Managing our multiple selves; working, living and parenting from home in a pandemic – text version
Hello and welcome to the first in this series of the ‘five challenges’ podcast series with me, Katherine Parsons, doctoral researcher at Cardiff University.
Between September 2018 and July 2019, I undertook a research study at Alacrity UK to understand more about how an entrepreneurs’ sense of self develops throughout the process of ‘becoming’ an entrepreneur.
In response to the findings from my study on identity negotiation during the entrepreneurial process last year, Dr. Wil Williams Alacrity Foundation CEO has identified five challenges the study raises for accelerator and incubator programmes such as theirs as they develop, nurture and challenge nascent entrepreneurs into successful tech start-up teams.
This episode of the ‘five challenges’ pod cast series tackles the first challenge posed by Wil and is especially pertinent within the current pandemic context where many of us are ‘working from home’; juggling multiple parts of our lives and our selves and managing the various pulls and demands on our day from all different directions. Wil asks; ‘How do we manage or balance these shifting identities’?
The findings from my research at Alacrity UK during 2019 found that the process of ‘becoming’ an entrepreneur resulted in one of two outcomes for the participants; identity conflict (doubting or questioning if they had taken the right path in life) or identity crystallisation (a confirmation that they had taken the right path). The narratives presented by the participants during the interviews I undertook illuminated a series of identity tensions, conflicts and paradoxes experienced as the nascent entrepreneurs reflected on their gradual and relative embodiment of their ‘anticipated future self’.
The ‘anticipated future self’ or ‘identity aspirations’ as Ashforth et al (2008) refer to them is a term used to explain the projected self the individual is looking forward to or on the journey to becoming and shows as Ganzin and Suddaby(2019) found in their recent study of a Canadian business incubator programme the impact future orientated identities can have on the sense-making of entrepreneurs in their understanding of who they are now. Their ‘future self’ – who they are in the process of becoming can be just as real to the nascent entrepreneur as their current self-concept. Likewise, my research found that some of the nascent entrepreneurs were also clinging on to ‘hangover identities’ – who they were in the past to help them make sense of who they are today or even perceiving who they are today as purposed in who they have been in the past. Who they were provided a sense of purpose in the process of who they are becoming (Mathias and Williams, 2017).
For some, the entrepreneurial process experienced during the Alacrity programme resulted in a sense of identity crystallisation as they considered how far they had come along the entrepreneurial journey and the skills and experience acquired along the way. In some cases, this included developing an emotional connection with their business idea and industry, referring to their business as their ‘baby’ and their potential embodiment of their ‘anticipation future self’ becoming seemingly more achievable. For others, considering their anticipated future self during their narratives gave rise to voicing feelings of frustration, disappointment, and in some cases, despair at the lack of progress they had made and at the notion of an unrealised anticipated future self ahead, resulting in identity conflict.
De Boeck et al in their research of employee’s perceptions of work meaningfulness (2019:530) call for future research on the “temporal dimensions of identity”, stating that the ‘self-concept’ consists of “multiple identities that can be situated in either the past, the present, or the future” (pg.533). Nascent entrepreneurs, on the journey towards ‘becoming’ an entrepreneur, therefore, may experience many multiple, often conflicting identities whilst making sense of who they are and who they want to or are in the process of becoming.
The requirement to ‘juggle’ these multiple identities has been compounded by the current context in which we live during a pandemic with enforced working from home and home schooling and where people are simultaneously worker, partner, parent, carer, teacher even. As I am writing this podcast I myself am juggling multiple identities; that of a professional – an academic and post graduate researcher sharing her research ideas with the academic and business community, contributing to discussions on understanding more about who we are at work; I’m also a mother, home schooling three primary aged children – overseeing their school work and setting tasks that will enable me to get five minutes peace to sit down and do some of the thinking, reading and writing required for my work. I am also a wife to my husband who is also working full-time from home and managing his workload amongst the calender of family activities and whilst sharing home-schooling and caring responsibilities with me. I also identify with the PhD community to which I belong and want to be a supportive and active member of my peer group – answering questions and queries and providing guidance where I can. These are all in addition to a multitude of other identities that I juggle on a professional and personal level on a daily basis. And I’m not alone, I’m sure that each person listening to this podcast can identify with the pulls and strains on their day as they seek to be the whole self that they so desire to be, and if you’re anything like me, likely failing miserably from time to time.
