Leading with Your Identity

Apr 19, 2024 | About L2L, All Blogs, Identity, Leadership

We’re starting our Leadership Intensive (April 30!) with some deep identity work–understanding your personal and professional identity, your values, your strengths, and how to tell the story of it all. 

Why start here when we have so many pressing leadership challenges to address?

Because understanding our identity affects how we show up. And that affects how everyone around us shows up and contributes to the organization. 

If we’re not being authentic, it can cause employees to adapt–trying to feel safe by making sure their leader is comfortable.

What does adapting look like? Not telling us hard things, not asking for help, keeping quiet about their perspective, declining to disagree, question, or propose a change. Ultimately, employees adapt because they want to keep their jobs safe, which means they don’t feel safe at work. 

If employees are not speaking up, we are losing the diversity of their perspectives and experiences. 

We don’t want to be surrounded by people who say “yes” to us all the time. Or who can’t challenge us. We don’t want employees who, because they feel unsafe, can’t own their agency, hold responsibility, or take accountability.

What can leaders do about it?

Show Up Consistently and Predictably

A tough leader is easier to work with than an inconsistent one. With a tough leader, at least you know what you’re getting. An inconsistent leader makes their team anxious, forcing them to constantly try to “read” them before deciding how to behave and what to say to make themselves feel safe. Employees will avoid an inconsistent leader to avoid the discomfort of uncertainty.

What makes us act inconsistently? Sometimes, it’s because we have different identities that are activated situationally. 

When I’m at work, for example, I’m the leader and I think of myself as competent, innovative, and collaborative. I believe my team views me this way too, so I act accordingly. I’m direct and not afraid of disagreement. I’m also committed to relationship building, so I’m curious, self-aware, and conscious of how vulnerability builds trust.

But, when I’m at the bank, it’s a whole different story. I still think of myself as a competent leader, but I’m not always seen that way. People at the bank don’t assume that I am the CEO of a seven-figure business. They don’t see me as capable of running my business or making business decisions. That situation activates a different identity in me and alters my behavior. 

At the bank, I’m a member of intersecting groups–black and female–and I’m seen through the biases people carry about those groups. So I may be more defensive or guarded. I may dress more professionally there and speak more authoritatively. In essence, where I am can impact who I am.

Hold Our Identity Responsibly

We say at Leverage to Lead that “identity” is defined as: 

  • Who you are
  • The way you think about yourself; 
  • The way you are viewed by the world; and 
  • The characteristics that define you as unique and a member of different groups. 

We say that identity is activated situationally.

Now, imagine that I’m unaware of how my identity is activated in different work situations. At one moment, I may act like the boss. At another moment, I may feel like I’m being viewed with a bias and act to disrupt that bias–I may avoid confrontation if I think it is safe to “sound less Black” or I may speak more assertively than usual if I’m talking to an all-male group. 

The bottom line is this:

If I don’t understand, own, and stay aware of my identities and their situational activation, I will show up inconsistently in response to my environment.

Without holding and seeing my identities, I will be unpredictable and shift my behavior with the situation instead of holding my authenticity.

My team may wonder which Jennifer they’re getting at any moment. If they’re so busy trying to figure out how to deal with me, how can they possibly have the energy or safety to ask a tough question or raise a concern?

They will feel unsafe and behave in ways that undermine rather than leverage their difference. I guarantee that they would prefer me to be predictably difficult rather than unpredictable. 

I am excited to dig into identity work on April 30. It’s going to help us build a relationship with ourselves so that we can build relationships with others. There’s still time to join. Click below to register.

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