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Does your job require you to be both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?


Imagine being an undercover police officer, pretending to be a criminal while actually upholding the law. Or imagine working in an animal shelter, having to euthanize unwanted animals that you’ve cared for. A surprising number of jobs include such “identity foils” where you have to be one thing (a caretaker of animals) and yet the opposite (a euthanizer). Such foils are especially pernicious because they put a person in a seemingly impossible bind: “how can I be a caretaker, with all the nurturing and positive emotions it suggests, if I have to also be a euthanizer?” Doesn’t one negate the other?


We suggest that people tend to handle such identity foils in four different ways, depending on how much they behave like foil X and how much they behave like foil not-X. The least functional response tends to be when a person simply avoids the conflict altogether. In doing so, neither foil is realized (e.g., neither caring for nor euthanizing the animals). A somewhat more functional response tends to be when a person behaves like only one foil, favoring it over the other (e.g., caring for the animals and only euthanizing when compelled to do so). Although the person is doing only “half” their job, at least it’s better than doing neither half well.


A potentially more functional response is when a person behaves moderately like each foil, allowing a compromise. It’s potentially better because now the person is attending to both foils. There are two kinds of compromise. In a “gray compromise,” the person waters down each foil so that they’re sort-of doing each. (We recognize that this doesn’t work well with the caregiving example, as it means sort-of caring for and sort-of euthanizing the animals; an untenable compromise. A more apt example might be medical residents, who are expected to be both a doctor who knows the answers and a trainee who is still learning; it’s permissible to be a doctor who sort-of knows and a trainee who needs to know more.) In a “black and white compromise,” the person behaves like one foil at one point in time and the other foil at a different point in time (e.g., caring for animals Monday through Thursday, and euthanizing on Friday). This oscillation enables the individual to behave fully as one foil at a time and thus not experience the conflict with the other foil in that moment.


But the response that tends to be the most functional is when a person behaves like both foils, fostering holism. Holism involves integrating the foils, viewing them as complementary and perhaps even working together. How might this work in our caring-euthanizing example? Arluke (1994) found that workers in animal shelters viewed euthanasia as a means of preventing suffering and thus, in a sense, ultimately caring for the animals. As one worker put it, “I’d rather kill it now than let if live three years and die a horrible death. No life is better than a temporary life” (p. 152). Is this rationale a bit too convenient? Maybe, but the point is that the integration enabled the workers to do the seemingly impossible of being both a caregiver and euthanizer with less dissonance. To our pleasant surprise, our review of studies unearthed a number of examples where seemingly impossible binds were ameliorated by such holism (Ashforth, Schinoff, Rogers, & Lange, 2024). It seems that our ability to do the “impossible” is constrained only by our imagination.

 

References

Arluke, A. 1994. Managing emotions in an animal shelter. In A. Manning & J.A. Serpell (Eds.), Animals and human society: Changing perspectives: 145-165. New York: Routledge.

Ashforth, B.E., Schinoff, B.S., Rogers, K.M., & Lange, D. 2024. Being Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: Role-based identity foils in organizational life. Organization Science, 35, 232-258.

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