The Covid-19 pandemic has hit us in our core like no other crisis in modern history. From one moment to the next life as we knew it has changed in ways that we could not fathom.
Most businesses have had to learn how to operate in new ways and become creative to keep their services or products relevant under drastically changed circumstances. However, not all companies have managed to adapt to the new situation fast enough. For a good number of companies, the pandemic was the last straw that broke the camel’s back.
Not only were businesses hit hard, but also we as individuals have been shaken to our core. Many beliefs we have held about ourselves have been called into question. Existential questions have emerged throughout various phases of the crisis: Can we still consider ourselves independent, care-free people if we must hunker down for months on end and are afraid to step outside to meet other people? Can we still identify as self-determined if we are practically forced into the longest waiting positions we will likely experience in our lifetimes?
Trauma, Beliefs, and Wounded Identities
Identity can be described as the deepest sense of who we are. It encompasses core aspects that ring true for us across time, various social contexts, and cultures. Often, we are not aware of our identity until existential beliefs we hold about ourselves are suddenly challenged by altered circumstances. The more existential and consistent the identity challenges are, the more we will experience trauma or a “wounded identity” – as individuals and as a collective (i.e., group, team, company, society).
The first natural reactions to experienced identity trauma, resemble the 5 stages of grief (i.e., denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). We go from denial to - at best – toward eventual acceptance or integration. If we manage to transcend our identity crisis, the process almost always takes longer than we would have imagined.
Moreover, along the way we can get stuck in the process. This tends to happen when we follow our first instincts to avoid acknowledging or facing our identity wounds and pain. For genuine recovery, we need to lean into the pain instead of trying to avoid, politicize, whitewash, or “think pink” it.
As we manage to lean into our pain, we will find out that the beliefs we hold about ourselves are much more malleable than we thought. This can occur if we allow our brains to form new learning paths around our deeply held beliefs.
Identity Agility begins with a deep awareness of our sense of who we are. It develops as we become able to let go of entrenched identity narratives, or adapt them, or form new ones in light of crises, or if we seek to reinvent ourselves.
Identity narratives tend to start with “I am” or “We are” and often circle around our sense of
- Who We Are
- What We Do
- How We Do What We Do
- How We Know We Belong
- What We Think We Can Be in The Future (Jacobi, 2018)
A healthy person or organization can form new narratives about themselves in light of existential crises and thereby show adaptability. Authentic agility reveals itself if an organization or person is capable of starting this process proactively, before a crisis even happens.
Research has shown that successful organizations have an 80/20 ratio of identity stability versus agility. In other words, in a successful and vibrant company there is a deep stability about the collective sense of ‘who we are’, but there is also a 20% inherent thought diversity regarding its collective identity. That means the company has flexibility to construe different ways of ‘doing what we do’ and also ‘how we do it’.
The same is true for individual people. When a crisis strikes, grief is not only normal but also necessary and healthy. However, we can do a lot during stable times to understand what makes “us” us, while also coming to understand it is possible, if not likely, that this can change throughout our lifetime. To get change- and future ready, we have to learn to become more agile regarding our sense of self and be ready and willing to adapt at any given time.
Training Your Identity Agility Muscles
If you want to dip your toes into training your identity agility muscles, try the following exercises:
- Describe one aspect about you that holds across all your social contexts (e.g. I am very sociable person; We are an award-winning sales team).
- Which underlying success factors can you detect underneath your identity claim (e.g., I am kind, I can easily connect with others. We truly care for our customers).
- How was the identity claim you selected impacted during the pandemic? (e.g. I couldn’t socialize with my friends any longer. We had to stop meeting with clients as a sales team).
- What effects did/does this change have on you? (e.g., I was sad; we were devastated because … )
- How can you utilize your underlying success factors to live your identity in new ways under the changed circumstances? (e.g., I can show my kindness by connecting with people who feel lonely now using the phone or other means; We identified new ways of showing care to our customers as a sales team. We reached out to our customers asking them what they needed most given the circumstances.).
This is just one example of how you can practice reframing your sense of self. Identifying underlying success factors will increase your awareness of the various components of your identity. Utilizing these strengths to reframe the beliefs you hold about yourself, your team, or your organization helps build the identity agility needed to navigate a crisis.
Erika Jacobi, Ph.D. is the managing director of LC GLOBAL Consulting Inc. Erika specializes in agile organization design at scale. She is a C-Suite adviser and Top Executive Coach for organizational change, growth, and innovation matters. Her design and organization development principles are geared to translate enterprise agility into organizational reality. Read Erika Jacobi, Ph.D.'s full executive profile here.