Why you shouldn’t be committed to your work

Do you need to be committed to your job and your profession? What if you work in a (multidisciplinary) teams, whose standards or work do you need to commit to? If your colleagues slack, because they are less committed to their job, can you do the same or should you put in your weight or do their job so that your team wouldn’t fail?

Commitment is made possible by identifying with our career but also with the group of people we have to work with. This can be our team, department, or organization. Our identity, who we think we are, is not only personal, but part of it is also taken from social groups we identify with. Part of who I am is influenced by my German heritage and my career as a researcher. These social identities become meshed with our personal identity and make us who we are.

Group processes can be understood by applying the theory of Social Identity. This theory began in the 1970s with Henry Tajfel and John Turner. They were trying to understand social processes such as discrimination, aggression, and conflict between different social groups. Their argument was that when individuals identify with a specific group (e.g. being a researcher) they adopt the behaviors and norms that are acceptable by members of this group. But identification doesn’t stop there. It leads to favoring in-group members over out-group members (e.g. researchers versus university administrators). Social identity theory does not argue that we want to be exactly like everyone in the group. We don’t seek to be robots. Marilynn Brewer, now visiting professor at New South Wales University (AU), puts it nicely: We want to be unique in some ways but also similar to others [1].

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At work, our social identity is important, it guides our behavior. It makes us more susceptible to ideas from similar others. Professor Naomi Ellemers from Leiden University explains that we use  social identities “to make sense of complex social situations”[2]. Once a social identity is activated we make the actions of the corresponding group and their achievements our own. We feel sad when our organization has bad press coverage. We feel proud when our profession is presented as important for humanity. But there is also an ugly side to social identity:

I have two colleagues I hold dear in my heart. One of them worked herself literately sick, but was able to get hold of her life before she ended up having a burnout before her 30s birthday. The other got a wake-up call after I send her news articles about how lack of sleep can kill her. You know yourself those colleagues who love their job, love to the extend that they are their job. And this is the ugly side of social identity. Identifying too much with your team or your professional can also have other negative consequences for you and your performance:

Identifying too much with your team can lead to:
  • You doing whatever the team wants, disregarding personal needs, your ethical standards, and values of your profession (professional blindness).
  • You protecting with all means your team from any changes, even if they would be beneficial.
  • You considering all things created by other team’s as sub-optimal.
Identifying too much with your profession can lead to:
  • You forgetting what the goal of the team is.
  • You neglecting the input from people with other backgrounds.
  • You avoiding any changes that threaten your current way of working (aka routines)

You need to identify to some degree with your profession and your team. Without it, it wouldn’t work. If you don’t identify with your team or your profession you would be indifferent to their success and the standards or work. Imagine a doctor who doesn’t care about medical norms! But too much identification can also be costly. Don’t overcommit to your team or your profession, you might drive yourself and your team off a cliff.

References:
[1] Ellemers, N. (2012). The group self. Science, 336(6083), 848–52. doi:10.1126/science.1220987
[2] Brewer, M. B. (1991). The Social self: On being the same and different at the same time. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17(5), 475–482. doi:10.1177/0146167291175001

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