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How understanding and loosening identity attachments can help leaders create more human workplaces

Updated: Oct 22, 2023

by Carolyn Coughlin


This paper is built on three foundational ideas: First, that as human beings, we are always perfecting, projecting and protecting an identity. Second, that our identities--our sense of who we are—are integrally connected to our context. And, third, that leaders who are both aware of and willing to dance lightly with their identities are more likely to create workplaces where people can thrive.


With those ideas as core assumptions, this paper will

  • Define what I mean by “an identity” and begin to illustrate how we as humans are always (often unconsciously) seeking to perfect, project, and protect it

  • Explore some of the physiological, psychological, and societal factors that make this process both entirely rational and often enormously unhelpful

  • Offer a few simple practices that enable leaders to dance more lightly with their identities so that they can lead in ways that enhance thriving in ourselves and in our organizations.

On Being Human: Creating, Perfecting, Projecting and Protecting an Identity


To help us bring these ideas to life, we’ll meet Antonio, a leader who did not examine the ways he was attached to his identity, and explore how that attachment became a barrier to the organization becoming more human.


Meet Antonio and his Identity


Antonio was a rising leader at a large global consumer products company where he was heading up sales in a sizable but struggling market in North America. Known as a personable but no-nonsense leader, Antonio had a big challenge in front of him---to turn around an important market that had been underperforming for years. He earned this role precisely because of his reputation for getting things done and not being distracted by people or organizational issues, which he saw as largely incidental to getting on with the “business priorities.”


From my first conversation with Antonio, I sensed that he wasn’t convinced that he or his team needed a coach, but he was willing to give it a go. He took his leadership position seriously, and---while he was skeptical--he understood that he had to be seen as embracing the CEO’s desired shift toward a more human way of working. So when at our first meeting I asked him to do a thought experiment,¹ he was game.


Identity creation and the trap of identity attachment


Before we dive more deeply into what happened for Antonio and his team, let’s take a step back and explore what we even mean by “identity” and why it might matter for leaders and organizations. My friend and collaborator, the late Doug Silsbee, defined identity simply as who we hold ourselves to be.² To help get a more personal sense of what this might mean for you, I’ll share my own response to the thought experiment I had asked Antonio to do. Were I, for example, to overhear people saying the most delicious things about me, I would hear words like warm, approachable, low-ego, easy going, articulate, smart-but-humble-about-it. When I imagine myself at my best, this is who I am. But how did these become “who I hold myself to be?” In my case, growing up in a household with two single mothers raising five boys and one girl (me, the youngest,) I was safe when I was under the radar. At home, standing out was dangerous because it got me teased and tormented. But of course, wanting to belong, I also craved attention. So outside my house, I learned to stand out by performing---specifically by being a good student. By the time I was 12, I had learned that standing out too much, performing too well, even outside my home, could also be dangerous. So I learned to be just good and smart enough to get my need for affirmation met, scanning the environment to determine how much I could stand out before it was dangerous. I adapted.


These are some of the particulars of my own Identity formation, and my guess is that each of you reading this paper can look back over your life and see how the conditions of your context contributed to the Identity you have become. All of this is perfectly natural and can be quite useful. When we are young and relatively powerless, scanning our context and adapting is a brilliant way to ensure our own safety and belonging.


Here’s the catch, though. Just as we humans have a strong instinct to survive, (and we spend considerable energy every day ensuring we do), our identities--our sense of who we are--are also designed to keep themselves alive. When we are very young, we respond to our environment by scanning for safety and belonging, and we simply adapt in order to maximize our chances of survival. By the time we are in our early teens, though, we are no longer just adaptively responding to our environment; we are also conscious of this idea of “who we are” and therefore “claim” the identity we have been creating and perfecting. And once we have claimed an identity, we must project and protect it; to not do so would be experienced by our bodies in the same way as a physical threat would be.


So, in summary:

  • Humans are resourceful.

  • We scan our environment and adapt in order to survive.

  • The adaptations that result in survival get reinforced until they eventually become simply who we are, and we are, in the language of developmentalist Bob Kegan, “subject” to them.³

  • Somewhere along the way, we become conscious of (although in all likelihood still subject to) “who we are” and then we look--consciously and unconsciously-- for it to be acknowledged and reinforced.

