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January 19, 2021

Why Identity Matters

by Wendy Ryan in Blog Roll, Radical Inclusion

Identity matters—it’s not something to be hidden away or left at the door when you arrive at work.

It used to be (and unfortunately still is in many organizations) that when you come to work, your job description and duties were the only things that mattered. Personal business never belonged at work. You left practically all of your identity at the door—your queerness, blackness, femaleness, kids, religion, all the things besides your job skills that make you a whole person. Work and home were never to mix.

But what if we reverse that mindset as leaders and instead, welcome the mix?

What if we want to know about employees—what their identities are, who’s important to them in their lives? What if we want team members, even invite them, to bring their whole selves to work? How does that change what they’re able to accomplish and what we’re able to achieve as an organization?

It turns out that it changes a lot of things in a very positive way.

What Happens When Identity Matters

If we buy into that idea that identity matters, it changes the way we communicate as leaders. We start to think more about how things we say and actions we take are received by others.

How might this manifest? For instance, I might decide as a leader that it’s a great idea to change our work schedule from five 8-hour days to four 10-hour days because it will save the company big money in utility and operating costs. If that’s the basis of my messaging, it’s likely that many (most) of my employees or team members won’t care about that savings. They care about what happens in their own lives because of the change.

I would be more effective in my messaging if I thought about who they are and what they might get out of this arrangement. How will this change affect them outside of work? Maybe the single mom will get a chance to volunteer at her kid’s school or take care of household tasks before the weekend. Maybe she or someone else could use that time to pursue more schooling or hobbies.

When you know your audience and what’s important to them because of their identities, you can have more impact as a leader in your messaging because you’re speaking to real things that matter to them, rather than imaginary benefits.

This is a fundamental shift that can have transformative, positive ripple effects throughout your organization.

How Can We Get to the Personal in a Respectful Way?

But how can we get to this place as leaders when so many of us have been trained since forever to not talk about personal things at work?

The short answer is: You ask.

Of course, you can’t ask anything of a personal nature in the interview process. You can never ask how many kids someone has or what their religion is. Those things should never be part of the selection process. But getting to know them on more of a personal level should be a part of an onboarding and assimilation process.

Part of the intention in this effort is to increase psychological safety in the environment. Part of it is simple team building. The leader should model this, and say something like, “Hi, I’m Wendy, I identify as female, I have 3 kids, one of them has X issue, etc.” We model vulnerability, safety and sharing and then we ask them to share.

What We’re Doing at Kadabra

One of the exercises we’re doing at Kadabra in February is a team portrait on MURAL, a great tool for visualization and facilitation. Heather Martinez, our Interim Director for Design and Visualization, is creating a storyboard for the organization and each team member is being asked to claim a circle. In our circle, we’re uploading pictures, fun facts, how we identify, and things like that to serve as a repository for our stories so that we can share easily.

Sharing the personal is part of building a team, and it all comes back to organizational success.

My Thoughts on Unpaid Labor and COVID

In my own personal thinking, this idea of asking team members to share also connects with the idea of all the unpaid labor we ask people to do. This shows up a lot, particularly with women who are also caregivers. Many work at paid jobs all day and then have a second or third shift at home, taking care of children and household tasks. Often, they are asked to be amazing school or community volunteers, to boot.

All the care-oriented work people do on themselves in order to show up in a certain way in the workplace is additional unpaid labor that benefits the company. Putting on makeup, styling hair, shopping for work wardrobes, even packing lunches all counts in that tally.

For example, if a Black woman has to spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars on doing her hair so that it looks a certain way, we can make an argument that she’s doing unpaid labor for the benefit of the company that her white male coworker doesn’t have to do (or at least not to the same extent).

If someone at work has a partner at home taking care of all the childcare and cleaning and the laundry and the shopping, that person (and therefore the company) is benefitting from a lot of unpaid labor.

Our market-based capital system benefits from a ton of unpaid labor—through our physical routines to make us appear a certain way at work, to caring for our dependents, to keeping people fed, and so on.

This is partly why COVID-19 has been disproportionately harder on women. There’s no daycare or school to take over childcare while women work. It’s disrupted the system that has allowed capitalism to work.

Let’s mitigate those burdens where we can. They don’t serve people or companies well.

Be the Change

By seeing our team members as individuals with unique identities, we can meet them where they are and together, begin to affect real positive change and cultural transformation.

I address more about why identity matters and strengthening your leadership in my upcoming book, Learn-Lead-Lift: How to Think, Act and Inspire Your Way to Greatness.