Restructuring professional identity through workplace change

Study outlines how employees can change their professional identity following redesign to job roles

Research by Dr Yaru Chen, Research Fellow in the Centre for Healthcare Innovation Research at the Business School (formerly Cass) and Professor Trish Reay from Alberta Business School has outlined a four-step process that professionals undergo when their job role is changed by an organisation.

When organisations restructure services, many employees find themselves fulfilling new and unfamiliar job tasks that are incompatible with their professional identity –how they define their work role and value.

The enforced change leads to staff either seeking employment elsewhere or having to redefine themselves within the workplace. This brings the challenge of managing transition from an often-entrenched sense of belonging for both employee and organisation.

Dr Chen and Professor Reay carried out their research with an organisation specialising in home adaptations for the elderly, which had recently undergone professional restructuring that merged key job roles.

As well as analysing documentation, the researchers conducted interviews with affected employees both at the beginning of the change and one year after. They found the following four stages that took place when professional identity was threatened:

  • Resisting change and mourning loss of old work – employees were angered and shocked by being asked to change their work practices. They constantly compared their new work to their old job role with emphasis on professional qualifications, often feeling either unqualified for their new role or finding work demeaning.

This had a knock-on effect on office morale, particularly with new starters.

  • Conserving previous professional identity and avoiding new work –employees protected their previous identity by competing with others who had been merged into the same job role from other areas, claiming they were better at certain facets of the role than others based on previous knowledge.

This led to an unofficial breaking up of tasks between colleagues to replicate previous job roles and avoid taking on unwanted parts of the job.

  • Parking professional identity and learning the new work –after encouragement and pressure from management, team members were compelled to learn more about their new job roles.

Because they came to realise that their jobs depended on it, professionals temporarily ‘parked’ their identities which gave them cognitive space for exploring new ways to work. In doing so, they gained proficiency in tasks they had previously been keen to avoid and found creative ways to carry out these tasks that felt less laborious than before.

  • Retrieving and modifying previous professional identity and affirming the new work –professionals reconnected with their identity having parked it to learn about their new job role.

The temporary separation allowed employees to take a step back and see themselves in new ways, experiencing benefits brought by the new job role while taking renewed pride in their work and skills they could develop.

Dr Chen said the study had implications for professionals and management alike, particularly in a time of uncertainty where many organisations will undergo some form of structural change.

“Redefining job roles and titles at any level can be challenging, but our findings shed light on how this can be managed by both sides.

“It is understandable that uncertainty and unfamiliarity can lead to resentment within a work force if employees are required to alter ingrained day-to-day work activities. However, professionals should see this as an opportunity to broaden their skillsets and develop rather than an obstacle.

“On the other hand, organisations should be aware of such cognitive challenges and allow employees the liminal space and training they need to maintain their feeling of self-worth and identity.

“Our case study showed that when encouraged to learn more about their new roles, employees were able to temporarily distance themselves from how they identified with previous roles. They could therefore embrace new ways of working to the benefit of themselves and the goals of the organisation.”

Read Responding to imposed job redesign: The evolving dynamics of work and identity in restructuring professional identity, published in Human Relations.