Podcast: Petriglieri, Petriglieri, & Wood(2018). Fast Tracks and Inner Journeys: Crafting Portable Selves for Contemporary Careers

Authors:
Gianpiero Petriglieri – INSEAD
Jennifer Louise Petriglieri – INSEAD
Jack Denfeld Wood – CEIBS

Interviewers:
Tianyu (Tanya) He – INSEAD
Amy Zhao-Ding – INSEAD

Article link: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0001839217720930


ASQ Blog Podcast Series: 2018 September issue

Transcript of Podcast:

Tianyu (Tanya) He: Hello, ASQ Bloggers my name is Tianyu He, Tanya. I’m a doctoral student at INSEAD. Today I have the opportunity to sit down with Gianpiero Petriglieri and Jennifer Petriglieri and discuss their joint work with Jack Denfeld Wood, “Fast Tracks and Inner Journeys: Crafting Portable Selves for Contemporary Careers.” GP and Jen, thank you so much for joining us today. Why don’t we start by talking a little bit about yourselves and your main research focuses?

Gianpiero Petriglieri: Thank you for having us, Tanya. A lot of my research goes in and out or around the question of what do we talk about when we talk about leadership. If you look at the contemporary workplace there is an incredible preoccupation with the idea of having good leaders, having enough leaders, becoming a leader. A lot of my work looks at why are we so interested in it, why is it so important for people in the workplace, and how do organizations deal with this apparently insatiable appetite for leadership that we have in our day and age.

Jennifer Petriglieri: I’m really, at heart, an identity scholar. The questions that fascinate me are around how people construct and hold on to a sense of self in our world today, which is very complex and changing, and how they do that relationally, so not on their own but with others, and how they use others in institutions to really craft this sense of “Here I am, I have a purpose in my life, and I can move forward even if things around me are falling apart.”

GP: Well, if you think of this paper, it’s actually one in a stream of papers and activities that Jen and I and Jack and other colleagues and friends have been engaged in over the last 10 years to try to unpack one fundamental change that’s going on in the workplace, which is, for centuries we tended to anchor ourselves to institutions such as the family, the company, the nation states, and now there’s the emergence of this very mobile and nomadic class of fortunate workers who move across countries, who move across companies, who move across functions. And then the question becomes where do you put yourself, where’s your place? Can there be such thing as a self without a place or at least a place in the way we’ve understood it for a long time in the social sciences?

TH: It’s quite interesting that you mention it’s part of series of work that you’ve been doing. Is it also partially based on some of your observations or own experiences, or you think it’s also informed by some of the theoretical interests that you have over the years?

JP: It’s really a combination of both.

GP: Definitely, definitely. Total labor of love.

JP: I want to start with the experiences and observations because all of our research whether it’s this stream or another is very much phenomenon driven. I think what struck us, really a bit more than a decade ago now as we were in business schools…the landscape was changing. People were coming to business schools for slightly different reasons, or at least saying they were, from before.

This was knotted up with the changing of institutions, like people weren’t wedded to one institution for their whole lives. It was also linked to this identity idea, you know, “Who am I and how do I construct myself at work?” And work was becoming, it had a more meaningful place in people’s lives. So there’s this sense that who I am is really intricately connected to what I do and where I work.

And so, we saw all these trends coming together, and obviously they’re rooted in the literature. It was really those shifts and our observations and experience of them that sparked the project, and then, of course, the place and the theory that we can see growing as we moved along.

GP: And phenomenal driven isn’t a bad thing…

JP: It’s a good thing, this is ASQ.

GP: Especially if the phenomenon is puzzling, especially if the phenomenon is somehow controversial. If you look at business schools, they are interesting institutions because they’ve been heavily criticized for the last decade, from outside and from within. Yet, a huge amount of people actually compete fiercely to find a place in some of these classrooms, and companies want to hire their graduates. So, we were … At the core of our interest was looking at this institution that is at the same time said to be so troubled and yet remains so attractive and so successful. How is that possible? The reason why it’s possible is because it does a lot more than what it says in the tin.

Very often if you look at the brochures it’s all about finding good jobs, and if you look at the Financial Times rankings and salary raises and skills and knowledge and this and that. Then, I think, Jack and Jen and I were encountering a lot of people who found themselves in buildings like this doing much more than trying to get a job or a salary raise or new skills. They were really trying to answer questions that are psychological, existential, social in nature, like, “Who am I, what do I want to do with my life, where do I belong?” So we felt there was very little in existing research that really looked at the question of what happens while traditional learning seems to be happen[ing]? And where are the places that people go to prepare themselves, not just cognitively and technically, but also socially and psychologically, for careers which are relatively uncertain and relatively untethered from a single place.

