self-confidence seemed dangerous.

What emerged, then, as we focused our attention on these aspects of Al’s experience was a powerful identity he had developed as his mother’s son. This Al stressed personal and family relationships over work; as we saw, he had trouble thinking about a career. And he worried constantly, as we came to see it, about his impact on her, the criticisms his behavior could evoke in her. Moreover, he suffered from a series of symptoms suggesting great anxiety over separation, anxieties that I suspect were parallel to hers. The criticisms he kept anticipating had the effect, moreover, of keeping him tied in to her; it was as if he carried her around inside of himself at the price of always hearing her critical and anxious voice.

Now, of course, this was not all there was to Al, by any means. He had not given up his ambition for a bigger and more satisfying life: remember that he had gone away to an ivy league school, a step opposed by his mother, and he sought help from me, an older man, in developing his confidence and self-esteem. He had many friends and interests that he had developed on his own. He was clever, humorous, and bright — and he also had a father. But at this point in his life, he was stuck in this identity as his mother’s son.

The first job Al took after starting therapy with me was teaching in a prestigious all-girls private school, a school staffed overwhelmingly, as such schools usually are by women teachers and administrators with considerable seniority. He enjoyed teaching, and he enjoyed the lively and attractive girls, but he soon began to suffer intensely from his repeated sense of anticipated criticism from colleagues at the school.

In reality, he was frequently at odds with the other teachers, who held highly conservative views about teaching, and represented the entrenched traditions of the school. It was not altogether surprising to think that his older female colleagues picked this up about him, and felt threatened and resentful in return. Also, as a young, attractive and bright male, I suspect, he caused them to feel threatened by the sexual feelings he aroused in the girls; the students flirted with him, and often seemed to prefer him to their staid and familiar older female teachers.

He might have enjoyed this, but of course it began to resonate with his familiar inner sense of feeling criticized. What he found himself evoking in the older female faculty members in the school unconsciously resonated with feelings and reactions he had evoked in his mother. Old memories and feelings about his mother’s criticisms towards his first girl friends began to surface, and soon he was feeling extremely anxious that his own sexual feelings towards his students would be seen and judged. Gradually, it came to seem he was living in a fishbowl of knowing critical glances; his anxiety mounted until, after several months, unable to tolerate what he felt had become an atmosphere of hostile scrutiny and judgment, he quit.

In the jargon of psychoanalysis, this is what we call “transference.” That is, a highly charged relationship from the past has become transferred into or onto a current interpersonal situation. More often than not, the literature of psychoanalysis explores such transferences in current love relationships or in the relationship between the patient and the analyst. But, of course, old patterns of relationship, especially with parents, get transcribed onto current relationships with bosses and colleagues as well. It happens all the time.

A self laden with such potential for transference lacks adaptability or flexibility. It cannot reorganize itself easily in response to new realities because it too easily recreates the old. Transference subverts our capacity to recognize change, and draw upon new aspects of ourselves. Al, in seeking out a job in an institution run by a woman, was searching unconsciously for the restitution of the relationship with his mother in which he could feel accepted and confirmed in his identity as her son, without the anxious criticisms that had marked their relationship in the past. But, as usually happens, he succeeded in recreating the entire relationship, judgments and all, and it was intolerable.

But now, let me try to switch into the role of a consultant, not a psychoanalyst: What follows from an understanding of such dilemmas organizationally? What could I say to the organization about this?

In this case, the Chair of Al’s department found herself cast in the role of his mother; and, I suspect, from his accounts of her sympathetic and understanding behavior, she went right along with it, making superhuman efforts to be the good mother she must have sensed somehow he was searching for. She was kind, patiently available; she soothed and reassured him, avoiding pressuring him into any particular course of action. She was wonderful, in a way, but of course she failed utterly to help him.

I was not a consultant in this situation, and so I lack real data about this institution. But my conjecture is that the school administration was eager to find male instructors like Al, precisely because it wanted to enliven both the curriculum and gender experiences of its young female students. The fact that he had taught at a more progressive school was probably seen as an advantage. Perhaps the administration felt endangered by the stodginess of the school’s traditional image. In any event, they resorted to the simple expedient of hiring a young man who embodied the qualities they wanted but who was, of course, completely unprepared to take on the kind of institutional hostility that his role would inevitable engender. No one newly brought into such an established institution could possibly succeed at this task without considerable institutional support. Naively, probably ambivalently, they hired him as they had hired other young male instructors before him. Al, like his predecessors, became in effect the representatives of the administration’s dissatisfaction with it’s entrenched staff — so, not surprisingly, the staff attacked him. The Chair, not fully cognizant of what she had done but not entirely unaware of guilt for having done it, retreated defensively into the role of the good mother. Trying to be as sympathetic and emotionally understanding as she possibly could, she failed to bring any institutional understanding to her role. Al knew that, no matter what was being said to him in a sympathetic and caring manner, he was being punished by the system. He had to get out.

