Friday, 27 April 2012

How 'who you could have been' could shape your workplace identity

Carter is at a formal drinks for a colleague back from secondment, part of a fast-track management scheme. he remembers opting not to apply for the scheme five years ago and wonders how things would be now had he taken that plunge: the overseas experiences, the pressures, the opportunities. What would that Carter be like? In subsequent months he finds himself returning to this idea, finally setting up a meeting with his manager, who is surprised to hear him reveal that he feels dissatisfied and wants to reinvigorate his career.

Carter has encountered an alternative self: a version of him that could have been. This concept, unpacked by Otilia Obodaru in a recent Academy of Management Review article, can be contrasted with most theories of self that work within a temporal framework - the actual past and present, extrapolating the future from an actual now. The idea of an alternative self integrates research on counterfactual thinking – 'if I had gotten that bus, I would be there by now' – into the psychology of self.

Developing an alternative self and integrating it with identity requires a few steps. First, you need a turning point, a fork in your life where you took one road over another. As the 'job for life' has given way to more boundaryless careers, there are more work-related turning points to reflect on than ever. Secondly, you must undo that turning point, imagining 'what if?', easiest to do when the event was controllable, like Carter's choice not to apply for a role. Finally, the alternative self must have opportunity and motive to be rehearsed mentally or to an audience. Identity research suggests a self-narrative tends to be taken up when relevant to ongoing desires or fears; perhaps Carter has been tiring of his fixed location and wondering if he will ever get out of the city.

Not everyone has an alternative self, the article quoting one interviewee from previous research, confessing "I'm a priest... I can't imagine not being one. I have no idea what I would do if I wasn't a priest." But many do: Obodaru cites research that reports of long-term regrets have increased fairly linearly decade on decade from around 40% of people in the 1950s to close to 100% in the last decade. Note that this measures only 'better alternative selves'; worse ones are also possible, such as those that Alcoholics Anonymous encourage their members to reflect on - the active alcoholic they chose not to be. Having an alternative self means you can compare them to your actual self, generating emotional responses, affecting satisfaction, and leading to better self-knowledge about strengths or weaknesses.

As the AA example makes clear, organisations can encourage or dampen the formation of alternative selves, by drawing attention to turning points, inviting the undoing, or giving space for rehearsing what that alternative would look like. At its best, this can lead to insight and greater resolve, such as collectively considering 'what if we had never dared to start the business together?' It can also lead to the 'crystallization of discontent' and a motivation to change circumstances. In this sense, the road not taken doesn't always vanish: it can live on in our minds, affecting our present and shaping our future.

ResearchBlogging.orgObodaru, O. (2012). The Self Not Taken: How Alternative Selves Develop and How They Influence Our Professional Lives The Academy of Management Review, 37 (1), 34-57 DOI: 10.5465/amr.2009.0358


  1. And that's why when I became a management consultant I thought 'what if I'd actually followed through with my teenage plan of studying psychology' and started on my 3rd (and subsequently 4th) degrees... and at some point in the next 5 years I will be able to say I'm an occupational psychologist...

  2. That's a great story David!

    I find a lot to like in this construct. I'm like you, in that I can trace back several changes I've made in my life to that kind of 'imagineering'.

    I'd be interested to hear from anyone who has worked with alternate selves - for instance, coaches who have encountered this tumbling out from a client, or change professionals who deliberately draw them out.


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