It’s very likely that, even in the last 24 hours, you’ve switched so seamlessly between being a friend to an employee, boss to parent, or customer to neighbor, that you didn’t even notice yourself doing it. We all switch between multiple roles in a given day, requiring us to draw on different aspects of our personality, and even alter how we talk. (If you spoke to your newborn baby the same way you greeted your boss in the morning, for example, you’d probably be sent home to rest up.)
One place most people juggle different identities is at work. Maybe you belong to a few different teams, for example, or maybe you both do and teach your job at the same time, like a doctor who also teaches medical students. Or you might have two or three different jobs entirely; perhaps you work part-time in a coffee shop to fund your freelance endeavors or tech start-up. Even within one role, you might be a supportive co-worker one minute, and deal-clinching boss the next, all before your morning coffee.
But while this constant juggling sounds exhausting, it doesn’t necessarily harm us, according to a study recently published in the journal Academy of Management. There are two main responses to identity-switching, according to Lakshmi Ramarajan, one of the study’s authors. Some of us will experience what she calls “identity conflict,” where we find it difficult to manage multiple identities, whereas others have “identity enhancement,” where different roles are seen as being complementary to each other.
Ramarajan, from Harvard University — along with co-researchers Steffanie Wilk from Ohio State University, and Nancy Rothbar, from the University of Pennsylvania — argues, perhaps unsurprisingly, that your experience hinges on your outlook. Seeing multiple work identities as good for each other can help you be more productive and feel more motivated at work. Seeing your different identities as being in conflict with each other, however, could be putting a downer on your day.
The team surveyed more than 700 call-center employees who managed multiple identities as they tried to sell different brands to their customers. The researchers also made sure the participants all strongly identified with the brands they represented. They were asked to describe two brands they worked with the most, and how much they felt their identity representing one brand conflicted with, or enhanced, the other. The researchers measured the workers’ motivation levels, and their sales performance was tracked over a period of four months.
In the end, those who felt their identities were in conflict were found to have less motivation, and they didn’t perform as well as those who felt their identities were complementary to each other, who were also more motivated.
The findings also suggested that those who moved between identities with ease are also more able to see other people’s points of view. Ramarajan says this could be because those who feel able to use different aspects of who they are in their work can also switch perspectives within themselves, which allows them to take in another person’s perspective.
In one of the two further experiments, they asked another group of 1,000 participants to imagine they had two work roles, where they represented two different brands to customers. The brands were described as conflicting to one group, and as complementary to each other in another group. When asked how much they would sell to the customer, those in the identity conflict group said they were less likely to sell the customer additional products.
But there’s a catch to switching identities so fluidly. While seeing identities as complementary gave positive results, just having the ability to see things from other people’s perspectives had a downside. Perspective taking, as it’s often called in the psychological literature, was found to be a downer on sales performance. “While some degree of perspective taking is good,” Ramarajan explained, “taking too much of one’s customer’s perspective might result in the salesperson realizing, ‘Oh, they don’t really need or want this product — why am I trying to sell it to them?’”
Ultimately, the study summarizes, “how employees answer the fundamental question of ‘who am I,’ whether in conflicting or enhancing ways, has consequences for how they interact with others and ultimately perform at work.” (While this study looks at customer service roles, Ramarajan says the study’s findings can be found in other settings, too.)
The findings, Ramarajan says, suggest we need a better understanding of perspective taking at work. “Managers can help employees, and employees can also do this themselves, first by acknowledging that it can be hard to manage different work role identities and when we feel torn it is understandable.”
Ramarajan says the trick is to frame work roles as being complementary to each other by finding common elements between them. Easy if you’re a doctor who also teaches medical students, perhaps. But if you’re a fitness instructor who moonlights in a doughnut shop — best of luck.