Let me suggest that we think of the work place as a “house of roles,” that is a structure of interrelated, interdependent role relationships, a structure that is constantly taken apart and put together again as people shift in and out of different tasks and in different group configurations address different aspects of organizational purpose. So each work group into which workers in an organization come requires different identities for its members. It is the responsibility of the individual moving into such a new structure, of course, to find the means of assuming the identity required of him, and to shift identities as new groups require it. It is the job of the manager to define as clearly as possible the configuration of roles the task of the group he is managing requires.

This is a tall order, an ideal perhaps that can never be fully achieved. But it is increasingly vital for a worker now to know what parts of himself to draw upon, what parts fit — and what parts may not — and how that will change as he shifts roles. And he or she may require more than one conversation to work that out.

This is the conversation Al did not have with his department chair. Had they, it might have been clearer that the job he was hired for involved more than teaching a subject, the role of classroom teacher: they might have explored the relevance of the role of colleague, what it would mean to be a young man with fresh ideas in this system. That, in turn, may have made it possible to anticipate the impact of these roles on the other roles in the system and their reciprocal impact on him. There is no guarantee, of course, that they would have thought those thoughts, but they would have had the opportunity to approach them.

Let me describe now an organizational consultation I am in the midst of. Interestingly, it began as a request to help a management team that seemed embroiled in complex personal feelings. Matters having to do with the nature of the enterprise, its relations to its environment, or its administrative structure, seemed irrelevant; what seemed to matter exclusively was the hurt and mistrust that had arisen between the two members of the administrative team responsible for managing it.

The enterprise is a AIDS treatment center in an urban hospital, and the conflict was between the Director who is also the Medical Director, an extremely lively, warm, capable woman physician, Doctor A, and the Associate Director for Administration, a bright, attractive young gay man, Mr. B. The two of them had worked extremely well and closely together for 7 or 8 years, in the course of which they developed the unit into one of the more effective organizations of its kind, which was in addition one of the most effective units in the urban hospital where it was located. The “problem” they brought to me had arisen about 6 months before, and involved their relationship with the Associate Medical Director, a young gay physician, who somehow seemed to come between them, arousing extremely disturbing feelings of suspicion and mistrust.

Now, of course, it was apparent — even to them — that this seemed a classic case of jealousy. Dr. A., initially very enthusiastic about the new Associate Medical Director, changed her opinion in response to several somewhat questionable actions. Mr. B., while agreeing that those actions were questionable, however, still liked him and, moreover, felt attracted to him — an attraction that seemed reciprocated. Signs of this attraction, especially a flirtatiousness on the part of the new Associate Medical Director, were apparent. But, although Mr. B. insisted repeatedly that these behaviors were superficial and not to be taken seriously — that he had no intention of entering into a relationship with the Associate Medical Director — a fatal mistrust crept into the relationship between the Dr. A. and Mr. B. She discontinued the administrative meetings she had routinely held with the three of them. Mr. B. felt hurt to be mistrusted by this, to him, trivial matter. Dr. A. could not assuage her doubts.

Meeting with them, I quickly became aware of the great affection and respect between them and, increasingly, of the many ways in which they had been helpful and important to each other in their personal lives over the years. At the same time, they were dedicated and effective professionals, extremely competent at their work and used to working well with each other under very stressful circumstances.

I also began to appreciate just how much stress was routinely associated with their work. AIDS patients are dying, to begin with. There is no cure, but they are also suffering and dying in extremely unpredictable ways. Treatments are uncertain and, often, controversial — and patients need much more than medical attention. Those who work with them are readily subject to despair or burnout. There is the ever-present fear of infection. Funding is erratic and frequently politicized. I don’t need to dwell on this, I think. The point is that in the face of all of this uncertainty, conflict, and stress, those who worked in the center were massively in need of defenses against anxiety, what we have come to call social defenses.

The stable existence of the paired Director and Administrator over years provided just such a defense. Indeed, they were a perfect pair to provide reassurance and containment. She, a physician with links to the medical establishment, was a strong yet maternal figure; he, youthful and gay, could be identified with and trusted by the gay community. Their strong pairing could also arouse and support Bion’s basic assumption of pairing, in which a couple contain for the group its hopefulness; at the same time, this couple could avoid the risk of becoming sexually active and exclusive.

Those working under such a pair, thus, could feel more protected and secure. It seemed a good example of what Bion called a “sophisticated work group,” in which an appropriate basic assumption was mobilized. At the same time, each member of the pair could find support and reassurance in the other — and here is where the element of transference comes in. They fit together perfectly in terms of the Center’s needs, but also in terms of their own.

I could sense in him an underlying insecurity about his standing with her; as we explored the tension between them he frequently expressed his concern that as the boss she could readily fire him, a fear that struck me — as it did her — as unrealistic and unwarranted. True, she was the Director and had the authority to fire him, but he was, in fact, invaluable and virtually indispensable in his role. Nothing that had occurred between them had brought her remotely close to the thought of firing him. So that I could see that in working for her over the years he had, in effect, repeatedly sought — and found, until just recently — reassurance about his importance and value for her. That was his transference to her, the inner need deriving from his past projected onto her.