  • When it’s not, we experience an identity threat (which can feel like a physical threat.)

  • And then we often act myopically to prop up our Identity.


The Allure and the Trap of “Leader as Hero”


When I asked Antonio how he would love for his colleagues to describe him, he used words like clear, decisive, no nonsense, and fair. When asked how he would hate to be described, words like wastes-my-time and follows-the-latest-fad rolled off his tongue. After all, good leaders focus on what matters, which includes setting and meeting stretch targets, getting the work done, and not being distracted by things that don’t directly contribute to the bottom line. This way of being hadn’t necessarily earned Antonio a great following, but he wasn’t the sort of person who cared whether people liked him or not. Antonio knew that he needed to tick certain boxes to show that he was on board with the culture change, but he also assumed he had gotten his current position because his no-nonsense, bottom-line style was what his team and this region needed.


But what Antonio couldn’t—or didn’t want to--see was the degree to which the quickly changing market and the labor force resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic mattered to the task at hand. Antonio’s Identity was well suited for a world where he could predict the future based on the past, but it was not fit for a world where he not only didn’t but couldn’t have the right answers because answers were not knowable in advance. We, the team of consultants, suggested that his past practice of implementing a no-nonsense strategy based on ones he had previously developed in other regions might not be fit for purpose in this new environment where both the external context and the internal expectations were changing. That rather than relying on what had worked in the past, this new set of conditions might require him to be less certain and more experimental.


In our initial conversations, Antonio appeared to be open to a new approach, but over time, his actions spoke louder than his intentions. We were asked to facilitate team meetings, but the minute things got uncomfortable, both he and most of the team rebelled. They made it clear that any ideas–and the people who believed in them– that got in their way of “getting on with the tasks at hand” were no longer welcome. Not only did they miss an opportunity to act in ways more suited to the new conditions, but they created an environment in which key team members’ views were excluded.


Antonio’s story illustrates just how hard it can be for someone whose identity is built on knowing and creating certainty to admit that they don’t know what’s going to happen next. And how much harder still it is to then be willing to do things like forgo the approach that has so reliably made them successful in favor of another approach that is actually more suited to the situation. Asking the team to spend more than 5 minutes paying attention to the present rather than jumping to solutions, asking the head of one product area to engage curiously with the head of another, or, worse still, asking the team to depart from their long standing pattern of agreeing with one another in public in order to avoid conflict and keep things moving along—all of these felt like an actual threat to Antonio’s sense of self.⁴


You might see how Antonio’s identity attachment could lead to the team’s inability to adapt to changing market conditions and, therefore, potentially to a negative impact on bottom line results. But what does this have to do with making work more or less human? Well, as you might expect, Antonio and most of the team’s implicit belief that alignment and focus are not only good but essential to business success led them to value and even expect agreement.⁵ Which meant that people with divergent perspectives were shut down--otherized.⁶ Discovering that they could not thrive because they could not bring their whole selves to work, they moved on. Antonio and his team successfully retained a sense of congruence with their particular definition of what it means to be a good leader. But at a cost.


Antonio’s “leader identity” is based on the archetype I call Leader as Hero. According to this philosophy of leadership, which until recently was (and still largely is) considered to be simply “what leadership looks like,” the role of the leader is to have the answers. And if by chance they don’t have the answers, their role is to find the resources to figure them out and then ensure the proper processes are in place so that their people march as efficiently as possible toward the answer. The Leader as Hero school of leadership can be traced back to one of the most influential management experts of the 20th century, Frederick Taylor, who believed that people and organizations were like machines; with the right rules, regulations, and processes in place, they could and should become more and more efficient. In this model, leaders are like mechanics, and when the “mechanic” is leading an organization, especially at scale, their job is to ensure that the machine at all levels (individual, team, even whole of organization) runs as efficiently as possible. This means that for most of the 20th century and well into the 21st century, leaders were measured and rewarded on how much efficiency they could squeeze out of their people and how much they could predict and solve problems. And as a result, institutions from elementary schools to business schools shaped the hearts and minds of young people to believe that she who is best at predicting, controlling and solving is the most successful.