So, in answer to Wil’s question HOW do we manage or balance these multiple and shifting identities (which are rooted in the past, present and future), specifically with regard to the context of developing entrepreneurs and start-up teams? Shepherd and Patzelt (2018) offer a useful application of Brewer’s ‘Optimal Distinctiveness Theory’ (1991) to entrepreneurship studies, in which they suggest there is a balance to be struck in achieving the optimal level of distinctiveness such that one feels they are distinct as an entrepreneur at the same time as feeling a sense of belonging to their social group – the entrepreneur community. Shepherd and Patzelt’s framework focusses on the boundaries and synergies of the entrepreneurs’ multiple identities and the management strategies they can adopt in managing these multiple identities during the ‘quest’ for optimal distinctiveness. Whether we agree with this notion of desired ‘optimal distinctiveness’ in entrepreneurship is another matter but that model provides a useful framework for us to consider how entrepreneurs can manage their many micro identities. The framework provides two possible identity management strategies – compartmentalisation and integration.
Applying a compartmentalisation identity management strategy Shepherd and Patzelt suggest (2018, pg.155) requires strong boundaries and low synergy so that the entrepreneur is able to distinctively compartmentalise their being an entrepreneur from their other micro identities (for example being a parent/ athlete/ student). This approach could result in benefits such as clearer working hours, traits and space and thus presents one useful approach to managing the toll of conflicting identities on an entrepreneur’s day. Taken into today’s lockdown context, this may look like an entrepreneur or founder segregating their day and their activities into categories such as; work, leisure, family, social commitments. However, where compartmentalisation is the strategy, if boundaries between these separate ‘selves’ or between micro identities are not strong and the worlds start to overlap and boundaries blur without synergistic effect, identity conflict can arise and it will take greater psychological effort to keep these identities distinct.
An integration identity management strategy on the other hand requires weak boundaries and high synergy so that the entrepreneur is able to transition frequently and with ease between their micro identities. The synergistic effect of their holistic identity becomes greater than the sum of the individual micro identities. For this to happen, synergies between micro identities must be high or else it will take greater psychological effort to ‘bridge the gulf’ between the identities in terms of transitioning between them, again causing potential impact on psychological well-being through strain, stress and identity conflict.
The key is for the entrepreneur to work out and adopt an identity management strategy that fits both the strength of boundaries and synergies of their micro-identities. This takes time, reflection and sometimes an interjection of knowledge in order to determine the most effective identity management strategy for each entrepreneur to employ.
Another alternative approach to managing these multiple and shifting identities is to harness the ‘anticipated future self’ I referred to earlier. Including our future orientations of self within the current self-concept, according to Dahm et al (2019) can relieve tension felt by individuals’ in their experiences in the present by “foregoing present gains for future benefits” (pg.1197).
The findings of my study with Alacrity last year found support for Dahm et al’s (2019) suggestion that ‘professionals’ engage in ‘mental time travelling’ as an identity management strategy to make sense of who they are, mitigating identity threat through reaching into past and future identities during sense making such that “self-concepts can be achieved over time rather than at any one point” (Dahm et al, 2019:1195). This may be a particularly useful strategy during these current unprecedented times as we ‘forgo’ some elements or ‘best versions’ of ourselves in the current situation (our present gains) based on the promise of what future days and situations will provide (future benefits). Mentally ‘time travelling’ from our current situation in lockdown with restrictions on what we can and can’t do and on acceptable working practices and levels of social interaction alongside enforced models of working and parenting for example to a future time when identities that we have had to suppress or shed (Rouse, 2016) can be fully lived out can enable us to make sense of who we are by extending the window of opportunity through which we perceive our self-concepts can be achieved, thus bringing us to an acceptance of a temporal self-concept, accomplished over time.
