The miniaturization of identities or why don’t we bring all of our selves to work

"We need to bring all of ourselves to work" is a phrase frequently tied to diversity and inclusion efforts in organizations. Bringing all of our different selves is supposed to be good for employees and for the organization because the more skills, identities, and knowledge each employee brings the better the interactions and performance. Recent studies support this popular axiom. For example, Ramarajan and Thomas (2010)1 report that displaying important aspects of one's identity can lead to a sense of congruence between one's internal feelings and their expression resulting in better relations in groups and increase innovation and problem solving. The opposite also seems true: having to prove a particular image (whether highlighting or concealing negative aspects of one's distinct social identity) can be detrimental.

But, most of us do not bring all of our identities to work, especially those identities based on differences we judge as subordinated or denigrated as opposed to those which are dominant. What are the forces that help and hinder bringing more of all our identities to work? In recent months, I've had the opportunity to understand more deeply why the much invoked goal of bringing all our selves to work is far from reality: it has to do with how we diminish our own identities and do not access others' multiple identities.

Amartya Sen (2006)2 calls it "miniaturization." Miniaturization refers to suppressing ones' complex identities and instead forcing a choice for a predominant identity that "drowns other affiliations" (: xviii). Using my simultaneity model (Holvino, 2010)3, miniaturization describes the ways in which we make ours and others' complex and multiple identities simple and one-dimensional. While in our "normal lives, we see ourselves as members of a variety of groups," to which we belong simultaneously, when only one of our multiple identities is taken as the whole, not only are we missing the richness of that person's identities, but we are also narrowing the ways in which members of groups can relate to each other. For example, I am a Puerto Rican, Latina, an organizational consultant and a writer; just to mention a few of my identities. But, if the only identity I put forward or others see when they meet me is that of being Latina, I may end up feeling (and acting) as if I can only connect to other Latinas, but do not have much in common with non-Latino consultants, which would be a wrong conclusion and a good example of miniaturization at work. Sen argues that miniaturization makes the world more divisive and flammable, because instead of looking to build relations, form coalitions and engage in solving problems across a variety of intersecting axes of differences, identities become polarized along singular dimensions: Muslims versus Christians, Blacks versus Whites, East versus West.

Because the process of miniaturization has grave personal and social consequences, I have begun to observe more carefully how powerful individual and organizational reasons sustain it. For example, in a recent conference where there was great polarization between white members and members of color along racial-ethnic differences (and similarities), I experienced referring to myself more and more frequently throughout the conference as "Latina," without talking about my being Puerto Rican, a US citizen, a speaker of English as a second language with a Spanish accent, and a mixed-race person, all very important identities to me, which also complicate my "Latinaness" and differentiate me from other "persons of color" (a category that brings Latinos, Blacks, Asians, Native-Americans and other racio-ethnic minorities into the umbrella category "people of color"). At the same time, these other identities, which I felt myself silencing as the conference progressed, would have allowed me to connect with two white European males with a "foreign" accent, to a few Asian participants with deep roots to their ethnicity and nationality, and to the other bi-racial members of the conference, who I also noticed did not discussed their biracial identity.

At one point I asked a biracial colleague why, if she usually identifies both as biracial and African American, was she choosing to identify only as an African American woman in this conference? She responded that her sense was that it was more important for her to serve as a role model and relate to the African American members and their experience than to acknowledge and work with her biracial identity. She made a choice, based on her reading of the context, about which identity she was going to "bring-in" to this particular situation. While this example confirms the simultaneity principle that while all our identities are always present, some identities become figural or get activated based on the context while others recede to the background, I now wonder if this is always a matter of choice. How much are we pushed by peers, groups and institutions, into presenting only some of our identities and not others and what are the costs of this miniaturization, whether by choice or not?

Another example of miniaturization comes from a white male I recently worked with who is very much in touch with his Quaker and working class background and his appreciation of women-female energy and authority, as he was raised in a women-only headed family. Yet, this "non-traditional" white man admitted that at work, he never brings up these other identities. He worries that in his management role he may have to discipline or fire someone; sharing this gamut of identities would create a certain level of intimacy and trust, which may later conflict with his exercise of managerial authority. In other words, he perceives a conflict between his work role and all of his identities and is not willing to take the risk of making them available to the organization (or to himself) when he is on the job.

Miniaturization operates both ways: we can present ourselves as having narrowed identities and not bring our whole selves, or others can choose to interact with us only accessing one or a few of our identities. I have identified five skills that support bringing all of our identities to bear on a situation and help us resist miniaturization:

  1. Owning complexity and multiplicity by acknowledging and communicating to others one's complex identities and exploring and accepting others' complex identities.
  2. Flexibility to speak in two and more voices by using the plurality of "voices" and ways of seeing that arise from ones different identities.
  3. Managing the pressure for singularity by understanding the impulse and resisting the pressure to conform to one-dimensionality in oneself and others' identities.
  4. Making an effort to hold on to the various selves and ones' multiple identities by gaining awareness and being in touch with all our differences and identities.
  5. Thinking "location" in time and space by assessing the context and understanding its impact on the identities that become figural or ground and with what consequences.

Yet, the question remains, what are the individual, interpersonal, group, organizational and societal conditions that support developing the above skills and utilizing them? No doubt, to learn more about the processes of miniaturization and the possibilities of utilizing the simultaneity skills, more research and a lot of more work is going to be needed.

1 A positive approach to studying diversity in organizations. Harvard Business School Working Paper 11-024.

2 Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

3 Intersections: The Simultaneity of Race, Gender and Class in Organization Studies. Gender, Work and Organization, 17 (3), 248-277.


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