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How your work identity can make or break you

Those hardest hit by sudden forced changes to their work is not determined by their skills, qualifications, experience or income level, but often by how people construct their sense of identity. A person’s work identity can help them advance through adversity or it can be their undoing, it can make or break them. Supporting the closure of an automotive manufacturer, I witnessed first-hand how it was often those whose sense of identity was so heavily tied to their work that when work was taken away, they no longer knew who they were without it. Being able to construct your work identity in a positive way will help you traverse the highs and the lows of any career.

What is work identity?

Psychologists define “work identity” as “the collection of meanings attached to the self by the individual and others in the work domain. These meanings can be based on unique individual characteristics, group membership or social roles.” Research supports that possessing a positive work identity is linked with favourable outcomes, such as having enhanced capacity to deal with adversity, increased creativity, better adaptation to new work settings, and higher motivation to act, resulting in positive outcomes for the business. Think back to your last experience of being asked the question “what do you do?” How did you respond? Was it with enthusiasm, easily communicated and followed by a smile? Or did you hesitate, stumble on your words and notice it was not comfortable or easy to say? If for reasons out of your control, you were forced to change your work, how would you feel about answering the question, what do you do?

Does it change over time?

As adults, we continue to develop and shift our identity, both work and self, into midlife and beyond. We respond to changing life circumstances and changes in priorities. We relinquish old goals in favour of new ones, we make new plans, and pursue new careers or jobs. The cultivation of a strong sense of identity that incorporates your whole self, not just what you do for work, will help you weather the highs and lows of any career with confidence and optimism.

How can I construct my work identity?

To help you construct your work identity, think about what role(s) you play? Your occupation, organisation, team and your role. How do others view your strengths in your role? For example, knowledgeable, competent, empowering and inspiring leader. What progress have you made in achieving your goals? How has this advanced or aligned to your values? Craft a story of how you have navigated your career, your past and present achievements and your future aspirations.

How to reinforce the positives.

Adapted from research on constructing or reconstructing your work identity in a positive way, here are a few suggestions to ensure your work identity helps you get to where you want to go and be more positive about it right now.

  • Include virtuous strengths to validate the good that you do for others both at work and personally, e.g., trustworthy, courageous, generous.
  • Try to cultivate a sense of self-worth, like seeing yourself as competent, capable, accepted and valued by others.
  • Recognise improvement, growth or progress in some way that demonstrates positive self-change.
  • Try to identify a balanced and/or complementary relationship between your work identity and your personal identity. For example, you might be a leader at work and in your personal life, such as president of the soccer club.

Your work identity can make or break you. Take time to reflect on these suggestions and write down your responses. This will help you define yourself as a unique individual in terms of your strengths and your roles, the goals you most value and pursue and the story you make of your working life so far. Being able to answer the seemingly simple question of “what do you do” in a positive way, will have greater impact than you realise.

Written by Amalia Chilianis.

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Amalia Chilianis
Amalia Chilianis, author of Work-a-holistic: A practical guide to changing your career (Publish Central $29.95), is a career and capability development expert. She is a consultant, coach, speaker and facilitator working internationally. Amalia is passionate about helping people develop and change their career to realise a better future.


Amalia Chilianis is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow Amalia on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.