And who are you?

Ever been asked that question and not been quite sure how to respond? Surely you know who are by now? Why the hesitation? Did you just respond with your name? Or did you talk about your profession, or your role, or your post. I’m a doctor, an engineer, an architect. Did you struggle for a description because you’re not actually working right now? Or did you say I’m a mother, a pensioner, an ex-soldier or veteran?

Does how you respond get conditioned by who asks the question? In what circumstances? In what environment? Do you always answer exactly the same or do you change it? I’m a kayaker, a philosopher, a lover of fine wine. Do you include the qualities you think you possess? Is this boastful or bashful, understated or verbose? I’m passionate, objective, giving. I’m setting out to change the world through love and forgiveness. I’m our company’s best-selling salesman, its powerhouse, its beating heart. Are you defined by your relationship to others? I’m Dave’s boss, I work with Karen, I’m Mikey’s dad, your son’s rugby coach.

Do any of these tell you who I am? Why is it so hard to describe who you are? Does the way you try to answer the question say more than any words you might choose to use?

Yet understanding and forming identity is a key element of change, of leadership, of organisational survival. If we cannot even do this properly for ourself, how could we do it for an organisation with perhaps a hundred years of history and thousands of employees?

In describing ourselves and our organisations we call forth a history of selected memories. Sometimes we select these consciously to project an image that suits. That might involve considerable deprecation or it might be a vain boast. But none the less, we select from our collection of memories and things we have done, information that we find helpful in defining us. Our organisations are the same. Our history is built of successful product launches, creative designs, solid reliable products. These are the stories that we choose to tell and weave together to form the brand, the identity of the organisation.

And thus our identity becomes more a case of what perhaps was than what actually is. It’s a selective history, abstracted from the events that created it and told over and over until it becomes a ‘truth’, a narrative, compelling. Whether this is the corporate spin or the smoke room moans, it is only ever partial and only ever historical.

So our efforts at changing our organisations are at best directed at a fragmented view of who we were. They don’t really connect to what is happening right now, specifically, in this instant. As such they provoke a not-unexpected response. Our view of who we are is challenged. ‘They’ don’t really understand how things work here. If ‘they’ did, ‘they’ would know we tried that before and it didn’t work.

For any change to be meaningful it needs to engage as closely as possible with our identity. It is through our view of who we are that we determine what is good and what is less good and therefore how we should respond. Change that doesn’t challenge our identity is never transformative, it simply pushes us into finding another way of remaining who we are. If we are really to engage in a process of deep and meaningful change we need to explore together what is really going on, specifically, right now, as each and every one of us sees it.

Such a process takes time. Our existing identity will have already set the bounds to preserve the status quo. You can’t trust management, whatever you say they’ll use it against you. You can’t trust the workforce, they don’t really understand what we’re trying to do and only want an easier life. These absurd generalisations all act to lock us into where we already are. We must recognise that the way things are done, the stories we tell about them are conventions, built up over time to make it easier to decode the mystery of our identity. To free ourselves of those conventions is not to spurn them, but to recognise them for what they are and to not be deceived by them.

We should respect the stories that shape our identity, they guide our each and every interaction far better than any company handbook. But like the family photo album, they tell us only a tiny part of how we came to be who we are. It is for us together to consider who we really are and therefore who we might wish to be.

John Atkinson is a founder of  The Phillips Kay Partnership Ltd