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If I bring more of myself to work, what will happen to our relationship?

Guest post by Stephanie Creary, University of Pennsylvania

I have always been intrigued by how differently people manage their multiple identities at work, why they make their choices, and how these choices affect them and other around them.

In a 2015 paper published in the Academy of Management Review, my colleagues and I set out to unpack some of these dynamics. We began with the premise that positive relationships between managers and their subordinates are invaluable to organizations – they promote positive attitudes, citizenship behaviors, job performance, and organizational functioning. Yet, we are not always aware of the dynamics that can inhibit these outcomes.

Take, for instance, preferences for how someone should manage their multiple identities at work. We posit that some people prefer inclusionary strategies that increase the relevance of one or more identities at work. These can include addressing the ways in which a non-work identity such being a leader of a community organization or a work identity such as being a physician in addition to a manager provides them with a unique and valuable perspective that can be helpful at work. In contrast, some people prefer exclusionary strategies that reduce the salience of one or more identities at work such as downplaying one’s gender or racial identity for fear of backlash or stigmatization.

In our paper, we discuss four scenarios in which managers and their subordinates have similar or different preferences for how subordinates manage their multiple identities at work, how those scenarios affect resources availability, and subsequently, the quality of manager-subordinate relationships. We reveal that lack of strategy alignment can negatively affect these relationships while strategy alignment can positively affect these relationships.

So, how can people manage multiple identities at work in ways that promote more positive relational outcomes?

1. Create a flexible identity management narrative: The “bring your whole self to work” narrative can attract some but repel others. Rather than coaxing all workers to use the same strategy, meet them where they are. Positive relationships are possible regardless of whether people agree to include or exclude different identities. The point is that strategy alignment is important.

2. Be open to change: People’s identity management strategies are a reflection of their past as well as their hopes for the future. So, someone’s desire to include more of oneself at work today may be in response to frustrations with leaving oneself at the door in the past. Similarly, someone’s desire to leave oneself at the door today may be a reflection of negative experiences with self-disclosure at work in the past. Regardless, workplace situations change and so do people. Be open to adapting how you engage with your and others’ identities as you learn and grow.

In short – we all want to be known and understood at work, but not always for the same things or for everything that we could possibly disclose about ourselves. However, our choices not only affect us, they also affect our relationships with other people at work. So, treat your identity management not just as something that is only personal but as something that is also relational.

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