This Identity Crisis Brought to You by the Future

I rarely meet a group of professionals who believe the world understands what they do and  value what they offer.  This explains why so many association members think the solution is more public relations, advertising and now social media.

Only the truly self-aware get the root cause of this problem.  How can other people understand you if you don’t have a clear sense of your own identity?  I will leave the psychological/sociological theories related to identity to those better qualified to explain them.  Let’s just look at why so many people are experiencing this challenge now and what some solutions might be before your association puts serious money into PR.

This identity confusion or crisis can be traced to several drivers of change.  For at least a decade we have had increasing specialization within different fields. The more you specialize, the less clear the core identity becomes, and the more you have a plethora of ways in which to be in any profession. 

Another change driver is the increased blurring of professions in a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary world.  Complex problems are best solved when multiple disciplines bring their expertise to bear, and we have an abundance of really wicked problems now.  And if you look in some arenas, like healthcare, there is a drive to increase access and improve affordability by broadening who is qualified to deliver needed services.  Few fields are regulated or licensed to the extent that others can’t encroach upon an area of expertise or scope of practice.

Then there are the talented people who are playing above their education and pay grade in all sorts of fields.  They have deep knowledge in one field and a good grasp on the theory and practices of other related fields.  Human resources experts call these the T-shaped people, the synthesists or bridgers.  In a fast-changing world where organizations need people who can adapt quickly and lead problem-solving teams, these are the new rock stars.   

I’ve spent the week interviewing people about their aspirations for a distinctive and yet broader understanding of their profession’s identity.  This makes me particularly aware of what else creates an identity crisis.  

The past has its own strong and comfortable pull on identity.  Every profession has some core knowledge, an origin story, a history of its evolution, and a legacy of past accomplishments, education requirements, and standards and regulations. These factors define and constrain identity.  

The future brings on these identity crises. In a changing world, people have to evolve to meet new opportunities.  

Associations express these aspirations best in the visions they adopt—if they really do say something bold and distinctive. Visions can be statements of identity, intent or desired outcome.  I am convinced that all those painful battles to get the words right in a vision are deeply symbolic choices in this struggle to define a relevant and meaningful identity.  How do I see myself in this future the vision evokes?  

In our visioning work, we explicitly invite people to examine the identity they will need to succeed in the future.  We have found an easy way to explore and illustrate this change is to ask people to define their current identity (good and bad) and what they believe their future identity will need to be. Display these views side-by-side in a chart and the change challenge gets a little clearer.  

While talking to people inside a profession or field about their identity is useful, they also listen well to how key external stakeholders and policy makers see them.  Interviewing these outsiders provides important perspective. Volunteer leaders can see their identity reflected back to them and often find the external validation for new roles and areas of expertise.

But as one person wisely observed in her interview this week, identity can only be transformed first from within.  Before any association puts serious money into educating the public, they need to pour even more resources into educating and socializing their current members to embrace an evolving identity.

If a profession or field can’t be clear about its identity and collectively communicate it in every interaction, no public relations or branding campaign will work.  The gap between what you say you are and what others experience will be too great to overcome.