Professor Brianna Caza’s Research on “Pursuit of Callings” featured in Human Resources Executive Online

4.12.2012 Article, Faculty News, Human Resources

When "Callings" Can Be Troublesome
Reposted from Human Resources Executive Online | by By Katie Kuehner-Hebert

Human resource leaders need to spot workers whose "rigid work identities" can lead to burnout or conflicts with co-workers. Organizations should consider nurturing "flexible work identities" that make workers more adaptable, or adapting work assignments to appropriately manage individuals with rigid work identities.

Most organizations revel when workers believe their jobs are "callings," but human resource leaders should watch for attributes that can cause burnout or trouble with co-workers.

So says one of the authors of an article published in the Journal of Career Assessment in February.

People can pursue professional callings in a healthy way if they have "flexible work identities," which enable them to adapt to changes in their profession, their own lives and their organizational environment, says M. Teresa Cardador, a professor of labor and employment relations at the Champaign, Ill., campus of the University of Illinois.

Cardador co-authored the article, "Relational and Identity Perspectives on Healthy Versus Unhealthy Pursuit of Callings," with Brianna B. Caza, a professor at the School of Business at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Individuals with "rigid work identities" may pursue callings in unhealthy ways because they have overly strict notions of how their job should be performed, Cardador says. When co-workers or the organization as a whole don't uphold to what some employees perceive as "high standards," that can lead to burnout or conflict.

HR leaders need to foster flexible work identities within their talent-management programs, she says, especially for those employees who believe they have a calling.

"They should also foster an organizational culture that promotes flexibility and adaptability, and emphasizes cooperation," Cardador says. "This could help workers be more capable of adjusting or better respond to natural challenges."

Organizations should also foster a stronger "sense of community," which helps employees adapt to stressors, minimizes conflict and increases trust, Cardador says.

"HR managers should also enact work/life balance policies, which could also help the worker with a rigid work identity be more adaptive," she says.

Jackie Greaner, Towers Watson's talent management and organization alignment practice leader for North America, says individuals with flexible work identities can see themselves changing job roles or even careers if the situation calls for it. People with rigid work identities often can't envision themselves in any other capacity.

"When that career doesn't pan out or they get burned out, they become disillusioned and quit, or do something dysfunctional, which causes conflict in work and personal relationships," says Greaner, who is based in Atlanta.

"HR leaders need to help them develop a growth mind-set, so that they can fulfill their needs, motivations and values in different ways," she says.

Not everyone with a rigid work identity approaches their calling in unhealthy ways, however, says Seymour Adler, a partner with Aon Hewitt in New York and an organizational psychologist.

In fact, he says, sometimes such identities can even be beneficial for organizations.

"There's a fine line between rigid work identity and frustration that their organization is not committed to professional standards," Adler says. "It could be someone who pushes back against the organization or whistleblowers — sometimes what is perceived as rigid is standing up for something that is right."

Still, HR executives should make sure to include self-awareness exercises in their career-development programs, as well as encourage employees to vent their frustrations when operations aren't running smoothly — and then find ways to fix those organizational gaps, he says.

Leaders should be chosen based on their emotional astuteness, Adler says.

"Being emotionally astute is very important these days as we're in a period of 'permanent white water' — constantly changing organizational structures," he says. "Leaders have to help their employees cope with the stress of the changes."

Chip Conley, founder of San Francisco-based Joie de Vivre Hotels and author of Emotional Equations, says there's a difference between a workaholic who has a rigid identity and an individual who has a calling for their work.

HR leaders, he says, need to understand that many workers have periods of time when they have to work "ridiculous hours," for either circumstantial reasons or because the job requires it. They also need to recognize when people are using work as an addiction to "run away from something."

"A workaholic uses work to distract themselves from something inside of themselves that they don't want to be feeling," Conley says. "Someone who has a calling is using work as a means of connecting deep inside of themselves that serves as fuel for a purpose."

If a worker is losing his or her work/life balance or is not as productive as previously, HR practitioners should gently probe them to consider tackling their inner feelings or refer them to an employee-assistance program, Conley says.

John Gibbons, vice president of research and development for i4cp in New York, says HR executives should not automatically consider rigid work identities as a positive or a negative, but rather find ways to appropriately "manage" the person.

For example, he says, someone with such an identity might thrive on independent projects in which they could get recognition for their way of performing duties — without getting into clashes with other employees.

"HR people might actually be able to capitalize on that rigid work identity," Gibbons says.