This model of leadership is not without its benefits, but, as we saw in Antonio’s team---and as Kegan and Lahey describe in their book An Everyone Culture--when leaders are subject to this Leader as Hero identity, they are in danger of blindly overinvesting personal and organizational resources in attempting to predict and control outcomes. This is not only exhausting for them and everyone around them, but it also runs the risk of hurting the bottom line and almost certainly creating a workplace where some people are “otherized” with many forced to leave significant parts of themselves at the door when they come to work.


Now that we have a sense of how identity is formed, why we become so attached to it, and the lengths to which we will go to remain congruent with it despite evidence that it might be neither fit for purpose nor helpful in creating a workplace where everyone can thrive, you might be wondering….what’s to be done about this very natural if not totally well-adapted process?



Simple practices that loosen identity attachment and cultivate resilience


Research shows a significant positive correlation between resilience and leadership effectiveness.⁷


But what do we mean by “resilience” anyway? This is another of those words that is widely used even as there is relatively little agreement about what it actually means.


I define a resilient leader simply as one who

  • Sees the context for what it is (rather than what they wish it were)

  • Understands their identity attachments and can notice them in the present moment

  • Cultivates practices that enable them to be with the discomfort of an identity threat, settle their nervous system, and make choices that are well adapted to the situation (rather than to their own immediate self-protection urge) and contribute to building the resilience of whatever collective they are part of.

Understand your Identity Attachments (and Aversions) and notice them in action


In this paper, we have talked at length about this thing called “identity” and how leaders who habitually react to keep their sense of self intact are much more likely to create an unwelcoming or, worse, harmful environment at the “bell jar ball.”⁸


To shift the unhelpful patterns that arise from our identity creation, perfection, projection, and protection instinct, we must:

  • Recognize the pattern that is both incessant and also generally invisible to us (though often not to other people!)--one in which we seek out situations and experiences that reinforce our Identity, avoid experiences that challenge it too much, and when those identity-challenging experiences can’t be avoided, we get triggered and then automatically react to restore our sense of self, no matter the cost. See if you can notice your specific pattern.

  • Notice the action urge. An action urge is our body’s automatic reaction (although most of us don’t notice it) to jump to our identity’s defense when it is under threat. The action urge often has the feel of Just do something to get me out of this discomfort! Practically, it tends to take the form of fixing, controlling, or running for the hills. We also tend not to notice that the story we create about why we need to do something is generally “a back-filled rationalization—we are justifying the action urge that stress delivers to us rather than rationally deciding to take action. In most cases these days, the risk is to our reputation, our bonus, our need for harmony rather than our lives, but it’s all the same to the nervous system.”⁹ Give it a try. Over the course of the next hour or so, pay attention to your own action urges. Notice when you find yourself needing to comfort, correct, compel, or convince. Notice when you are feeling an almost physical urge to interrupt, to override, to divert. Notice when you are asking why me, why this, why now? At first your action urge might only be visible to you after you have taken an action, but eventually, with practice, you’ll notice the action urge before it leads you to make a move.

  • Ask yourself some helpful questions.¹⁰ These questions and self-observations are meant to help you notice the ways your identity is triggered by the context and to help you decouple your identity from the context.

    • What aspects of the context are triggering my attachments (Leader-as-hero instinct? Desire to prove my value? Need for recognition?)

    • What aspects of the context are triggering my aversions? (Someone who rubs me the wrong way? Dislike of politics? Possibility of failure?)

    • What am I triggering in the system that is unhelpful? Keeping in mind that “it is given that leader Identity dynamics will have an important influence on [the] systems [they are part of]”¹¹ it is crucial that leaders observe the ways in which their own reactions shape the culture of their organizations.

Engaging with these practices over time will enable you to more quickly and precisely notice when you are experiencing an identity threat, thus creating the conditions for you to resist the action urge and make a conscious choice about how you respond.