She, on the other hand, feared betrayal by him because of the presence of the flirtatious Associate Medical Director — a fear which his repeated reassurances to her did nothing to dispel. This too seemed irrational to me; no matter how much he may have been willing to flirt, Mr. B. understood the constraints of his role as much as his loyalty to Dr. B. Thus I could see that in their smoothly functioning relationship in the past she must have sought and found continual reassurance that such betrayal would not occur, that he was loyal and steadfast. He was loyal and steadfast, and eager to show it, but now her doubts could not be put to rest.

Thus I could see that up until recently their transference needs came together in this working relationship as did the needs of the larger system for the social defense of their pairing. She reassured him about her trust in him, he of his loyalty to her, and together they provided stability and hope for the system.

What, then, had gone wrong? I suspect that the pair had lost its power to function as a social defense for the system — and was now under attack. As I explored their dilemmas with each other, I learned that the hospital in which the Center operated was in serious trouble: located in an antiquated physical plant, without the resources to compete against other hospitals, losing patients and money, it seemed unlikely to survive much longer. This was not widely discussed in the system — nor was the inevitable impact of this on the AIDS program — but, at the same time, it was a palpable reality that could not be ignored. I believe that, in some way, everyone felt it. Under these circumstances, the leadership pair which had functioned so effectively to help the program defend against the anxieties encountered in its internal functioning, in the course of its work, seemed isolated and unresponsive to this external threat. The pair was coming to seem inaccessible and closed off, rather than responsive to danger. So that the system mounted attacks aimed at penetrating and disrupting it.

A wedge was being driven between them. The most effective sign of it was the increasing mistrust that the Director felt of her trusted Administrator. She was accurately picking up, I believe, her vulnerability and his lessening ability to protect her. She attributed that, transferentially, to his capacity to betray her. That was a misperception — but she was at risk.

But this hypothesis about the dynamics of the system is not really my point. What I want to focus on is the temptation to which the administrative team threatened to succumb of finding and holding onto consistent old identities in the face of the pressures and anxieties of work. In the transferences they each had to the other, old and obsolete selves had been continually reennacted. Dr. A. could be the child who had not been abandoned traumatically by her father, who had in fact died when she was a young girl; Mr. B. not only continually reassured her that he was still there but also functioned in a highly appreciative, supportive and loyal manner, as her father had. For his part, Mr. B. found in Dr. A. an authority figure that affirmed his trustworthiness, who recognized and deeply valued his loyalty; and in finding that he attempted to negate what had been traumatic experiences of being turned on an attacked by authority.

So long as the system was stable, the confirmation each of these old identities found in the other provided reassurance and, I suspect, a kind of exciting gratification. And in finding that in each other, their pair provided security to the system. But ultimately this proved dysfunctional. As with Al and his department chair, who sought and found temporary solace in each other through the identities of mother and son, the very success they had in achieving those identities prevented them from understanding what was happening.

Actually, the Director of the AIDS Center was fiercely engaged in attempting to find a new institutional site for the Center. She was well aware of the problem, but felt constrained in talking about it with her staff for very appropriate reasons. Moreover, she was actively and creatively engaged in medical politics around community health, fund raising for the Center, as well as enjoying a complex social life. There were many parts to her self, many identities. So with Mr. B. The old selves mobilized in their pairing was only a part of the whole, a part that provided them with temporary reassurance and a semblance of stability.

What she did not know about sufficiently was the importance to her of her pairing with Mr. B. She did not appreciate her own vulnerability to the identity of the abandoned child, her capacity to feel betrayed. Similarly, Mr. B. did not understand the importance of his need to be affirmed by authority. In a sense, I believe, the system they managed understood it better than they did, and it moved in to disrupt it.

So the second point I want to make — beyond the point that the manager manages a house of roles for others — is the need of the manager to understand his or her own role and needs for security. Such knowledge does not come easily because, by and large, we do not question our needs to be comfortable and secure in our work. On the contrary, we usually strive for it and jealously guard our right to enjoy it. Having authority in a system often means enjoying the right to displace anxiety on to others, away from oneself. And that is precisely the tendency that has to be counteracted.

How does one learn such things? That is the question that needs to be asked, of course, but I remind you that I said at the outset that I did not have easy solutions. It may be that we have to add management to the list of “impossible professions” of teaching and government to which Freud (1937) added psychoanalysis, professions that always require more than can actually be done, that always disappoint.

But we can also seek out learning about ourselves. One way is through group relations conferences which provide the opportunity to explore how we take up various roles in different group settings: the identities we draw upon in our group relationships. Another way is with the help of management consultants who can help us to learn about our own inflexible identity needs, the pressures for security that we impose on our relations with others in our actual places of work.

If the self is in a constant process of construction, so is the house of roles—and so is the role of the manager. It is an edifice that is undergoing constant renovation, requiring continual attention. It will never be done.