Four steps to change your staff's professional identities

06 August 2020

By Patricia Reay and Yaru Chen

As companies and organisations shed jobs to survive the economic impact of the pandemic, unemployment is rising across the world.

In the US it hit 10.4 per cent in June, as it did in France, while Italy has seen it jump to 12.7 per cent and in the UK it has risen to 4.8 per cent. Worryingly, economists are expecting that to rise, especially when governments, such as the UK, end their furlough schemes in October.

For organisations to remain productive and firms to be competitive it will mean re-structuring and re-distributing work among the remaining workforce as much as possible. For those workers left in employment this could mean an uncomfortable time as they are asked to change their role, add new skills and in some cases take on completely new tasks.

It could mean an increased workload and also the psychologically problematic task of redefining their professional identity. After years of honing their skills to be a journalist, operations manager or applications engineer they could soon be told that they will have to take on extra duties outside of their profession.

This will be a difficult conversation for managers and leaders. Most studies show that professional identity is very strong and difficult to change. After years of proudly telling people ‘I am an occupational therapist’ it will be hard to eradicate a decade of that mindset over night. This is how people define themselves, it is how they make meaning of their lives. To tell them it is no longer who they are is a challenging task for professionals and for management.

Most of the time we change our professional identity on our own terms. We see technological change and so adapt, or we want to progress in our career. But when change is imposed and workers are faced with taking on practices inconsistent with their established professional identity, they find ways to resist.

But our research has found restructuring people’s professional identity can be done; it just requires patience, understanding and focused timely interventions by management.

Over two years we studied occupational therapists, occupational therapist assistants and caseworkers, conducting 57 interviews at a public organisation that adapted homes for the frail and elderly to live independently. But due to the UK Government’s austerity programme it was forced to restructure with a number of professional positions cut and those left seeing their jobs redefined.

Instead of occupational therapists separately assessing and recommending adaptations to the home and caseworkers analysing their finances and detailing funding for it, they would all be given the title ‘housing assessment officers’ and do both jobs, so only one would manage the interface with each client.

Through our analysis of the interviews, we identified a four-step process that allowed workers to come to terms with, and finally adopt a new professional identity, as they disentangled themselves from their previous status to a new workplace self.

 

1 Resistance

Initially, professionals will have a lot of anger and resistance because they are required to take on tasks and doing jobs they are not trained to do. In our study some people decided to leave, while others wished they could.

This period of resistance could well lead to many disgruntled employees and create a negative atmosphere. We also found people went through a period of mourning for their lost professional identity. They suffered a dissonance between the new roles they were being asked to do and the qualifications, training and experience of their past selves. They expressed concern and anger at losing their ‘skills’ and at seeing their expertise taken on by unqualified co-workers.

In our study the changes lead to complaints from staff that the level of service they were offering clients was affected and it was damaging the organisation’s reputation plus their own.

As one occupational therapist said: “It [financial assessment] is very time consuming. I’m not motivated with that part of it, because it’s not healthcare. I’m trained to be an OT, not to fill out endless forms, applying to funding...”

This first step is most likely unavoidable and management should expect it. It is important to understand the psychological dissonance going on here and give room and space for employees to express their frustrations.

2 Avoidance

The next stage we saw was when workers avoided doing the new work to protect their professional identity. They found a number of ways to ignore it, or pass it on to co-workers or find workarounds that meant they didn’t have to do the new work.

In some situations there were more secretive arrangements with their co-workers to carry on as they were without telling management.

“Before we go out, we say, right, I’m going to ask about this bit [clinical assessment], and you ask about that bit [financial assessment],” said one occupational therapist. “We would encourage each other to keep doing our [previous] role.”

Managers and leaders need to be aware this is likely to be carrying on and put in processes and checks to keep gentle but firm pressure on employees to change to the new working arrangements.

This needs to be done sensitively and with support, but employees need to know that such avoidance may be helpful in the short term, but can’t carry on indefinitely.

 

3 Parking identity

Once workers understand they will have to adopt these new tasks and have spent some time learning them, they need to find ways to park their professional identity.

By putting concerns about their professional identity to one side in our study staff were able to reduce their cognitive overload and give themselves a sense of at least temporary stability by creating mental space for learning the new work.

As a caseworker said: “I think it will just carry on as it is. That’s the way we are going. That’s the way they [managers] wanted to go. I don’t think it will stop. You’ve just got to do it.”

By staying firm management can help this realisation sink in for staff. Continued training and support will help staff come to terms with the new tasks they have to learn and build their confidence. It will also help them adapt the tasks to their context.

“I’ve learned how to discuss someone’s finance in a way that isn’t too intrusive, to put the client at ease, to ensure that they know all the information that’s necessary,” said an occupational therapist. “So I’ve worked out my own way of discussing it, and it seems to be working.”

At this stage it’s important for staff to help each other with the new tasks, with expertise being shared instead of protected.

4 Modifying professional identity

As professionals become confident with their new tasks they increasingly recognise the value in their new work. They are then able to revisit their identity that they had ‘parked’ while they learned the new tasks.

At our organisation this temporary separation from their identity seemed to facilitate a process of staff seeing themselves in new ways and accordingly helped them to modify their professional identity. Indeed, the new skills they learned allowed them to see themselves as being ahead of workers at other organisations in their professions and feel proud in gaining new knowledge.

This positive outlook can be encouraged by organising speaking events at other organisations that are undergoing similar changes, or also across the organisation where staff can be seen as exemplars and role-models in a new way of working.

“I did a poster last month for an event to promote our team... through doing the event I can now see where the managers are coming from, and why they wanted to try this job redesign initiative,” said an occupational therapist.

An important aspect of the change was that in our study, clients told professionals that they were more satisfied with new working arrangements as they only had to deal with one person, rather than being continually passed between departments. This positive feedback from clients helped professionals see value in the new arrangements.

 

This whole process took 18 months in our study and will clearly differ from person to person and the context of the organisation.

It is likely the more embedded people are in their role and professional identity the longer they will need at stage three when they park their identity.

This is an important stage and management need to strike the balance between pushing staff to learn new skills and providing the support and training for them to slowly gain confidence. With patience this is a process that can benefit both the employee and the organisation.

Further reading:

Chen, Y. and Reay, T. (2020) "Responding to imposed job redesign : the evolving dynamics of work and identity in restructuring professional identity", Human Relations.

Reay, P., Goodrick, E., Waldorff, S. B. and Casebeer, A. (2017) "Getting leopards to change their spots : co-creating a new professional role identity", Academy of Management Journal.

Reay, T, Goodrick, E, Casebeer, A, et al. (2013) Legitimizing new practices in primary health care. Health Care Management Review.

 

Patricia Reay is WBS Distinguished Research Environment Professor and is the TELUS Chair in Management at the University of Alberta.

Yaru Chen is a Research Fellow at City, University of London.

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