See your context as it is


Most of us have a strong identity attachment to being able to predict and control outcomes.¹² And these attachments tend to increase and have broader organizational, community, or societal implications for people in positions of power. So to the extent that our identity attachments lead us to focus on propping up our own identities rather than creating more human environments, it is crucial that leaders recognize the nature of their context and how that triggers their identity attachments if they are to contribute to more human workplaces.


Complexity,¹³ as defined by Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Framework, is the world of things, challenges, and phenomena in which cause and effect is not knowable in advance; where things are often patterned but specific outcomes and how long they will take cannot be known. Where the past is not a predictor of the future. And where, perhaps most dangerously, there is such a strong tendency for us humans to look back and erroneously believe that if we had only been smarter, worked harder, or had the right resources in place, we could in fact have controlled the outcome. Think about raising children, and you will have the general concept here!

One of the easiest ways to see complexity for what it is (as opposed to what you wish it were) is to accept that any time you are dealing with human systems, you are dealing with complexity. Each individual person is themselves a complex system, so, if you put many of those together, you have endless complexity. From trying to ensure that Product and Sales work together on the new company strategy to creating more inclusive company cultures, you are dealing with complexity.


Here’s another simple thought experiment¹⁴ that may help you get this somewhat abstract idea into your bones. Imagine you are walking along and happen upon a pond filled with minnows. There are so many of them that they appear to form an almost solid layer across the top of the water—so solid in fact that you feel you ought to be able to stick your hands into the pond and catch a handful of them. But of course, if you’ve ever actually attempted this, you know it is extremely unlikely that even a single one will end up in your well-intentioned hands. But you try anyway. And when you fail, you try again. Surely if you only use the right angle or are quick enough you can accomplish this apparently simple task. After many tries, you end up exhausted, frustrated, and possibly even feeling like a failure. This is what trying to control things in complexity feels like. Even though your logical brain and even your personal experience tell you it’s NOT actually possible to catch minnows with your bare hands, no matter how clever you are, it LOOKS like you ought to be able to, and since you are a clever, capable, persistent person, you try nonetheless!


Here are two practices to increase your complexity awareness.

  • When you find yourself with an action urge to fix something and it feels futile or frustrating, see if you can imagine yourself trying to catch the minnows. In what ways does this situation feel like the minnows? What is controllable and not? See if you can find something delightful in this.

  • Experience yourself as a complex system. What thoughts are you having right now? See if you can find a sensation in your body that is happening at the same time. Focus on that sensation (like a pit in your belly) and turn it up a notch. What happens to the thought? Now shift your attention to your feet and focus on feeling the specific sensations in your feet. Pressure. Temperature. Do this for 30 seconds. What happened to the thought you had been having?

Find, tap into, and amplify your complexity genius¹⁵


If we’re going to live in a world that we largely can’t control, a world that has the tendency to cause overwhelm, which in turn triggers our identity attachments, we need to find strategies to manage our unhelpful responses to those identity threats. In other words, we need to manage our inner world in order to meet the outer world resourcefully. Fortunately, we have found some very useful ideas and practices that can help, and we’ll explore a few of them here.


Let’s begin with a central paradox of being human. On the one hand, we humans are geniuses at complexity. Watch a baby learn to navigate her world and you will see this genius vividly on display. And there’s a way we all love and live in complexity; we have families, pets, relationships, all of which are endlessly complex endeavors. We play in complexity; since the beginning of recorded human history, we have invented and engaged in sports whose magic is precisely that we don’t know what’s going to happen next. The paradox is that unpredictability and the inability to control outcomes–especially when we don’t actively choose them–can actually feel to the human body like a threat. This activates our stress response (our sympathetic nervous system) which doubles down on everything that’s most unhelpful in complexity--charging forward without listening, taking control and micromanaging, ignoring diverse perspectives, and seeking to protect and perfect. This all makes us less able to deal well with complexity (which really needs our parasympathetic, or calm, create, and restore, system) just at the moment when we need it most! So the irony here is that we are great at complexity when we like it, and just as it becomes difficult, we lose our ability to be great at it! But we can reach into our greatness if we only know how.


Here are a few genius practices¹⁶ that–assuming you have begun to notice your identity triggers and action urges– turn out to be brilliant at supporting us to dance more lightly with our identities, creating the conditions for a more human workplace.


