“Je suis” v “J’ai”: Identity and Change in the Workplace
Lead Coach and Facilitator at Choose Leadership | Working with Purpose Driven Leaders and Organisations

My son has started studying French and he is learning his first two verbs: Être et Avoir – to be and to have. He is also 13 and in his first year of secondary school. He wants to make friends, which means he is trying to, in his case, fit in and find his place in the social constellation of his school.

Secondary school is where we experience a high degree of socialisation and identity formation. You are a good student / academic / smart / a nerd. You are athletic / a jock / sporty. You are attractive / cool / trendy, or not. These labels start to inform how we see ourselves. This is the detention room of The Breakfast Club writ large.

And at this age, we often start to make up how we need to be seen in order to be accepted. This is an important phase in our development and a necessary one. However, it can become limiting and suffocating when we age, yet still operate from outdated beliefs about who we are.

Imagine you are a leader who has come to believe that your success is as a result of your strength at forming and maintaining relationships. Your identity may have become “I am successful because I am liked.” Which you easily twist to “Therefore, if I am not liked, I will not be successful.” The impact of this may be that you refrain from challenging the status quo or avoid disagreement so as to ensure you are always “liked”. If you are not that person, just look around you: There are many senior leaders who operate from this identity. But not everyone is the same, and you might just as likely build your identity around being smart, or around being successful, and you likely fall into one of these three groups. Proponents of them are all over the office, trying to do good work together.

That’s challenging because leaders often confuse their beliefs about themselves and the world with reality. But there is a (collective) way out of this identity-reality trap.

Otto Scharmer, author of Theory U and Director of the Presencing Institute, has a great line: “I have a jacket, but I am not my jacket.” – “J’ai une veste, mais je ne suis pas ma veste.” He makes the distinction that I am neither my beliefs nor my opinions. I merely have them. And they are something that I need to be able to see as objects if I don’t want to be subjected to them. In plain English: it’s important that you are aware that you have those thoughts. Otherwise, those thoughts are having you! They’ll run your life without you knowing it.

More simply put, water is subject for fish – it doesn’t know that it is there, but only until the fish  becomes aware and notices that they are in fact swimming in water. Then the water becomes object and they can act from a place of awareness.

Recently I was startled by a learning needs analysis from an organisation that I am doing some work with. Quotations from participants included “I am powerless”, “We are powerless”, “We are not important”, “I don’t seem to matter.” While the respondents felt powerless, they were not aware of the fact that they saw themselves as victims, without agency. Part of the learning solution was not to let them know that they were not powerless, but rather to allow them to discover that a) they held this belief, and b) to explore if there are ways in which they could act with agency – actions they could take in their workplace to bring about change. They collectively moved from subject to object.

Our work with individual clients and organisations often explores this movement: from a place of unawareness of their beliefs and assumptions about themselves and the world up to that moment, to a place of agency where they consciously choose what beliefs and assumptions they will act from.

Two supports we bring to client engagements which allow us to do this work successfully are the Leadership Circle Profile and The Immunity to Change. Both instruments allow a conversation to start about the beliefs and assumptions that inform a leader’s internal leadership software, and for the participants, i.e. individuals or teams, to become aware of the water they swim in.

We would love to help you and/or your team to make the shift from unawareness to awareness, to operate from a place of agency and to make a bigger impact in the world.

Contact us today to start a conversation about how we can help you become more successful.

For leadership coaching and developement, get in touch

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