But sometimes you might feel like you’ve lost your work identity while you’re still working. For example, the way you see yourself as an employee might not match the way others – say, bosses or co-workers – treat you. I call these feedback mismatches. They can make you question who you are and can create a lot of stress.
It’s NOT Just You
If you’re involved in a feedback mismatch, it may be not even be about something you did. Factors bigger than you can shape your sense of self. For example, company mergers and the Great Recession led to layoffs. In my research, mergers often ended up indirectly producing feedback mismatches.
It’s common for new bosses to come on board during mergers. Those bosses may want things done very differently than in the past. In other words, the way you see yourself as, say, a retail associate may not match what your new boss believes you “should” be like in your job. And when you hear that message – directly or indirectly – it can be terrifying.
The Case of Charlie
A good example is 62-year-old “Charlie” who described being an executive as “his life.” His new boss continually scolded him and even denied his travel requests. This sent the signal that he was not the employee he thought he was.
(By the way, when you’re blocked from performing the actions that someone in your position should take – like Charlie’s business travel - you start to feel less like that kind of person. It’s like a welder not being allowed to work with flames. How could they still feel like a welder?)
Finally, someone who reported to Charlie disobeyed him in front of many other employees. As he put it, “It was just like a stick in the eye…In other words, she’s saying ‘You’re nobody.’” He told me that these feedback mismatches made him feel “unhappy,” like he was being “tortured,” and that ultimately he felt like “a slug.”
His executive identity began to disappear. Charlie eventually lost his job, but he told me that even while he was still employed he wondered “Who am I now?” During a staff meeting, he even literally “drew himself out of the picture” of his workplace, by writing down little stick figures marching toward the edge of the page in front of him, telling me “This is me, taking myself out of this picture.”
So What’s Important Here?
When you get feedback at work that doesn’t fit with your identity, it’s not just about fear of losing your job, or losing face, or not being appreciated, or not getting that promotion; who you are is also under siege.
Why is this important? Because once you get that kind of feedback, your own self-view ultimately shifts to the way others see you, and that shift is very, very stressful.
What To Do?
There are several steps you can take if you find yourself in this situation:
Erving Goffman said we should think of identity as a performance. If you stop performing the actions expected of you, you’ll stop “being” that person, and will lose that identity.
Have you ever experienced a feedback mismatch? What did you do to manage it? Please share your tips with me and other readers.