  • Breathe: Do we need to say more about this? Our breath is the literal switch from stress response mode to calm and creative mode. First bring your attention to your breath, which itself diverts attention away from your identity-defense system, and then choose a breath pattern that broadens your focus and interrupts the action urge reaction. The simplest way to do this is to take several breaths in which you breathe out longer than you breathe in, but almost anything that feels calming to you will do.

  • Get moving: Our bodies are made to move. Not only has movement kept us alive as a species (we move away from danger) but when our bodies are moving in an intentional, as opposed to a reactive, way, our brains make more and different kinds of connections, and our nervous systems are more likely to be in the calm, creative, less protective, and in a more connection-oriented state. But so much of our lives are spent not moving these days. We sit at desks, we drive in cars, we ride elevators. Everything is delivered to us. So just as the world is delivering us more and more identity threats, our bodies are moving less. And that stress, rather than getting released through movement, is building up in our nervous systems to the point where it is literally killing us. And if the threat of death weren’t enough of a reason to move, perhaps the fact that in the meantime, our cognitive function and our emotional resilience is also impaired, will convince you that you should move more. So get moving. Be breathless, Do anything that raises your heart rate. Make it fun, something you’ll do. Dance. Do this at least twice a day for 5 minutes. Or more as you like.

  • Treat sleep as part of your core job: You’ve all heard that sleep is good for your physical health, and most of you probably also know that it is good for your mental health. But did you know that sleeping is “....an unexpected ingredient to activate our complexity genius. It enables so many of the features that allow us to be great at complexity—innovation, creativity, connection. Perhaps more importantly, when we give it up—often with the good intention to be more productive or efficient—we are setting ourselves up for big-time complexity challenges”.¹⁷ Sleep helps us put into memory things that we learn when we’re awake. And when we don’t get enough of it, we tend to misread emotional cues, putting us on the defensive and making it harder to form connections with others. If you are one of those people who doesn’t sleep well, you may think this is a fixed feature of you, something you can’t do anything about. Still, proper sleep is so important to being able to dance lightly with identity and therefore creating the conditions for a more human workplace, that we encourage you to make even small moves that might make a difference. One starting point is to shift your mindset about the importance of sleep by treating it as a core part of your job. When you are tempted to give up sleep in order to accomplish more, ask yourself: how much more can I actually accomplish when part of my cognitive and emotional intelligence is compromised due to lack of sleep?

  • Release attachment to outcomes: To dance more lightly with our identities, “one of the first things we need to do is see if we can release some of our attachment to the solving, fixing, finishing urge that is so familiar to our bodies and brains, especially when we are under threat. The idea of nonattachment has been foundational in many traditions throughout human experience, inviting us to look at what we are attached to (often a hope for the way things should be) and to try and loosen our grip a little.” Here’s a playful practice that can help. Next time you find yourself leaning into fixing or keeping something bad from happening, notice what you are doing and imagine all the good things that will happen if it goes right. Your team will be happy, your child will not be suffering, you will feel successful. See if you can feel anything like an attachment to this outcome (and to how your identity might be propped up by it!). Now ask yourself what good things will happen if it goes wrong. This might be more challenging at first, but give it a go. At a minimum, learning should be on your list, but see if you can stretch yourself to imagine other good outcomes that might happen if your attempt to fix and control don’t work. Let that sink in. What, even small, chink in the armor of your fixing drive might open up?

  • Take a wondering wander: The idea here is that the act of shifting our attention away from ourselves and toward something beautiful or awe-inspiring can instantly release us from the bondage of self, even if only momentarily. And that, moreover, you don’t have to wait until something that strikes you as beautiful or awe-inspiring happens to find you; you can go out and find it. So go for a wondering walk.¹⁸ This can take any form you like, from an actual walk in nature to visualizing a beautiful place that has been important to you, to touring the awe-inspiring things that humans have created–like art and architecture. Awe can also be found close to home, in your relationships. The important thing is to seek it out. Go looking for wonder and see what happens. We’re guessing it will lighten your dance steps noticeably!

