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How Identity Partners Support Who We Are at Work

Years ago, while considering whether to attend graduate school after a first career in another industry, I had a hard time envisioning myself as a scholar and doing what it took to become one. My husband—an academic himself—was by my side every step of the way: providing encouragement, offering insightful perspectives on challenges I encountered, and keeping things running at home during my multi-day trips to campus two hours away. Without his encouragement and support, I would not be a professor today.

Oftentimes when we discuss workplace relationships, we think of workers’ connections with individuals inside the organization. However, a growing body of research reveals that people outside the organization influence who we are and what we do at work. This can include friends, family members, neighbors, and other members of our communities.

As an identity scholar, I’m interested in how people develop professional identities—their sense of who they are in relation to their work. Some of my recent research looks at how life partners help each other build a sense of self and succeed in professions that may be seen as conflicting with other identities they hold. In my case, for example, I wasn't sure I could make the shift to long-distance graduate student while still seeing myself as a dedicated parent and partner. My husband, more than anyone in my workplace, enabled me to make this important shift.

Like me, many of the people I interviewed for this study attributed much of their professional development to their relationship with their life partner. Workers’ significant others acted as identity partners by engaging in three behaviors that bolstered workers’ ability to construct what was for many an otherwise unlikely professional identity.

  • First, identity partners validated the worker’s professional identity by honoring their autonomy and expressing confidence and pride in their accomplishments.

  • Second, these individuals cultivated the worker’s professional identity by listening to and empathizing with their work experiences, and by brainstorming possibilities with them and urging them to pursue opportunities.

  • Third, identity partners collaborated in building the worker’s professional identities by helping them develop professional skills and complete tasks at work and by shouldering non-work responsibilities that might have impeded investments in their career.

Ultimately, the life partners in this study helped workers not only develop themselves as professionals, but also to see their professional identity as harmonizing with other identities they hold that may conflict with the professional identity.

The behaviors demonstrated by the people in this study are not limited to committed relationships. When we engage with colleagues, community members, family, and friends, we can support each other’s work identities and experiences by validating, cultivating, and collaborating in their professional activities and aspirations. In addition, when reflecting on our own development and achievements at work, we can each recognize the validating, cultivating, and collaborating efforts of others who have supported us.

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