Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Why Your Identity Matters To Work-Life Balance

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 13

In the last post, “Janet Wolf” described how her identity was wrapped up in the company, and how a layoff allowed her to realize that “she was above all that.”  What does it mean to have an identity wrapped up in the company?

Stanford Business School professor James G. March describes identity as an expected set of behaviors that apply in certain social situations. Put another way, identity is an automatic pilot that guides behavior without the need to stop and think what to do in a given situation.  An identity is reinforced by the social context, that rewards “behavior consistent with the definition of the identity and penalizing behavior inconsistent with behavior.”[i]

For example, a parent identity is reinforced by parenting-related activities, such as the appreciative smile that comes from going to the soccer game.  An identity that comes from the company is reinforced daily by the interactions, both positive and negative, that happen at work.  Some companies, like Google, go to great lengths to strengthen the identity of employees from the time of hire. (See this post on Nooglers.)

As I wrote earlier in the chapter, we all have multiple identities that apply in different situations.  Corporate idolatry arises when the company-first identity becomes dominant.  In the year I went from working 90 hours a week to 60 hours a week, I was in a virtuous cycle – the more time I spent at home, the more my parent/husband/friend identities became stronger, which in turn made it easier to work even less.

For Janet, her change in identity was catalyzed by a change in environment.  It was only when she was out of the workplace that she her non-work identity re-asserted itself.  In the next post, I will explore this dynamic further, and will return to the story of Abraham that was started in Chapter 2.

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[i] Primer on Decision Making: How Decisions Happen by James G. March Free Press. (1994) p 64-65


  1. Greg Marcus says

    If you found this post interesting, please email to a friend.

  2. Hi Greg,

    Great point! When I was transitioning out of being a university professor, I discovered just how strongly my identity was tied to my profession. I had a full out existential crisis! It was a very painful process but ultimately, a very fulfilling one.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Greg Marcus says

      Hi Tara,

      I don’t doubt it. We spend most of our time working, and almost every job has some positive points that we latch on to. For that matter, if we don’t like the job we’ll still form an identity. I interviewed a number of people who never worked in a positive environment, and seemed resigned that that was their lot in life.
      The only way out is through, and I”m really glad to hear that you made it through.

      Happy Thanksgiving to you as well.
      Best, Greg


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