Welcome back to the fourth in the ‘five challenges’ podcast series. I’m Katherine Parsons, doctoral researcher at Cardiff Business School.
In this penultimate episode of the ‘five challenges podcast series’ I consider Alacrity CEO Wil Williams’ fourth challenge arising from my recent research project on identity negotiation during the entrepreneurial process.
The study sought to understand more about how nascent entrepreneurs negotiate and construct a sense of current and projected future self during the process of ‘becoming’ an entrepreneur and to gain an understanding into the forms of rationality guiding this identity work as they work through questions of ‘who am I’? and ‘who or what do I hope to become’? Whereas the literature tends to present a dichotomous view of entrepreneurs as being guided by either social or economic drivers and motivations, the findings of my recent project found that, contrary to the entrepreneurship literature, the participants of the 2018/2019 programme spoke of being guided by personal values -based forms of rationality with regards their identity (ies). In response, Wil asks; what do these vales-based forms of rationality mean in the entrepreneurs’ construction of who they are or are becoming?
The values that participants referred to most commonly can be broadly grouped into the sub-categories of internal satisfaction, control and growth.
‘Internal satisfaction’ was given greatest salience and could be further divided into the sub-themes of; ‘pursuing my passions’, ‘being the best I can be’ and ‘personal fulfilment’.
Half of the participants referred to ‘pursuing my passions’ as being a key influence on their decision-making with working in ‘cool tech’ given the greatest salience as participants spoke of their hopes and aspirations for their future self and the types of projects they would like to be involved with. For some, working within ‘cool tech’ was, however, not just the end goal but a desirable way of reaching a much bigger aspiration to do social good, showing the interplay between values and social based forms of rationality guiding their identity work.
‘Being the best I can be’ was referred to more in the earlier phases of the programme. Participants spoke of this either being a trait that they could track back throughout their life history in that they had ‘always’ endeavoured to be the best they could be or of how they had made a conscious effort within the programme to be the best they could be within the team/ business/ project they were working on.
As regards achieving ‘personal fulfilment’, the emphasis was either on gaining personal gratification such as ‘feeling good’ about themselves, gaining external validation that they were doing a good job or gaining an internal sense of achievement in doing something challenging or difficult.
In addition to wanting to achieve ‘internal satisfaction’, participants also made reference to wanting to gain control through being involved in decision-making and a desire to achieve a work-life balance as well as personal and professional growth.
These values-based forms of rationality were given greater salience by the participants than their social and economic drivers suggesting that values were not a means-end form of rationality as the literature would suggest, but for some of the participants were a means in itself. In other words, their personal values were the end goal in themselves rather than a bi-product of achieving social impact or financial gain.
The values that we hold shape our opinions, thoughts and actions and as such are enacted through the identities that we inhabit. Our identities, scholars (Ashforth et al, 2020) posit, are ‘fundamental’ in our need to have a ‘sense of self’ through which we can “articulate core values” and “act according to deeply rooted assumptions about “who we are and can be as individuals, organizations, societies” (pg. 127).
The values that nascent entrepreneurs hold as they come into an entrepreneurship education and development programme such as Alacrity UK, therefore, shape the identities they construct and negotiate for themselves during the process of ‘becoming’ an entrepreneur. I take the philosophical position, however, that our identities are not fixed and stable but that they are constructed and negotiated over time, influenced by the people, environment and discourse surrounding us and that we can inhabit multiple identities at any one time. For example; mother, daughter, sister, designer, entrepreneur, business leader. I discuss identity management strategies we can employ to help us manage our multiple, often conflicting identities in the first in this podcast series (*Link). But whichever strategy is employed – integration of our multiple selves or segregation, for example, between our personal and professional selves, if our values are fundamental to our sense of self as scholars (Ashforth et al, 2020) state, then there should be alignment between our values and the identities with which we associate.
Coming back to Wil’s question this week then around what these values the nascent entrepreneurs hold as they come in to the programme (which my study found relate to personal values for: internal satisfaction, control and growth) actually mean with regard to the nascent entrepreneurs’ identity; well, these values are of core significance and importance to the identities that the nascent entrepreneurs construct and negotiate during the process of the programme.
During my interviews with the participants at various critical junctures throughout the skills and development programme I would ask them, using a pictorial representation, to demonstrate how aligned they felt the business project they were working on was with their individual identities and how closely aligned their collective team or company (their organisational) identity was with their own. This prompted the participants to reflect on periods of deviation and alignment between their own values and those of the company they were in the process of co-creating, and resultingly, the identities they were forging for themselves if they were to found such a company. Mis-alignment between their own values and those on which their company might be built led the participants to question anew ‘who am I’? and ‘what do I want to become?’. Anticipating a future self working within an organisation that is built on values dis-similar to their own led the nascent entrepreneurs in such cases to make a decision as to whether this was the project/ company/ industry ‘for me’. Mis-alignment between personal and professional values can lead, my research suggests, to identity conflict. Listen in to the second in this podcast series to my discussion around functional and dysfunctional identity conflict – how the two differ and what can be done to manage dysfunctional identity conflict in a start-up team formation context.
