Concentric and congruent identities

How many times have you looked at your work clothes and seen a costume that you put on before a performance?

That’s not about whether your performance is genuine or not, by the way. I view the act of getting dressed for work as being part of preparing for work, like warming up before a bike ride. The bloke in the shirt with a collar and the trousers that aren’t jeans is a different one to the bloke on the sofa in track-pants and a Dare2Be tee-shirt. Put me in a suit and tie and I know, instinctively, that I’m going to need to be professional and authoritative but humble and calm. The bloke in a tee-shirt who howls at the TV every time the referee gives a penalty against his side is different to the man in the suit, even if they’re made of the same stuff.

For a long time I’ve described the experience of being different people in different clothes as being about concentricity; each identity a matryoshka doll, hidden inside another doll, with the innermost doll only known to the closest of friends.

I’ve used that metaphor when coaching, especially when working with coachees who feel that they want to keep part of their Self private, either because they want to or feel they need to. Issues of gender, sexuality, privilege, prejudice and appropriateness can mean that for many colleagues, going to work means either assuming a personality that is camouflage, or concealing a personality that is private.

The more I’ve thought about that metaphor of the matryoshka doll, though, the less I’ve trusted it. For matryoshka dolls to work, they have to be precisely shaped to fit inside each other, reducing in size but always recognizably the same. Do all my identities fit inside each other, or am I different in different places, still recognizably me, but able to adopt a role that is appropriate to the moment?

Something of this came to me last night, reflecting on a hard training session with my cycling club. Usually, when training, I fill my mind with the arithmetic of training.Twenty minutes to go means another forty five second sprints; that’s two hundred seconds of sprinting, plus two more thirty second attacks, that’s three hundred seconds, which is five minutes, which is only a quarter of the remaining time.

Fatigue meant I lost my thread, and my brain wandered to how frustrated my professional self would be to lose track so completely. I had a clear vision of professional me, the man in a suit who was watching, wondering if he could help regain my thread.

At that moment of sweaty exhaustion, glimpsing another me, to one side, watching, I plunged back to John Donne’s phrase about no man being but an island, and began to wonder if maybe we are all archipelagos, not islands; archipelagos of identities.

No two islands are the same, but they often have distinctive features that are shared throughout the group. Or to put it another way, they are congruent.

There are any number of theoretical approaches to leadership and performance that stress congruence, that require or desire actions to be congruent with values and beliefs, or goals. It’s not just about leadership; if an athlete tells you that he wants to train to be the best, but doesn’t match their diet or training to their goals, even the most generous of coaches would highlight the incongruous behaviours.

So do all our identities need to be the same, just differing in scale, cloaking or revealing the innermost reality, or is congruence of separate identities the real goal for a balanced life? Is the test simply that who ever we are,whichever of our identities we are enjoying,we can look at ourselves and feel sure that our actions reflect our values and beliefs?