Managers and identity crises

identity crisisI remember when I first got my current job back in 2001, it was decided that my job definition would be Director of Education. This was because the associations with the title Director of Education would allow for my role in the company to move in more directions and be more open-ended than if I had been given the more conventional title of Director of Studies. And this was fine by me. I was moving into a whole new world, moving from being a Director of Studies of a conventional language school to a world of distance learning and online language courses and schools.

It was a good decision in that job titles create certain expectations and associations which, if not met, can cause confusion and sometimes resentment and criticism. Since then my job has evolved in directions which would have been difficult to imagine back in 2001. The changes have been partly due to industry demands; partly because I have wanted to develop certain areas and take on certain roles; and partly because this is what the company has needed me to do. So while my job title still holds true in many senses of peoples’ expectations associated with the title, it also involves a lot of aspects of management that I think few people associate with it.

Incidentally one of the things I love about my job is the fact that my role changes so often and grows in different directions every year. However, the flipside of this is that these changes can lead to some minor and some more major identity crises. These crises tend to manifest themselves at certain times when something I do or ask somebody to do is questioned or rejected.

From talking to other managers and analysing my own experiences, there seems to be a pattern to when these crises happen. I have identified three:

  1. When people are under pressure, feel insecure, or feel threatened.
  2. In organisations which have a complex organisational structure. In my opinion, the greater the complexity of the organisational structure, the more complex the relationships with people tends to be and the more likely it is that misunderstandings will take place.
  3. Organisations in which cliques tend to form. These groups tend to be very defensive and rally to protect themselves from any perceived threat to their position of power or influence.

Of course, when things are going well and everybody is happy, there are normally not any issues.

I think these crises are part and parcel of being a manager, especially if you want to and are given the opportunity to grow as a manager. As your role changes, some people will inevitably feel that you are stepping on their toes or overstepping your mark.

The challenge is to learn how to deal with these crises and not let them knock your self-confidence.

You can obviously be sensitive to certain signs and be especially diplomatic around people you have identified as being likely to react negatively in potentially confrontational situations.  However, beyond that, most of the time there is little you, as the manager, can do to prevent these incidents from happening. Indeed the three points identified above are well beyond the sphere of influence of most middle managers.

So how can we deal with these crises when they happen? I like to remind myself of the following three points:

  1. Don’t expect people to change or react in different ways from what you have experienced. People only change if they want to change, not because you want them to or think they should.
  2. Accept that dealing with identity crises is part of the job of a manager and the higher up you go in terms of management, the more of these you are likely to experience.
  3. The key is how you deal with these moments. If you can manage to apply the principles of emotional and social intelligence to deal with these incidents, these crises will be a lot less severe.

I’m particularly looking forward to the PCE for LAMSIG this year at IATEFL in Manchester which is all about dealing with difficult people. I hope to see some of you there, share experiences and maybe get to exchange ideas about this.

And, of course, if anybody would like to share their opinions and experiences here, I’d love to hear from you.