Thanks to major shifts in the labor market, workers are switching organizations, functions, and even industries much more frequently than past generations. But as our careers take these dramatic leaps, we ourselves are not wholly reinvented. We often bring pieces of our past work experiences with us, making our work selves more like a palimpsest than a whiteboard that can be wiped clean with each new role. In my published research, I’ve coined the term “lingering identities” to describe these ghostly traces of the past.
Why does this matter? My research suggests that lingering identities, when mishandled, can have profound career implications. Studies show that somewhere around half of all new hires fail in their roles, with lack of “fit” being cited as a key reason. “Fit” is commonly construed as the alignment of an employee’s core values and capabilities with those of their job. But neither values nor capabilities are implanted in us at birth. To a large extent, they derive from life — and work — experience. Our self-identity plays a decisive part. “Fit,” in this analysis, would stem not from a fundamental incompatibility, but rather from a failure to complete the psychological transition from one identity to another.
Identity transitions are complex maneuvers. As my research shows, they entail movement on as many as four different planes simultaneously: physical, behavioral, relational, and psychological. Amid the ever-increasing flux of the modern world, the psychological journey receives short shrift. It’s when that movement is missing, when people do not change how they define themselves even though their jobs say they “should” be something else, that identities linger.
As a job-seeker, then, your challenge is threefold. You need to:
- Understand your lingering identity well enough to use it as a filtering device for available opportunities.
- Find a role that offers a good-enough match for your identity.
- Complete the transition into your new role.
A tall order, to be sure. But accomplishing all three steps makes success as a new hire much more attainable. Here’s how.
1. Understand your lingering identity.
Before you can leap, you need to know where you stand. In other words, you need a detailed portrait of the lingering identity you would be bringing to your next professional role. In my field of organizational behavior, we see identity as having three basic dimensions: value, meanings, and enactments. These comprise a useful framework for understanding your own identity and that of others.
Value refers to how much self-esteem a person derives from a particular identity. For example, imagine an executive assistant making the jump from a glamour industry such as fashion to, say, insurance. This person might feel knocked down a peg or two, even if the change was voluntary and came with higher organizational status and/or a pay raise.
The hypothetical assistant’s value (self-esteem) was invested in her industry. Others find value in the prestige of their employer — seeing people’s eyes widen at the sight of the logo on their business card. Still others, in the friendship networks they’ve built in their organization. For some, value has nothing to do with where they work — they find it elsewhere. Knowing whether, and exactly where, you derive self-esteem from your work is a critical component of identity self-assessment.
Meanings are the associations and connotations of an identity. For example, the meanings associated with a “health care worker” identity may include “healer,” “essential,” or “brave.” Problems arise when the meanings left over from a past role conflict with the needs of a new job. This is especially common with lateral moves or career reinvention.
To assess the meanings that matter most to you in the workplace, think of how you would want your colleagues to describe you. Try to steer clear of generically positive words and toward those that communicate how you strive to add value. Terms like “smart,” “reliable,” and “honest” are a good place to start; more specific words and phrases like “entrepreneurial,” “change agent,” and “cheerleader” are much better.
Enactments cover how identity is lived on a daily basis. It’s about the whats, hows, and with whoms of work.
Taking stock of your own important enactments could be as simple as mentally reviewing your normal work routine, and imagining yourself having to do everything differently. This shouldn’t tax the imagination too much, since we all recently learned what it’s like to have our working life completely disrupted: the pandemic shuttered physical offices, throwing our habits, schedules, routines, and often relationships into turmoil. Thinking back to the aspects of lockdown you found hardest to deal with could be a way to home in on your deal-breaker enactments.
2. Find a role that offers a good-enough match for your identity.
Once you’ve applied the value, meanings, and enactments (VME) framework to your own lingering identity, you can use what you’ve learned to gauge the compatibility of a prospective employer. You have probably heard it said that job interviews are a two-way street: You’re evaluating your interviewers as much as they are you. The dreaded “Do you have any questions for me?” portion of the job interview is your best shot at measuring how big of an identity leap a new opportunity represents.
For example, if your “value” dimension is heavily based on the prestige of your employer, you will obviously want to ensure your next organization is as renowned as your current one, if not more so. But cachet means little if you can’t flaunt it. So, if this is you, you should try to discover whether the role you’re up for would involve opportunities to represent the firm at trade events or conferences, or to travel to HQ, etc.
To clarify the “meanings” associated with a role, you could ask the interviewer to list three or four adjectives that would describe their ideal candidate. Comparing this list to your own identity assessment should reveal potential misalignment.