Finding Your Inner Work Identity

By Rex Huppke
Chicago Tribune.

The days after Labor Day seem an appropriate time to think about work. Not so much the stresses and drags of it all, but the actual things we do as working people.

Most of the time, either from business or as victims of rote behavior, our jobs are reduced to little more than a title. I’m a plumber. I’m a columnist. I’m a small-business owner. I’m a doctor, a chef, a cashier.

Those titles categorize workers but reveal little about the individual and his or her contributions. That’s a shame, because we live in an age when the professional and personal mix more than ever, making work identities a huge part of who we are.

So perhaps take some time to consider what you do for a living beyond the generic tag that describes your job. Not only is it a good exercise in self-awareness, a new study from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and the London Business School shows, but people who more clearly define their work identity are happier and less prone to burnout.

The study is called “Job Titles as Identity Badges: How Self-Reflective Titles Can Reduce Emotional Exhaustion” and was published in the Academy of Management Journal.

It explains why a job title that doesn’t do justice to the work you do can be frustrating: “Given the close connection between our job titles and our identities, job titles can affect the fundamental human motive to self-express, to communicate our identities and values to others. … Job titles serve a self-expressive function, influencing whether employees feel understood and accepted both inside and outside their work.”

The researchers looked at employees at a Midwestern chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The organization had encouraged employees to come up with their own whimsical job titles.

An administrative assistant gave herself the title “goddess of greetings,” a public relations manager became “heralder of happy news” and a database manager decided on “duchess of data.”

It was at this point that I began to wonder about the seriousness of this research.

But the study found these “self-reflective titles” lessened workers’ emotional exhaustion: “Participants described self-reflective titles as a means for verifying valued aspects of their identities, and, in turn, these feelings of self-verification served as a buffer against emotional exhaustion.

As the CEO explained, “The titles make you proud. … It makes everybody more real. Employees take ownership over their titles, they say, ‘This is who I am. …’ It helps you be comfortable with yourself.'”

The researchers also studied workers at a hospital who took on titles like “germ slayer” and “quick shot.”

The results were quite similar: “Health care employees who created self-reflective job titles felt less emotionally exhausted five weeks later, while employees in a pure control group and those who participated in an alternative exercise did not.”

Now before you start worrying about having to call yourself the Prime Minister of Packaging or the Archangel of Inverted Happiness Transmission (bill collector), I spoke with two of the study’s authors and learned there’s more to this than just a fanciful job title.

“We didn’t find any differences when we analyzed the data on who created a fun titles versus who created ones that were just reflective of their job and why it mattered,” said Adam Grant, a management professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Daniel Cable, professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School, said the title is really just the tip of the iceberg.

The thought process behind developing that title is the true self-reflective exercise: “That process of thinking about my customers and what I do around here and how I create unique value, that’s the kind of stuff that most people don’t really think about very often. They might when they’re first taking the job, but after a while, I think most of us get into sort of a rut of just doing behaviors without remembering the why.”

So by encouraging employees to examine their own work narratives, it not only helps them think more deeply about what they do, it also helps them hone the way they express what they do to others.

And that’s important to us, both socially and emotionally.

Organizations, by their nature, push us toward homogeneity. Our innate individuality doesn’t much care for that.

What Grant and Cable are proposing is not that every company start encouraging workers to become the Han Solos of Human Resources.

Just that we take the time to think about who we are at work and what we do that sets us apart.

If a title bubbles up from that, fantastic. If not, we at least have a better sense of ourselves to be proud of internally, and to express externally.

This is a smart, simple and powerful idea. And I should know.

After all, I am America’s most-beloved workplace advice columnist, self-declared.

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