Do You Have a Strong Identity? 5 Ways to Uncover the Core of Your Organization — And Why It Matters Understanding and carefully adapting organization identity in concert with emergent realities provides the balance our organizations need in our present turbulent climate.
- Geopolitical uncertainties are not going away; in fact, they seem to be hitting our organizations faster and more dramatically.
- We vitally need a means for maintaining stability while navigating the treacherous waters of change and adaptability.
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Geopolitical uncertainties continue to hit organizations hard, regardless of whether they are military, economic, technological, environmental or biological in nature. These upheavals throw everything from global trade and supply chains to the employee experience into chaos. Moreover, some upheavals happen practically overnight, leaving organizations scrambling to respond, as when the shadow of COVID-19 raced across the globe, and most workspaces were swiftly shuttered. Other times, the implications are so troubling, as in the 2022 Ukraine War or the 2023 Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that organizations are left scrambling to offer timely and appropriate responses and support.
An organization's responses regarding these upheavals significantly affect its reputation, legal and regulatory risks, talent management, productivity, financial performance and competitiveness. Furthermore, when geopolitical uncertainties directly affect the organization, such as strained international relations that create talent, sourcing and supply chain issues or new climate regulations that affect organizational processes and profitability, the changes can trigger organizational decline if leaders miscalculate the organization's next steps.
What's identity got to do with it?
Through my experiences helping organizations navigate strategic challenges, I have observed that formulating appropriate responses begins with a focus on organizational identity.
Identity answers the question, "Who am I?" In the case of an organization, identity answers the question, "Who are we?" We see identity in the mirror as an organization — it's our collective private self. This way, our identity is distinct from our brand, corporate image and marketing. Identity is powerful because it socializes our staff based on what is core, unique, and lasting about our organization.
Organizational identity is expressed and observable in various ways, including leaders' role modeling and communication — formal or informal and verbal or nonverbal. Identity is further propagated through employees' ongoing conversations, sensemaking, and other stakeholders' views regarding the organization. These interpretations are then concretized through the terminology, metaphors, stories and dynamics that become ingrained in the organization. The company's environment, furnishings, and ambiance further influence and exemplify identity.
These various assertions of identity work together to create a compelling, persistent story about what the organization is and is not. This identity, in turn, influences our actions, priorities, and beliefs within the organization.
Uncovering your organization's identity
Try the following five steps to uncover your organization's identity:
- Review company documents. Identity claims are often implied or outrightly stated in various communications about your organization. Review internal memos and announcements, agreements and legal documents, marketing collateral across multiple media, meeting notes, planning documents, and employee handbooks to identify the various claims made. List the claims you find, tallying how often and where they appear.
- Reactions and responses. Review your organization's formal responses to crises and significant decisions. Catalog the explicit and implicit identity claims reflected in these actions.
- Third-party coverage. Review articles, stories, and other coverage produced by sources external to your organization. These sources can provide additional insights about the essential nature of your organization.
- First-person accounts. Interview leaders, employees, customers, and other internal and external stakeholders about the organization, noting their assertions regarding what is core, enduring, and distinctive about your organization.
- Physical environment. Take a fresh look at your organization's physical and virtual work settings, recording details about its surroundings, physical artifacts, and other observable expressions of who the organization is.
Much information is generated during the discovery process, which you must then arrange and distill into a set of verifiable identification claims. Based on how frequently and boldly the identity attributes appear in your data, this examination also gives you some idea of how active the given aspect of identity is within the organization, from being rather weak or atrophied to being strong and prominent.
Balancing stability and adaptability
Once you understand your identity, you have powerful information to inform organizational sustainability and change. Therefore, when the next geopolitical storm hits, our organization's identity becomes our rudder, guiding the path through crisis and turmoil so we balance stability with adaptation — maintaining our course and essential identity while making the shifts necessary to navigate our current realities. I often use the 5R Reimagine Framework as a guide for reinforcing and adjusting organizational identity.
In this framework, one of the five alignment activities is reclaiming, wherein elements of organizational identity that have been "lost" in the sense of being forgotten or abandoned by organization members but which remain vital to navigate the present are revived and reinstated.
For example, like most other organizations, the IMF needed to adapt its landscape for hybrid work when COVID-19 hit swiftly. This mandate threw its global offices into disarray. Rather than simply creating remote work in reaction to the pandemic, organization leaders used this opportunity to create meaningful virtual work that reclaimed its identity of global connection, choice, inclusion, and deeply held organizational values. Following input-seeking and discussion with stakeholders throughout its global organization, a hybrid work vision, design, and policy that integrated technology into sustainable work choices was crafted and implemented.
Geopolitical uncertainties are not going away; in fact, they seem to be hitting our organizations faster and more dramatically. We vitally need a means for maintaining stability while navigating the treacherous waters of change and adaptability. Understanding and deliberately adopting organizational identity in concert with emergent realities provides the balance our organizations need.