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Leveraging your different identities

Have you ever observed great leaders who usually behave in certain ways but act inconsistently on occasion? Have you ever wondered how some colleagues who generally interact with others very professionally become enraged at seemingly small incidents? Have you ever come across people who exhibit contradicting behaviours as a manager, as a subordinate, or in other roles?  


Why does an individual exhibit different and, at times, contrasting behaviours and traits? The answer is simple. Our self-representation consists of multiplicity.  The contrasting cognitive-behaviours we possess are merely because we do not have a singular self-identity that fully governs our thoughts, values, and emotions. There are multiple identities inside all of us. Instead of viewing each of us as one whole self, everyone can be considered as a vessel that accommodates a range of distinct or overlapping identities.  

Over the years, many reputable thought-leaders have posited that each of us construe a multitude of identities, and these different selves within us holds different affective, perceptual, and cognitive features.  According to the Multiple Selves Theory, the contextual relations between our dominant identities and the situations we find ourselves in profoundly influence our sense-making and problem-solving preferences.  

For example, if you miss a special family event to address requirements at work despite promising your attendance, you may be in discomfort if your “Attentive Parent” and “Trustworthy Human Being” identities are in conflict with the “Corporate Star” identity. The self-torment could be exacerbated when the “Righteous Bread-winner” identity surfaces and gets involved. The “Righteous Bread-winner” may motivate the “Corporate Star” to nudge you to prioritise work over family in the future, and to suppress the more family focused roles played by the “Attentive Parent” and “Trustworthy Human Being”. 

Leveraging multiplicity

On the plus side, seeing that each one of us can be regarded as a vessel that accommodates multiple identities, we can invite helpful identities to get on board and request some of the unhelpful ones to disembark. When we can muster the right combination of identities to analyse and respond to any given circumstance, we will be able to shape our behaviour accordingly and create meaningful impact. 

Putting it into practice

Gerhard Venter is always passionate about helping others to uplift their performance. When Venter was an MBA candidate at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, University of Pretoria, his research explored whether and how junior staff members of his organisation could activate and maintain their best through the use of Multiple Identities Theory.   

As the first step, Venter invited a number of junior staff who do not serve under him to partake in this research. These participants were guided to explore and articulate different dominant identities that influenced their actions during both good and bad work occasions. Participants were then invited to renew the hierarchy of their old identities, and blend in new ones that could help them to be their best. Participants were encouraged to appoint the right identities as their inner advisors, and they were tasked to take a moment to invite these advisors to help them to make the right decisions whenever a fitting circumstance arises. 

The research findings suggested that despite a small portion of the participants not doing so well, mostly owing to the fact they forgot to carry out the task entrusted to them, many of them were able to rise up above the occasions. By taking a moment to channel the right combination of advisors to steer them along the right paths, participants were able to elevate their responses. Though the findings were derived from the participants’ self-evaluation, which is the biggest weakness of Venter’s research, oftentimes when we remember to activate our best and feel that we are at our best, we tend to deliver better results and live in a more fulfilling way. 

Have you considered the identifies advising you?

Have you analysed and articulated the dominant identities that are advising you to act in the ways you do? What are the inner advisors that you should be appointing so that you can better achieve those major goals that you have set for yourself?  

If you wish to accelerate your growth exponentially, you must recognise the power of appointing the right inner advisors and aligning them to help you pursue your goals. 

Dr Jefferson Yu-Jen Chen and Anne Duggan are co-authors of Courageous Invitations: How to be your best and succeed through self-disruption (Hambone Publishing $32.9)). Dr Yu-Jen Chen is a full-time faculty at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, University of Pretoria, and founder of Forward Notion Advisory. Anne Duggan has over 25 years of experience in leading vast multi-disciplinary teams, in Senior Executive roles in complex and challenging environments.


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