Both of these approaches require something in common however – time and reflection. For those undergoing the process of becoming an entrepreneur and who are on the journey to starting up their own company, awareness and understanding of such identity management strategies and the effects of ignoring identity conflict is the first step towards being able to manage the shifting identities we experience.
Adopting the practice of mental time travelling or applying an integration or compartmentalisation identity management strategy require nascent entrepreneurs to alter their perceptions and expectations perhaps as to who they are and are in the process of becoming. Our perceived identities – what others say we are can be of particular importance here as other social ‘actors’ can affect our social construction of who we are.
Maybe a post-pandemic ‘new normal’ calls for greater allowances for humility, openness and vulnerability in the workplace such that we aren’t inundated with unrealistic expectations for and of ourselves perhaps we should be more kind to ourselves and the expectations we have. We can’t, however, wait for societal perceptions to change, there is a responsibility of nascent entrepreneurs to ‘be the change’ (a mantra you hear a lot of in entrepreneurship circles) to challenge the perceived identity of the ‘super entrepreneur’, displaying openness and vulnerability perhaps as a strength not a perceived weakness. This is not a single act of heroism and will take a seismic change but we can and should start somewhere and where better than with ourselves? Step 2, therefore, requires us to put to action these new strategies or trying a different approach to managing our competing identities. And perhaps the current pandemic provides the impetus we need to re-evaluate what is important. But there is also plenty that organisations too can and should do to enable this. Accelerator programmes and educators such as the Alacrity foundation can help and support reflexive practice and promote the notion of being a ‘learning organisation’.
So, in summary, what can we do? how can we manage shifting entrepreneurial opportunities? Well firstly, we can talk about such things, bring it into the entrepreneurship discourse – challenging the ‘super entrepreneur’ typology, allowing mistakes and changes as the entrepreneur evolves along with their product. An entrepreneur’s product is often referred to as an ‘extension of themselves’ or ‘their baby’. Very few parents stay the same after giving birth and raising a child – so too with entrepreneurs – ‘allowing’ their identities – their sense of who they are to develop as their business idea does, and offering opportunities to reflect and revaluate how the entrepreneurial decisions they encounter and negotiate along the entrepreneurial process affect their core values and identities can be instrumental in managing identity conflict. Left unmanaged, the implications are that dysfunctional identity conflict may arise, causing further problems down the line as it starts to impact team cohesion and performance (Mol et al, 2019: 13) – resulting in what has been referred to as ‘the dark side’ of entrepreneurship with negative psychological effects.
Allowing entrepreneurs, however, opportunities to reflect and consider who they are and are in the process of becoming as well as enabling opportunities to discuss and negotiate who they are within the context of a founding team at the start-up stage, and to re-evaluate the core values and identities driving their behaviour and decision-making presents a more open, learning organisation in which such issues are brought to the fore-front, acknowledged and worked though. Any identity conflict experienced in such an organisation, can be functional if discussed and negotiated productively.
Do join me next time for the second in this ‘Five challenges’ pod cast series when I will respond to Wil’s second challenge which picks up on the theme we have just touched on; how can we identify identity conflict which is non-trivial?
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Brewer. M. 1991. The social self: On being the same and different at the same time. Personality and social psychology bulletin. 17 (5). pp:475–482.
Dahm. P, Yeonka. K, Glomb. T and Harrison. S. 2019. Identity affirmation as threat? Time-bending sensemaking and the career and family identity patterns of early achievers. Academy of Management Journal. 62 (4). pp:1194-1225. Doi:/10.5465/amj.2016.0699
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Shepherd. Dean A and Patzelt. Holger. 2018. Entrepreneurial identity in Entrepreneurial cognition. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan. pp:137-200. doi.org/10.1007/978-3