Episode 2 – When is identity conflict useful?
Welcome back to the second episode in the ‘five challenges’ podcast series. I’m Katherine Parsons, doctoral researcher at Cardiff Business School (text version).
One of the findings from my research project with participants of the Alacrity programme during 2018/2019 was that the process of ‘becoming’ an entrepreneur resulted in one of two outcomes for the nascent entrepreneurs: identity conflict or identity crystallisation. Check out the first episode in this podcast series to hear more about why these two outcomes can arise during the entrepreneurial process and how they can be managed.
Wil’s question this week relates to the identity conflict outcome. Wil asks; how do we identify identity conflict which is ‘non-trivial’ or ‘dysfunctional’ and how can a programme such as Alacrity UK support their participants to negotiate their way through dysfunctional or non-trivial identify conflict and ‘come out the other side’?
According to a leading group of academics in the study of organisational identity; “individuals actually live with considerable identity conflict and this can lead to crystallization” (Ashforth et al, 2008:354). This was indeed the case for a number of participants on the Alacrity programme who found that their sense of who they were and who they were in the process of becoming or hoped to become was crystallised throughout the entrepreneurial process, so that, by the end of the programme, they had a greater sense of who they were. The participants experiencing identity crystallisation spoke of satisfaction and clarity as to what the path ahead may look like as they reached the end of the programme.
Such a positive experience, however, is not always the case and a greater number of the participants within my study spoke of experiencing identity conflict throughout the entrepreneurial process. Now, we know not all conflict is bad. The management and organisational literature is littered with studies and frameworks illustrating how functional conflict in organisations can result in increased well-being and even increased performance (see for example; Amason, 1996; Chen, 2006). The same is true of identity conflict. Experiencing some form of functional or ‘trivial’ identity conflict is a natural part of the entrepreneurial process which can lead to identity crystallisation as was the case for a number of the participants in my study (Ashforth et al 2008:356).
Well, to answer Wil’s question, let’s take a look at five steps that my research suggests start-up development programmes such as Alacrity UK can take to support their participants through dysfunctional identity conflict.
Firstly, step 1 – identifying identity conflict that is non-trivial or dysfunctional.
‘Dysfunctional’ identity conflict can be defined as that identity conflict which is so severe that it creates an emotional response in the individual, causing them to experience a sense of identity threat or even identity loss and has been described as ‘hitting rock bottom’–“an emotional crisis, or an extremely negative state that people want to escape from” (Shepherd and Patzelt, 2018:167)
But scholars (Ashforth et al, 2008) also warn that functional (trivial and useful) identity conflict can tip over in to dysfunctional conflict. Left ignored and pushed aside, latent identity conflicts can manifest and grow leading to identity dissonance (where people act in ways which do not ‘fit’ with their sense of who they are and what they stand for) resulting in dysfunctional identity conflict as identity paradoxes and tensions grow.
Pragmatically then, how can entrepreneur development and education programmes such as the Alacrity Foundation and nascent entrepreneurs themselves identify and distinguish between functional and dysfunctional identity conflict that they may be experiencing? As I mentioned in the previous podcast episode, this requires time and space for reflection individually as well as educators and entrepreneurial development programmes presenting opportunities for reflection and discussion with others. The one to one and mentoring sessions throughout the Alacrity programme provide a space that can be used to reflect on ‘self’ issues throughout the entrepreneurial process. In addition to recognising and managing the many iterations that product development goes through throughout the ideation process and the need to pivot on ideas and potential markets or ‘beach heads’, I would encourage programmes such as Alacrity to give the space and time for participants to work through the ‘iterations of self’. Providing the space and opportunities to pivot as they manage and negotiate identity conflict experienced throughout the process of becoming an entrepreneur and co-founding their own start-up company.
‘Co-founding’ a company is said to bring many benefits that come from the synergy and diversity of creating a new business venture with a team but also presents challenges in terms of establishing team dynamics and organisational culture. Thus, opportunities should be created to discuss and work through identity conflict in a start-up team context. Group mentoring and coaching sessions alongside holding open and honest team meetings can all provide a platform within which to discuss individual values, ethics and identities and how these are imprinted into the organisational vision, values, culture and ethics that the team wish to establish within their start-up company. The individual founders’ identities need to be negotiated into the collective identity of the start-up company. Doing so is likely to involve some elements of conflict and tension as these issues are worked through, and so, acknowledging that and providing the opportunity to discuss and work through such issues within the start-up team is a key step to managing identity conflict in a way in which it can be ‘functional’ and actually galvanise decision-making around agreeing ethical values statements and collective identities – agreeing ‘who we are’ as a start-up company.
Step 2 , therefore, requires that time and space is allowed for reflection on issues of ‘self’ and that nascent entrepreneurs and entrepreneur education and development programmes such as Alacrity UK seek opportunities to address areas where identity conflict has become dysfunctional. Where identity conflicts have been ignored and pushed aside or swept under the carpet (left latent) they can cause significant and sometimes irreparable damage.
