How can understanding our identity help us move forward in times of transition?

Executive Coach Naheed Majid explores the link between identity and purpose to help us navigate change more easily.

How can understanding our identity help us move forward in times of transition?

How can understanding our identity help us move forward in times of transition?

One thing that is certain in our workplaces today is change, be it role changes, technology changes or job losses, we as individuals, need to be adaptable and change ready.

So how can we navigate our changing world with a sense of purpose without becoming overwhelmed by stress or indecision?

Our sense of identity can provide purpose, but it can also be both a source of strength or weakness in times of transition.

A strong sense of identity that is rooted to a particular role, career or organisation can get in the way of us being able to visualise a different direction or purpose when we find ourselves having to change.

I came across examples of this identity conflict in my own MSc research.  Two of the women I interviewed left their jobs at the peak of their careers to start their families, with the intention of resuming where they left off within a couple of years.  However when they considered returning they found themselves having to re-think what they do as they could no longer see how they could take on such demanding careers alongside their parenting duties.  Their identification with their career remained strong but it did not fit with their identity as a parent and they felt stuck – they could not see themselves in a different career, or as parents with the same career.

In a recent HBR article, O’ Brien (2019)  also highlights a similar issue in relation to strong job identification.  He explained that many of us bring our whole selves to our role, often losing sight of the fact that we are carrying out a role on behalf of our organisation’s purpose.  The impact of not being able to distinguish between our self and our role is that we find it harder to handle negative feedback or cope with setbacks (e.g. redundancy) as we feel personally undermined or attacked by these actions rather than viewing them as just part of the role we play in the organisation.

So how do we maintain a sense of purpose without becoming stuck to a particular sense of ourselves when we are faced with change?

The first step is developing an awareness of the psychological concept of identity and the factors that influence so we are able to understand our own ability to move towards clarity and authenticity.

In career theory, the traditional view of identity was that it is something that resides within the individual as the ‘self’, as part of our innate being and what drives us to authenticity (Taylor, 1989). However, a contemporary theoretical perspective considers identity as dynamic and socially created, as the link between our social / cultural context and ourselves (LaPointe, 2010).

This is a view shared by a number of academic career theorists (e.g. Duarte, 2009; LaPointe, 2010; Savickas, 2012).  What this means is that our identity is fluid as it is based on interactions that are happening all the time – “as one speaks one’s story, so one makes oneself” (Savickas, 2012, p14).

We have several identities that co-exist, for example, our identity as a parent, a professional, as well as within our organisational setting and these identities interact and influence each other.

Understanding this contemporary perspective and the interweaving of contextual influences can help us recognise our own adaptability and help us to embrace change.

Herminia Ibarra (2004), in her book ‘Working Identity’ says that understanding our self comes from ‘knowing-in-doing, not just knowing’ (p32).  What she means is that our involvement with the people and things around us shape who we are, and ‘solitary introspection’ to try to understand our ‘true’ self is futile.  She asserts that self-knowledge can only be acquired in the process of making change.

So how can individuals connect with their identity in a way that promotes a smooth transition when they are faced with change?

Ibarra says the answer is in testing possible alternatives and asking open questions of ourselves, for example – ‘Among the many possible selves that I might become, which is the most intriguing to me now? Which is easiest to test?’ (p35).

In this way we are able to identify role models that inspire us, to give us a benchmark for progress and motivate us to make the necessary changes.  The transition process becomes iterative based on action and reflection, and we can continually update goals as we learn from our trials.

Savickas (2012) advocates a similar approach that encourages creating a future self.  In this approach to career coaching the individual is asked to tell their story in order to make sense of their purpose and what’s important to them before then re-constructing the story, in order for them to see future possibilities.

Understanding the multi-layered and fluid nature of identity can help us ‘let go’ of our sometime rigid beliefs of what being authentic means, allowing us to create our own vision for our future.  As Ibarra (2017) explains, authenticity evolves from identity as the more we do something the more authentic it feels.

Executive Coach Naheed Majid



Naheed Majid is an Executive Coach with the Executive Coaching Consultancy.  






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