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Can We Rediscover Our Identity at Work?

How to create a workplace that ignites the genius of every worker

Key points

  • Workers are leaving jobs at higher rates than ever before, in part because of a disconnect between work and self.
  • We become more connected to our sense of selves at work when the culture supports us.
  • Wonder interventions at work can help create a culture that engages workers, versus one that alienates them.

I’ve long been curious about the ways our identities intersect with our workplaces. Back in 2019, I wrote about the dangers of associating our full identities and self-worth with our jobs. Since then, the global pandemic and Great Recession have shone a blinding light on the troubled relationship many of us have with work.

In the U.S., workers are quitting at the highest rate in decades. Writer Maggie Mertens recently examined the reasons why for The Atlantic, writing, “For many, it’s about redefining themselves as people first instead of workers.”

If so many of us feel like we have lost ourselves to our jobs, it brings up an interesting question: Is it possible to find ourselves at work?

This question also suggests an intriguing corollary for employers and managers: Can we design our teams and workplaces in a way that facilitates workers achieving their full potential and rediscovering core parts of their identities? Can we create workplaces that are a catalyst for igniting the genius of every worker?

Activating genius in the workplace

Lately, my team and I have been testing out a hypothesis: Disengagement, burnout, and “misfit” at work often stem from a person’s genius not being recognized, reclaimed, and activated. In other words, workers disengage when their best attributes and gifts are not being employed.

Genius is the innate, unique force of character that guides a person to their best, most alive work in the world. This genius is stifled when team or organizational culture leads workers to feel objectified and valued solely in terms of their productivity, rather than their humanity.

Fortunately, we’ve found that the opposite can also be true. When the culture of an organization encourages team members to recognize one another’s genius, it can help workers re-embrace parts of themselves they had forgotten about in the work context.

Studies of interventions in the workplace have shown they can be effective at helping workers develop their core strengths and genius.

One meta-analysis of positive psychology interventions (PPI) in the workplace found that these interventions as a group had a positive effect on employee well-being and engagement. Peeling back another layer, a second meta-analysis suggested Best Possible Self (BPS) interventions (a writing exercise where the participant imagines their best possible self in the future) were the most effective in improving well-being, optimism, and positive affect at work.

PPI interventions are actually most effective when done as a group. The authors of a third meta-analysis note that’s because group interventions facilitate personal relationships and co-collaboration with colleagues, as well as allowing for individual character work.

Our experiences with our wonder interventions point to similar findings.

But my work suggests an additional reason that interventions are most effective in group settings: When one person perceives that a workplace culture invites a certain behavior, such as actively recognizing your best self at work or practicing deep listening, then that person is more likely to make that changed behavior take root.

This observation is essential. A solo employee cannot be solely responsible for changing their habits or mindsets to improve their personal well-being, work performance, and creativity.

Substantial change requires at least a two-pronged approach: an employee’s solo efforts (which require agency) and an organization’s structural efforts (which support employees’ growth and flourishing).

Perhaps it’s not only possible to find ourselves at work through interventions, but when we approach it as a group the results are even more pronounced.

Igniting genius in your team

Several years ago, a startup invited me to help them lead a team retreat. The goal was to come away from the retreat with a pitch deck for investor funding, but even during the pre-retreat meetings, I could tell there was deeper work to do with the team dynamic — particularly between two alpha male team members.

On day one, I led the team through a series of exercises meant to help them activate their genius, and I intentionally paired off the alpha males.

Something wondrous happened. For the first time, through these exercises, they literally saw eye to eye. They recognized parts of themselves in each other. They shared common ground through their back stories. And they walked away with a deeper understanding of themselves and a common bond between them.

Because of this, each team member could better recognize and appreciate one another’s character and contributions instead of vying for competition in the founder’s eyes. Moments of wonder occur when team members are able to see one another’s character in new, true, and even beautiful ways. The founder attributed that work to giving his team cohesion that they had never had before.

The result is that individuals feel seen and recognized beyond their job roles and productivity. Through deliberate exercises of memory-building, storytelling, deep listening, and self-agency, we’ve seen teams come alive.

The indications of genius not being recognized at work are all around us: burnout, frustration, disengagement, and — of course — the resignations at unprecedented rates.

What if your team came to work every day excited for new challenges, knowing they have the support to work in their zone of genius?

To learn more about how wonder can lead to greater creativity and fulfillment in the workplace and beyond, watch my recent talk at the Charlotte Center’s Forum, “Why Wonder Now.”


U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Quits: Total Nonfarm [JTSQUR], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis;, March 11, 2022.

Mertens, M. (2022). What You Find When You Leave Your Job. The Atlantic.…

Donaldson, S.I., Lee, J.Y. & Donaldson, S.I. (2019). Evaluating Positive Psychology Interventions at Work: a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Int J Appl Posit Psychol 4, 113–134.

Carrillo A, Rubio-Aparicio M, Molinari G, Enrique Á, Sánchez-Meca J, Baños RM (2019) Effects of the Best Possible Self intervention: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS ONE 14(9): e0222386.

Knight, C., Patterson, M., & Dawson, J. (2017). Building work engagement: A systematic review and metaanalysis investigating the effectiveness of work engagement interventions. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 38(6), 792–812.