How Identity Informs Workplace Relationships

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Wharton's Stephanie Creary discusses her research on identity and workplace relationships.

Diversity and inclusion in the workplace are topics that have been talked about extensively over the past decade. Wharton management professor Stephanie Creary wants to move beyond the rhetoric into the research of how identity impacts organizational structure. Her paper, “Out of the Box? How Managing a Subordinate’s Multiple Identities Affects the Quality of a Manager-subordinate Relationship,” looks at the influence of identity on the relationship between manager and subordinate. The paper was co-authored with Brianna Barker Caza of the University of Manitoba and Laura Morgan Roberts of Antioch University. Creary spoke to Knowledge@Wharton about why it’s important to evaluate whether a potential workplace really wants you to be your complete, authentic self.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: What are you interested in from a research standpoint?

Stephanie Creary: My research is fundamentally concerned with how diverse perspectives, backgrounds and experiences are managed in organizations. I tend to focus on management in terms of the use of inclusionary strategies. To me, inclusionary strategies are those that tend to incorporate what I call both/and perspectives, meaning that they acknowledge that both A and B exist and can be valuable in some way. I suggest that there are both upsides and downsides to using these types of strategies, but I also focus on the situational and relational dynamics that can foster more positive experiences in using these types of strategies.

Knowledge@Wharton: What do you examine in your recent paper about manager-subordinate relationships?

Creary: That paper was interested in unpacking questions related to how do I, as a subordinate, manage my multiple identities? Whether those are identities are a work-related identity and a demographic identity, or whether they’re two work identities. How I manage those identities in relationship to my manager, and how my manager expects me to manage those identities, fundamentally impacts the quality of our relationship.

Knowledge@Wharton: When you’re looking for a job or becoming a new manager, it’s not easy to know what kind of relationship you’re going to have just from those initial meetings. What are some of the practical implications of this research? How can people or companies apply it?

Creary: One of the things that people should recognize when they are thinking about presenting their whole self at work, or making decisions around whether or not they should do that, is what’s the larger work context? Is this a culture, a place that allows us and wants us to be ourselves, whether that’s our true work selves or our true personal selves? Is this a place that respects the clear boundaries between work and life experiences? When you’re choosing a place where you want to work, first tackle some of those questions and really focus on choosing the place you want to work based on how it expects you to be.

As a manager, I think it comes down to whether or not you feel the background, the experiences, the expertise that an employee has gained from either working at a different job or coming from a different place in life is valuable to the work place. You have to make decisions about how incorporating that could potentially be helpful to the work place, or maybe in some cases it’s not. Having conversations with subordinates about that, assessing their level of comfort and seeing whether it is important is something that is crucial to maintaining positive relationships between managers and subordinates.

Knowledge@Wharton: You are saying that in a successful relationship, it’s about coming to a mutually agreeable decision about which traits are going to be part of work and which ones are not?

Creary: Yes, it’s a negotiation. I think there are times when we think about negotiating identities at work. For some people, it’s about being authentic. But in some cases, it’s fundamentally about how the sets of experiences that I’ve had as a person, as a worker, as somebody who has amassed a certain amount of success, can contribute to my workplace. Sometimes that requires tapping into identities in order to do so.

“For me and in my research, it’s about making your identities relevant to the workplace.”

For me and in my research, it’s about making your identities relevant to the workplace. Sometimes they are, and sometimes they aren’t. When they are, the potential to contribute in valuable ways is exponential.

Knowledge@Wharton: I would think that would vary widely based on what kind of job you have. In some jobs, personality is very important.

Creary: I would say we tend to think of people who are in creative professions as being those who you want to see presenting themselves in unique ways. Pretty much anything that relates to who you are, where you’ve been and what you’ve accomplished goes in that organizational setting. But in more conservative workplaces, we’re often challenged with understanding that sometimes the parts of our identity that are related to us as people [and not just the task at hand] — what we like to do, our hobbies and skill sets — are more questionable and harder to manage in an organizational setting.

Knowledge@Wharton: What’s next for this research?

“One of the things that people should recognize when they are thinking about presenting their whole self at work … is what’s the larger context?”

Creary: My broader research is focused on inclusionary strategies. The paper that we’ve been discussing is focused on individuals’ identities and how they manage those in key relationships. I’m also looking at this type of management in the context of mentor-mentee relationships, those we like to think can potentially be mutually beneficial. But the questions are not just about how does a mentor manage his or her identities in relationship with the mentored, but also to what extent does the mentor’s identities and how those are managed in a relationship also affect the quality of the relationship?

Beyond that, I’m looking at broader questions of how organizations think of diverse perspectives, backgrounds and experiences — whether or not those should be relevant to the workplace. What are some of the strategies that they implement organizationally to help individuals consider the importance or the relevance of their identities, and what they have to bring to the workplace setting? I focus on the diversity inclusion practices that corporate organizations often create, the cases that they make for diversity and inclusion, and how those help or hinder someone’s ability to express an identity in the workplace.

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