Identity hangover – hanging on to our previous roles in the present
Tags; identity; roles;
Entrepreneurs as founders of their own companies are well-known for their psychological attachment to their business – their ‘baby’. Often seeing their idea or the product they build as an extension of themselves (Grimes 2018, pg.1698). This can prove problematic for the serial entrepreneur, however, as they move on from one business to the next or as a founder pivots their business from one idea or market to another.
An entrepreneurs’ ideas as an extension of themselves
‘Identity shedding’ Rouse (2016) argues is necessary in order that the entrepreneur can de-identify with their old company before moving on to ‘re-identify’ with the new. If not, they face the prospect of ‘identity hangover’ – “the role residual from previous roles or positions” (pg. 1606) resulting in a slow creep into their new role or position with the next company. This can result in the entrepreneur maintaining their previous role as their self-referential point on which they hang the answer to the question; “who am I”? In short, the entrepreneur is still identifying with their previous identity despite the career transition to a new company or new role rather than questioning a-fresh “who am I now”? in this new context. A destabilisation, Rouse (2016, pg. 1607) suggests, of the old, former self is required in order to psychologically disengage from the previous organization, connect with the future organisation and anticipate a new, future identity within that organisation.
De-stabilisation of the former ‘self’ will occur, or not, to varying degrees, mediated by the strength of continuing identification and on-going ties with the former company. Those with higher psychological ownership of their ideas according to Grimes (2018), are more likely to link their ideas with their ‘self-concept’ (pg. 1692), making it more difficult to de-identify with their business (their baby), born from their own ideas. Letting go of their business through exiting the company can be complex and take time. Indeed, the founder may not wish to let go of that part of their self, even choosing to hold on to their former self as their self-referential point as a strategic tactic to maintain a sense of who they are in the interim – the state of limbo between their previous position within the former company and the role they are moving into within their new company.
The art of holding on and letting go.
Those ready and willing to re-identify with the new company may also find the process fraught with difficulties in negotiating who they are within the ecosystem of fellow co-founders, investors, clients and other key stakeholders.
Our ‘identity’ – who we are is complex, often not neatly packaged or restricted to the identity that is ascribed to us by others on the basis of our nationality, gender or occupation. There is a growing recognition of the multiple, competing, often conflicting nature of our identities (Ashforth et al 2000) as something that requires careful management and negotiation so as to maintain well-being and contentment in our sense of ‘self’; who we are. My research, with 10 nascent entrepreneurs participating on the 2018/2019 Alacrity Programme in South Wales, seeks to understand the myriad of micro identities maintained by the entrepreneurs within their holistic self-identity (Shepherd and Haynie, 2006, pg.325) and how these are managed and negotiated throughout the process of ‘becoming’ an entrepreneur. Which micro-identities, for example do the founders give greater salience to through the narrative they tell when describing who they are and who they want to become and which of these micro-identities do they enact through the actions they take to reify the narrative they tell.
Their narrative (the story they tell of who they are), is a window into the entrepreneur’s ‘being’. They are the narrator and also the main character of the story they tell, choosing which other characters, plot lines and time periods to include and which to omit, which to give greater voice to and which to play down through the story they tell of who they are. In doing so, the narrators may oscillate between past, present and future tense, choosing whether to identify with their past, present or future self. Who they they are in the process of becoming or who they were in the past can be just as valid a component of their current self-identity as who they actually are in the present, sometimes even more so as their concept of who they will become or who they were provides a sense of purpose in the process of becoming (Mathias and Williams, 2017).
Oscillating between our past, present and future selves.
Our identities, therefore, are to a degree governed by choice – who we chose to say we are as who or what we identify as and are not necessarily restricted to our job role or organisation.
Identity ‘shedding’ therefore is also optional; we may choose to let go of who or what we were or we may choose to hold on to our ‘identity hangover’ from a previous role or place if this gives us meaning in the present as we seek to find a new sense of purpose in our new context. For the serial entrepreneur, the question then becomes one of timing. When do I let go of who I was within my previous company so that I can commit to my new company and to what degree can I, or do I want to let go? Again, a question loaded with multiple potential responses and it is the choices the entrepreneurs make and the logic they use in doing so which is the focus of my study which seeks to hold a mirror to the conflicting and competing micro identities maintained through the process of becoming an entrepreneur and the choices made through negotiating who they are and who they will become throughout this process.
(This research project is funded by the Economic Social Research Fund).
Ashforth. B, Kreiner. G and Fugate. M. (2000). All in a day’s work: Boundaries and micro role transitions. Academy of management review. 25 (3). pp: 472-491.
Grimes. M. (2018). The pivot: how founders respond to feedback through idea and identity work. Academy of management journal. 61 (5). pp: 1692–1717. Doi:/10.5465/amj.2015.0823.
Mathias. B and Williams. A 2018. Giving up the hats? Entrepreneurs’ role transitions and venture growth. Journal of business venturing. 31. pp: 261-277.
Rouse. E. (2016). Beginning’s end: How founders psychologically disengage from their organizations. Academy of management journal. 59 (5). pp: 1605–1629. Doi: /10.5465/amj.2013.1219.
Shepherd. D and Haynie. M (2006). Birds of a feather don’t always flock together: identity management in entrepreneurship. Journal of business venturing. 24. pp: 316-337. doi:10.1016/j.jbusvent.2007.10.005
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