Confusing your work ‘mask’ with your true self can sow seeds of later personal difficulty. But having a healthy approach to personal growth is not only a self-evidently good thing, it is also something that a good employers need to pay attention to. Thinking beyond employees being a mere ‘resource’ necessarily involves an understanding of employees’ need to express their full identities authentically within a work setting. Jung’s theories show us how to understand this challenge.
Work and identity are so interlinked. Typically the one thing a gravestone will say, aside from name and dates, is profession: ‘Philip Larkin – 1922-1985 – Writer’ is all that this particular poet and librarian has on his headstone. When we are children, we are more likely to talk about what ‘we want to be’ rather than what we want to do, even though the answer is ‘astronaut’ or ‘ballet dancer’. One of my family members can rarely resist the temptation to introduce a person into a conversation whom the listener doesn’t know with parentheses: ‘you know, George, the lumberjack’ or ‘don’t you remember, Gill, the nurse?’ Inevitably, if sadly, our perceptions of that person can be shaped in advance of meeting them by the simple use of parentheses in this way. Thus, we seek meaning from work and work (and relationships at work) can provide us with much of our sense of personal fulfilment.
Work can also fail to live up to our expectations, causing a great deal of distress, as the blog piece on ‘Employee engagement: when falling out of love with work is not always a bad thing…’ discusses.
For Jung, two concepts are of interest here. By shaping our identity and providing us with meaning, the search for right work is integral to the healthy development of our ego, the sense we carry of who we are. So far so good: there is nothing wrong with a healthy sense of self. But there are inherent risks in a quest for fulfilment via the work route. Our work identity can be a false friend. Sometimes people are aware of this danger and talk about their ‘work selves’ and their ‘home selves’, with the potential implication perhaps that their home self is a truer self, where they can be themselves and their work self is something of a mask, in Greek a persona, the mask that actors wore in ancient Greek dramas. Personas for aspects of our lives such as work are universal and can also be very helpful as we try to play our part, be who we need to be, rather than perhaps who we think we really are. The problems arise either when there is a tension between our various personas or when we confuse ‘persona’ for ‘ego’.
In the case of the former, it can be that the necessary pretence in creating and maintaining a work persona – of always being our best – is too great, too exhausting, precipitating some kind of crisis at some stage, perhaps in mid-life. In case of the latter, we become so identified with our job role, we end up thinking this is who we are, all we are. Think of all the people who when they retire simply cannot re-cast themselves into a new phase of their life, retiring a persona, as it were, rather than retiring the entire ego, the entire sense of who we believe ourselves to be.
These days, discussions about work life balance touch on this question. What Jung did for us is provide some psychological understandings about why a great employer will encourage their people to be true to themselves, knowing that only in this way will they be able to give more in the longer run. As employees, we need to recognise that while work is important to us, it mustn’t be the only drama in town and that our other masks and senses of ourselves need appropriate cultivation.
Thus, while there are personal implications for us all as people at work, there are implications especially for the leaders of work organisations to create a culture which is sustainable. A sustainable culture must be founded on supporting people to be healthy. One aspect of health is being true to who we really are at work. You could call it mask management!
- To what extent does your organisation encourage the deployment of ‘masks’ at work? What are they are how do they work? Upsides and downsides?
- What would a ‘mask management’ approach look like in your organisation?