Supplement to Chapter 4: Identity Construction Deconstructed: How Our Sense of Self Drives Transformation
Insert for Page 62 - Regarding a leopard not changing its spots…
I often get the question, “But isn’t there at least some “core” part of us that is constant, that does not change?” After all, we strive to be consistent in our lives. We tend to feel that we remain the same people or retain the same personalities throughout life’s many twists and curves and hard knocks. And in fact we find great comfort in our own consistency or in knowing that those we love are the “same people” we’ve known and been able to rely over the years, sometimes even after long separation. And isn’t “maturing” and “growing up” and into our potential all about forging a stable identity? So what about all that?
My answer is sometimes unsettling to those who want to believe they do not change at their core… But the fact is, our perception of change is prone to ignorance and distortion, especially when it comes to ourselves.
When I think of the illusion of our constancy, I am reminded of Inspector Javert’s epic musical soliloquy in Les Miserables — Stars. In the song, the character of Javert metaphorically asserts his absolute certainty of the world order (as he sees it) and his own place within it in brotherhood with the stars themselves:
Stars, in your multitudes, scarce to be counted
Filling the darkness, with order and light
You are the sentinels, silent and sure
Keeping watch in the night, keeping watch in the night
You know your place in the sky
You hold your course and your aim
And each in your season, returns and returns
And is always the same
But of course, the stars are not always the same. They do change. They are born, grow old, and die. And our view of them from a wobbling Earth changes too. Polaris is the North Star today, eponymously called the “pole star.” But when the Egyptians were building their pyramids about 5000 years ago, dimly-lit Thuban was the North Star. 2000 years from now it will be gamma Cephei. In 8000 years it will be Deneb. In 12,000 years it will be brilliant Vega. It is the rate of change and the magnitude of change which determine our ability to perceive it. Small gradual changes are much harder for us to detect than big rapid changes, whether in our stars or in ourselves (dear Brutus). If we carry the metaphor out… pointing to the “true north” of some unchanging core identity that we possess is likewise based on a misperception.
But we might simply object to this line of reasoning with the “yes, but for all practical purposes…” argument. This notion holds that the changes are so slow compared to our lives that it doesn’t really matter. In this sense, our “core identities” do not change for all practical purposes any more than the stars do — for all practical purposes.
The danger here is that we confuse mostly un-perceived change with no change. Because to consider the stars or ourselves as immutable is to ignore processes that are in fact in constant flux. And although the background changes in our identities may be small and slow now, it can shift to big rapid changes in the blink of an eye. A transformative experience is like a supernova in our lives, arriving just as unexpectedly and altering our horizons just as much. Even for our dear Inspector Javert, his iconic song portends a bitter irony for him, as he later discovers that his faith in the constancy of his identity is unfounded and it tragically crumbles because of his misperception.
So the slow rates and relatively small magnitudes of gradual identity change that occurs normally as we age are harder for us to detect. Consequently, our common intuition is that we simply do not change much over time — until we do. Transformative experiences happen against the backdrop of constant and slow identity change in our lives but mark those extraordinarily significant turning points that are faster and stand out from our expected trajectories. But it is not only the rate and magnitude of changes that matter, it is also the kinds of identity changes that are in play. Read on from Page 62.
Insert for Page 66: The Value of Incompetencies
What I Learned About Incompetencies From Corporate Ambassadors
I work closely with one of the world’s largest computer companies on building more innovative and inclusive teams. The leadership skills for developing such teams include things like expanding our schemas for what talent looks like and new ways to think about and execute on inclusive hiring, changing the way we do task assignments and deciding who gets those high visibility stretch assignments that require risk but also promise reward — and who does not, and investing in the personal and professional growth of employees through apprenticeship-style professional development with structured mentoring, sponsoring, and succession programs. Corporate leaders may be familiar with such efforts.
But over the past several years, we’ve embarked on a series of innovative ambassador programs that go deeper into the realm of identities and corporate culture. In these programs, my team and I prepare cohorts of internal ambassadors to host and facilitate a series of difficult conversations with their peers about inclusive culture creation. In the context of a transnational company with a wide range of genders, races, nationalities, ages, classes, and abilities — and in the context of a worldwide pandemic combined with the events of political polarization, the Black Lives Matter Movement, the murder of George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor (and too many others), as well as the Me Too movement — these conversations are duly marked as well-outside the comfort zones of most hardware and software engineers. This ambassadors preparation program is a designed transformative experience.
For those who volunteer to become ambassadors, their prior talents and competencies are “checked at the door,” as it were — no longer valid within the discomfort zone of ambassador training. As we work with them to learn how to invite dialogue on very personal and loaded topics, to challenge opinions, to inject research-based perspectives, and to deal with bias, ignorance, and anger or frustration, we often get questions like:
“Is there a topic checklist or set sequence and timing for conducting these conversations?”
My answer: “No. And you are not conducting anything. You ask questions and make invitations as a participant-facilitator.”
“Are there any statistics on how often people will disagree with us or challenge us in these sessions?”
My answer: “No. But they will… and if we invite that kind of dialogue un-defensively, we may deepen the gains for everyone.”
“I want to do a good job on this, like my other tasks… what are the metrics for success and how will I know when the job is done?”
My answer: “This is not like rolling out a new smart phone or operating system. The conversations themselves are the path and the destination. You succeed as an ambassador by holding space for risk and exploration.”
Needless to say, at first, my answers go over about as well as a vegan salad at a red-meat barbecue. But as the prep sessions go on and the ambassadors experience practice simulations of their sessions, eyes are slowly opened to the nature of this kind of work. At one session, a young woman who had been struggling with the program voiced it nicely, “When I signed up for this, I thought we were going to be trained mostly on content and how to deliver it correctly. I didn’t know we would just be out there alone (or sometimes with a partner) opening it up for conversation. It could go anywhere.” Other ambassadors chimed in, eager to hold these sessions as something so very different from the usual experience at work — with the possibility of something deeper occurring.
When you think about it, real conversations that go off the professional or social “script” are rare for most of us. Conversations where we share our unspoken truths, our deeper questions, tell our personal stories and identity narratives, and also listen to others with the real possibility of changing our minds. And yet, to reveal and then intentionally improve our workplace cultures, this is what needs to occur. When it works, it works because people are invited to step out of their “talent traps,” away from their normal competencies, and beyond the comforts of their professional identities to recognize themselves and one another as multi-dimensional beings, who share time and space for collective work. Only then can we begin to understand how the same workplace culture is experienced very differently by different people depending on their identities — and create environments where belonging and performance for all is enhanced and innovation is boosted.
For these ambassadors, the training and their launching of conversational sessions is a designed transformative experience. The role of ‘ambassador’ becomes a new change agent identity. The Ambassador series has now become part of the company’s leadership accelerator program and had expanded to several other companies.