JP: I think that’s important because from the research we were trying to really answer two questions. One is the ‘why’ question. Why are people here, what are the things they’re doing? And the other is the ‘how,’ and this is the process. The model that we build in the paper is really a process model, and it took us a couple of years to collect the data, and it’s over-time data. We were trying to put both of these pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together at the same time.

GP: It’s interesting also that we started very driven by this observation, by this insight, but it’s questions that we really couldn’t find the answer for. At the same time the project was incredibly theoretical because we ended up having to conceptualize, to find a name for what an institution does beyond providing people resources and opportunities. Actually, before this paper came out, the first paper of this stream of work was a paper where Jen and I coined the term “identity workspace” to describe an institution which actually allows people, more or less deliberately, to consolidate their existing identities and transition to a new one. We felt like we had to conceptualize the social setting that way to then have a lens to look at the experience of the people we were studying, and then we ended up writing for “Fast Track[s].”

I think one other thing that was exciting and also complicated in that project was really honoring the fact that we were trying to make sense of people’s deeply personal journeys at the same time as we were trying to make sense of an institution’s shifting place in the social fabric. And to honor those two levels, the kind of personal and the social level, it was a significant piece of work, and we were fortunate that our editor and reviewers were encouraging to keep both in mind.

TH: You mentioned that it’s about how people see themselves and how it interacts with institutional context. In this paper there’s a very interesting concept, portable self. It almost feels to me, when I read it, like you have the self that can travel with you through time and space. Can you elaborate a bit more on this concept for our listeners, and why are they special and important in contemporary careers?

JP: If you think about identity, really through the whole of human history, it has been wedded to place. Right from the dawn of civilization through to really 20, 30 years ago, if you ask someone the question, “Who are you?” and answer that question, a lot of it was rooted in a sense of physical place, right? So a home, a community, an organization, and they would often describe the physicality of the organization. So it was really, every aspect of ourselves was linked to quite a permanent, rooted thing, and we saw that in careers as well, that we know until 20, 30 years ago you would enter an organization in your early/mid-20s and pretty much expect to be in that same organization all the way through for the vast majority of people. So there was a sense that the organization was a second home as well and quite a permanent home, not a temporary home. In the last 20, 30 years that’s completely shifted.

We’ve seen a couple of things happening. One is we’ve seen people modifying themselves in terms of their profession or their occupation, you know, “I don’t work for GE anymore, I’m an engineer, and that may go across.” So it’s this increasing sense of portability, right? If I cannot root my identity in a physical place or a set company, then where do I root it? What we found in this context—and of course in this context it’s the, if you like, the right-end-hand of the distribution, people who are in some ways hypermobile, not just across companies but across national boundaries and everything—this sense of portability was really important because on the one hand portability is very destabilizing, if we think of it how we’ve always conceptualized identity that is rooted in place or a specific institution.

So these people needed to defend against the anxiety, that while there’s no…“I’m kind of rootless.” And the way they did that was internalizing that idea of portability and making that portability an identity in and of itself. So the fact that my self is portable gives me an anchor, and I can move that anchor around, it doesn’t need to be physically anchored into a specific town, a specific organization. I think it is an empirical question. Would you have seen these 30, 40 years ago? Probably not. But there’s a real connection between that and how society and the world of work is changing.

TH: In this paper, portable self is developed in a more work-related context. Do you see that also happening … is it a separate developmental process if we take into account our family life, or does it have to happen related to our work and job or how we see ourselves professionally?

GP: When you look at the people we studied, people for whom, as Jen was saying, mobility is the new morality—where being mobile is actually a virtue, not a problem—then the question of personal and professional becomes less salient. Many of the people we studied, they didn’t really resonate with the idea of a separate professional and personal self. What they actually aspired [to] was to have a self which had personal and professional elements combined so that their work would be a way of expressing what they aspired to do, and they could find opportunities where organizations find them attractive. It’s interesting because if you look at what they were trying to develop, for example, with each other, wasn’t just a network but it was a community. Wasn’t just colleagueship but it was also friendship. Many of them thought about relationships in other domains in relation to their portability. So if I had a family business that demanded that I go back, or if I had a spouse whom I felt wasn’t as mobile either for practical or for emotional reasons, then they felt those relationships were actually challenging their development or portability.

But if I had professional connections, or personal connections, or I was part of a friendship group that distributed across the world, then those relationships were enhancing their sense of portability. So in many ways what they were trying to develop wasn’t just a set of … psychological resources and professional relationships, but it was also a social group that could travel with them as they went along. So if I move, I don’t have to start from scratch, I can bring it with me. Certainly that included the personal sphere as well as the professional one, although I don’t think that distinction was so important for this particular kind of person.

TH: So in this paper you talked about there are different pathways to construct portable selves. What do you think are the important implications for organizations? It seemed that we’re assuming organizations should be conscious of their role in helping people to construct their selves, their portable selves. Do you think organizations these days really realize that? What do we hope that organizations can actually take on related responsibilities in this sphere?