As the excerpts from the participants narratives in my research last year show, responses to dysfunctional conflict can often result in the classic ‘stress management’ strategies of fight or flight. Some participants chose the flight option, leaving the programme realising the psychological stress and strain caused through the identity conflict created through their struggles with working through ‘who I am’ and ‘what do I want to do’ issues. They chose to take some time out or to try something completely different to revaluate how they feel and who they want to be. Others adopted the fight strategy, engaging in a mental ‘tussle’ between their inner-worlds as they worked through who they were and were becoming. Again, taking time and reflection to discuss and work through these issues, enacting one of the identity management strategies I discussed in the previous podcast episode can help the nascent entrepreneur to ‘make sense’ of who they are and manage conflicting micro identities – their conflicting selves.
However, as the literature suggests, there is another option available to us when experiencing identity conflict – and that’s to ignore it. Often such identity management approaches are not engaged, perhaps because we are not aware such strategies exist or even aware of the cause of our own anxiety or stress at work. Where identity conflicts are suppressed for a long time, they can become deeply entrenched and can result in psychological damage, often referred to as the ‘dark side’ of entrepreneurship (Shepherd and Haynie, 2009).
Step 3, therefore, requires an awareness firstly that there is a ‘dark side’ of entrepreneurship that comes from unmanaged identity conflict. The ‘pit of despair’ is well cited and recognised as an inevitable part of the process of developing a new product and strategies are recommended to support start-up teams in navigating their way through and out of the ‘pit of despair’. How do we help nascent entrepreneurs navigate their way through their personal ‘pit of despair’ however? – their dysfunctional identity conflict experienced during the process? Left unmanaged, this could potentially lead to poor mental health through stress, anxiety and depression. When this is the case, more intentional strategies and interventions may be required.
Mental health promotion programmes and initiatives such as counselling services, health and well-being promotion activities and campaigns and flexible working practices may be required to help nascent entrepreneurs work through these deeply entrenched identity issues which can have a significant negative impact on their everyday life (including therefore, their performance at work and general well-being). Step 4, therefore, may require entrepreneur education and development programmes to ensure the promotion of such initiatives are standard practice within their programmes.
The key, of course, and the fifth and final step is to provide a positive, supportive working environment where good mental health is valued and discussions of self – who we are at work (and arguably outside of work too – more on that another time) are brought to the forefront of management and organisational discourse and workplace discussions, such that, identity conflict is recognised, discussed and worked through in a way in which it can become functional and helpful to move individuals and their organisations on. A number of the participants of my study last year commented specifically on their own poor mental health at times, and thus, recognised the importance of a supportive work-environment to promoting good mental health.
In summary, my study supports the view that functional identity conflict can be useful and actually lead ultimately to identity crystallisation. When left unmanaged or suppressed over a period of time, however, identity conflict can become dysfunctional leading to negative personal and professional outcomes such as poor mental health and low productivity at work. This podcast episode has identified 5 steps entrepreneurial education and development programmes such as Alacrity can take in identifying and managing dysfunctional identity conflict;
Firstly, recognising and identifying identity conflict that is non-trivial or dysfunctional.
Step 2 – Providing the time and space for individual and team reflections on issues of ‘self’.
Step 3 – Recognition of the ‘dark side’ of entrepreneurship arising from unmanaged identity conflict.
Step 4 – Including mental health awareness programmes as a core offering of the workplace well-being agenda.
Step 5 – Providing a positive, supportive working environment where good mental health is valued and discussions of self are prioritised.
The results of which are more likely to produce a working environment in which nascent entrepreneurs can iterate through their ‘best’ versions of who they are and want to become, evolving alongside their business idea.
Over the past 18 months I have been conducting research with the Alacrity Foundation to understand more about organisational identity – who we are at work. A link to a summary of the research findings from my 2019 study can be found on my blog site on the Alacrity UK website. Please join me next time for the third in the ‘five challenges’ podcast series when I will be addressing Wil’s third challenge arising from my research project– how can we embrace distinctiveness whilst maximising efficiency in start-up development programmes.
Amason. A. 1996. Distinguishing the Effects of Functional and Dysfunctional Conflict on Strategic Decision Making: Resolving a Paradox for Top Management Teams. The Academy of Management Journal. 39 (1). pp. 123-148.
Asforth. B, Harrison. S and Corley. K. 2008. Identification in Organizations: An Examination of Four Fundamental Questions. Journal of management. 34 (3). pp:325–374. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206308316059
Shepherd. D and Haynie. M. 2009. Birds of a Feather Don’t Always Flock Together: Identity Management in Entrepreneurship. Journal of Business Venturing. 24 (4). pp:316-337. Doi: 10.1016/j.jbusvent.2007.10.005
Shepherd. D and Patzelt. H. 2018. Entrepreneurial Cognition Exploring the Mindset of Entrepreneurs. Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.