  • Complexity Check-in: Here’s a move that you can do in groups that we have found amplifies connection and humanness more than almost any other practice we know because it taps into so many of our complexity geniuses—noticing, wondering, loving, and often laughing! Make this a regular practice with your teams, and we almost guarantee it will contribute to a more human workplace. Follow these steps:

    • Invite people to consciously arrive. So often we come together as groups and get right down to business. But if we remember that in most cases, the people in the room are a core ingredient of the “business,” then arriving together with each other and for the business at hand is crucial. This can be as simple as a short noticing or breathing exercise or inviting people to quietly look around and make contact with each other. Invite people to honor and set aside temporarily what they were doing before they got here and what comes next so they can just be here and present.

    • Offer a question and give people a moment to write their response. This can be as simple as “what has your attention right now?” or something more closely related to the topic of the meeting, such as “what have you learned lately about XYZ?”

    • Listen to all the responses without interruption or comment.

    • Scan and notice patterns, outliers and “not saids,” This allows everyone to be seen and also to get on the balcony to get a sense of what is in the group as they enter the meeting.

We have used this practice at Cultivating Leadership for years, and can attest to the power it has in not only foregrounding our collective humanity, but also in getting to better solutions.

  • Allow imperfection. If what we’re on about here is amplifying humanness at work, then it would be a huge miss not to include a practice that is about amplifying quality connection not only with each other but with ourselves. So let’s end with this one. Remember when I asked Antonio to give me several words that describe how he would like people to see him? Another part of that practice is to ask someone (or yourself in this case) for the few words that would absolutely make you cringe if people said them about you. So do that now. What are the three or four words that you would want people to use to describe you? What are the three or four words that would make you cringe? Now let’s experiment. Take one of the desired words—let’s say it’s “reliable.” Try for just one day to notice at least one time when you have an action urge to do something that reinforces you as “reliable.” And pause before you do it. Or maybe even don’t do it. Keep it safe to fail, so that the threat to your identity is big enough but not so huge that your body will experience outright rejection. Now take one of the words on your “cringe” list. Let’s say it’s “arrogant.” Do (or don’t do something) that feels a little bit arrogant. Notice the action urge. Pause. You are building the capacity to be imperfect. And imperfect dances are so much more interesting than perfect ones!


Footnotes:


¹ I learned this simple exercise from my friend Jennifer Garvey Berger. I do this with nearly all my coaching clients these days.

² Doug Silsbee, Presence Based Leadership, page 107.

³ See Robert Kegan The Evolving Self (1982) and In Over Our Heads (1998) and Jennifer Garvey Berger Changing on the Job (2013)

⁴ Antonio had actually learned about complexity, knew at a theoretical level these were complexity-friendly approaches: Complexity Toolbox Video Series

⁵ See Jennifer Garvey Berger, Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps (2019)

⁶ See Dolly Chugh, The Person You Mean to Be (2018)

⁷ Zenker Folkman research as per Forbes article: 7 Ways to Become a More Resilient Leader

⁸ Let me explain. In another delightful metaphor borrowed from Doug Silsbee, the idea here is that each of us walks around in what he calls a “bell jar,” an invisible-to-us but very real “container” that shapes how we see the world and ourselves in it. It’s similar to Bob Kegan’s subject-object idea: the bell jar limits and shapes what and how we make sense of things, and everything inside of it bounces around and tends to reinforce–even magnify–itself. Until the boundary of the bell jar begins to become more porous and reshape itself. If we think of each of us living our lives in a bell jar, then when multiple people interact, you have the “bell jar ball,” and as you might imagine, it’s often not the smoothest dance party!

⁹ From Berger and Coughlin, Unleashing Your Complexity Genius, page 18.

¹⁰ From Doug Silsbee, Presence-Based Leadership, p. 115-117

¹¹ From Doug Silsbee, Presence-Based Leadership, p. 118

¹² See Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps by Jennifer Garvey Berger.

¹³ See Unleashing Your Complexity Genius for an excellent description of complexity.

¹⁴ If you happen to live near a body of water, you can do this one physically instead of as a thought experiment!

¹⁶ Called Genius Engagement Moves (GEMs). See Unleashing Your Complexity Genius for all the Geniuses and dozens of helpful GEMs.



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