So , what do these vales-based forms of rationality mean in the entrepreneurs’ construction of who they are or are becoming? – it means that the nascent entrepreneurs’ values are a core construct in their perception of who they are and although their identities can change. For example; ‘role’ identities such as graduate, ‘business lead’, ‘designer’, ‘CEO’ and personal identities such as father, son, friend, team mate, colleague can also change circumstantially and according to life-stage. Professional identities also can vary depending on the current, past or future roles occupied but the values on which they are built rarely do change and where identities are not perceived as being in alignment with these core values, identity conflict, tension and psychological stress will likely ensue. Individuals, scholars suggest, therefore, evaluate the congruence between that of their own values and that of the organisation, group or team with which they seek to identify (Ashforth et al, 2008:328).
One practical approach towards achieving values congruence a recent study suggests is through a ‘practical decision-making’ strategy whereby they seek to find common ground in shared rationales for achieving their own ‘ends’ even if they have different ‘means’ of getting there (Dimov et al, 2020:7). Other scholars suggest (Gioia et al, 2013) that it is important for an individual to be able to articulate their core values and act according to them in their professional life so that their identity should reflect their core values. Where this is not the case, a state of identity conflict is likely to result as discussed in the second podcast episode.
Recently, however, scholars (Dahm et al, 2019) have been theorising (and my 2018/2019 study found support for the notion) that a temporal perspective of identity allows an element of what they refer to as ‘time bending sense making’. Here a ‘lack’ of core values being represented in one’s identity in the present can be ‘allowed’ if it has been apparent in a past identity or is anticipated in a future identity, thus “effectively expanding the lens of time through which individuals view (their) present self-concept” (pg.1195).
Practically then, what can start-up development programmes like Alacrity do to support nascent entrepreneurs in finding values congruence with the projects they develop into start-up companies?
Lessons could be learnt from a recent study of farmer entrepreneurs which found that the farmers had to “revise or stretch their core values and ….. adapt to new conditions” (Velvin et al, 2016: 1504). This, the authors found to be a “painful process” however and one which may lead to greater identity issues further down the line. Another alternative approach (Franklin and Dukely, 2017:1504) could be the one that asks whether actually working on a particular type of project or business could build these values within a person? Could, for example, working on a social challenge or founding a mission-led start-up, create identity congruence over time? Could the founders grow, for example, a passion for or alignment with the core purposes of the start-up in time?
Others (Francis and Sandberg, 2000) look to the role of friendship in easing conflicting values and identities, suggesting that strong friendships help the team members to see similarity in their world views, reducing the “likelihood of disparate values and goals among team members” (pp:15-16).
The commonality between these approaches is the importance of building cohesive teams, that are able to withstand the differences in values amongst the team members or have strong enough friendships or relationships to be able to weather the storm of working this through, finding and building on shared common ground of values to achieve a collective ‘ends’ although their ‘means’ – their reasons for doing it may be different. As always, and the theme running throughout this podcast series is that it comes back down to genuine communication. Open and transparent conversations with nascent entrepreneurs throughout the entrepreneurial process should be built in to start up development programmes such as Alacrity UK so that any deviations in values can be openly discussed and available options for managing the mis-alignment considered. Brushed under the carpet and buried deep, these fundamental values, if left un-managed have the potential to make a much bigger impact on team relationships and even on the potential to raise funding from investors (De Mol et al, 2019:13) at a later stage.
Thank you for listening in. Please join me next time for the last in this ‘five challenges’ podcast series when I’ll be addressing Wil’s fifth and final challenge arising from my research project where Wil asks; how do entrepreneurs overcome ‘bounded rationality’ and cope in a world with imperfect information on the markets in which they operate? See you next time.
Ashforth. B, Harrison. S and Corley. K. 2008. Identification in Organizations:An Examination of Four Fundamental Question. Journal of management. 34 (3). pp:325-374. Doi: 10.1177/0149206308316059
Ashforth. B, Schinoff. B. and Brickson. S. 2020. “My company is friendly”, mine’s a rebel”. Anthromorphism and shifting organizational identity from “what” to “who”. Academy of management review. 45 (1). Pp:29-57. Doi:/10.5465/amr.2016.0496
Dahm et al (2019). Identity affirmation as threat? Time-bending sense-making and the career and family identity patterns of early achievers. Academy of Management Journal. 62 (4). pp: 1194–122.
De Mol. E, Cardon. M, De Jong. B, Khapova. S and Elfring. T. 2019. Entrepreneurial passion diversity in new venture teams: An empirical examination of short-and long-term performance implications. Journal of business venturing. pp:1-8. doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusvent.2019.105965
Dimov. D, Schaefer. R and Pistrui. J. 2020. Look Who Is Talking … and Who Is Listening: Finding an Integrative “We” Voice in Entrepreneurial Scholarship. Entrepreneurship theory and practice. 00 (0). pp:1-21. doi: 10.1177/1042258720914507
Francis. D and Sandberg. W. 2000. Friendship within entrepreneurial teams and its association with team and venture performance. Entrepreneurial theory and practice. pp:5-26.
Franklin. A and Dunkley. R. 2017. Becoming a (green) identity entrepreneur: Learning to negotiate situated identities to nurture community environmental practice. Environment and planning. 49 (7). pp:1500-15. Doi: /10.1177/0308518X17699610.
Gioia. D, Patvardhan. S, Hamilton. A and Corley. K. 2013. Organizational identity formation and change. Academy of Management Annals. 7. pp:123–193.
Velvin. J, Bjornstad. K and Krogh. E. 2016. Social value change, embeddedness and social entrepreneurship. Journal of enterprising communities: people and places in the global economy. 10 (3). pp:262-280. Doi: 10.1108/JEC-08-2014-0015