GP: I think that organizations definitely realize that, more or less consciously. If you look at most companies these days, they actually fashion themselves after education institutions. So if you go to large corporations, they no longer have headquarters, they have campuses. When people leave they call them alumni. They don’t necessarily promise people loyalty, but they do promise learning. In many ways what our paper does is it ends at, what does it take to really keep the promise of learning? What does it take for an organization to really, deliberately serve as an identity workspace for talent who sees moving not as a failure but as an opportunity?

JP: I think where organizations slip up is by focusing on one pathway or the other, as if one size fits all, which it just doesn’t—our research shows, and the research shows that quite clearly. So you can think of organizations that are more targeted toward the adaptive pathway, right? “Here’s a path, we’re going to put you on it, there’s set steps or milestones,” and there are other organization that are much more exploratory out there, more blue-sky thinking. I think in our experience there are fewer organizations that allow people to combine both.

GP: Actually, what we found was, in many ways what made the organizations we studied so generative of that identity workspace wasn’t that there was this alignment that many organizations still cherish, but actually there was this tension between the instrumental and humanistic side of trying to develop talent. Then the implication is that if you’re actually try to put all your eggs in one or the other side, you might not be able to provide the terroir, so to speak, where talent can grow.

That tension, which then resulted in all sorts of conflicts and contradiction, but ultimately was the engine of the development of portability, was really at the center of what made the organization work, although it wasn’t always pleasant.

JP: And I also think it makes it work for the individuals because even if as an individual you’re very aligned with one pathway or the other, there’s a dominant and recessive piece of it. You’ve got your dominant orientation, but there’s always a piece of you that has some skin in the game in the other pathway.

GP: Even if it’s only the mirror, even if it’s only the fact that you say, “Well, they are not like me,” so it becomes clearer who I am.

JP: So to have an organization just focused on one doesn’t only not appeal to a swathe of the talent, it does a disservice to those people who are aligned with that pathway anyway, because it’s as if you need the other to understand yourself better.

GP: You point to something very interesting, which is, if you look at … Business schools are just one extreme example of a larger group of organizations that promise to help people learn to become better leaders, to increase their opportunity, their security, their abilities, and very often the rhetoric is actually focused on mostly one pathway, which is the instrumental pathway. This is what coming here is going to get you. Within the practice you then have the exploratory pathway more muted. What that does is it risks making a large part of the population feel a second-class citizen or excluded.

So if there’s a piece of practical advice that comes from the paper, it is not about changing the guard, it’s not about saying, “Oh, we were completely instrumental and now it should be all about growth and humanism and the development of the soul.” No, that’s not the point. The point is actually having these two as equal streams with all their contradictions, and that makes the organization more appealing, more functional, and ultimately more developmental.

TH: I think it is especially due to these tensions that you just mentioned: do you think there are instances where portable selves are underdeveloped or are not fully developed? [When] would that happen, and how would that influence someone’s, let’s say, professional life? We know that not everyone has the opportunity to go through an educational institution where we can see both pathways presented. What would happen to those people who do not have a full-fledged portable self with them?

JP: I think it’s a great question. So, first of all, I’m not sure every single person will need them. If you think about portable selves, they are appropriate, for the want of a better word, for the group of people who are moving around a lot. There are still large swaths of the population, particularly in blue-collar jobs, who do tend to stick with the one organization. So if we focus on the population who may need it, then I think there’s a psychological and practical level. You know, what happens psychologically if I don’t have it? This really comes back to our systems psychodynamic land. What we saw, really, was in some ways the development of the portable self is a defense against the anxiety of this hugely complex and uncertain world.

What we could see as people went through the process of developing their portable selves, that they became kind of less anxious and more secure as that portable self became more valuable and developed. So on a psychological level what happens if they’re underdeveloped is people’s anxiety jacks up because they’re really in touch with, “Well, there’s this uncertain world out there, I’m going to move a lot, and how am I going to cope?” And this idea that “I’m unanchored and unrooted” really comes back. That’s kind of on the intrapsychic level.

And then what happens, practically, out in the world. I think a couple of different things can happen. Sometimes the person doesn’t move. So if we think about instances in the data, the few instances of people who didn’t fully develop portable selves, sometimes they felt stuck in a place. So maybe it was they had to go back to a certain country, to a certain situation, to a certain organization, and then it was almost more painful to develop a portable self, which gave them a chance of mobility but in reality they couldn’t move.

Then I think you had the opposite sometimes that people had developed this portable self but then for some reason couldn’t get that to match with the opportunities in the outside world, which also then created some kind of anxiety. So there’s something about matching the inner and the outer worlds, and when there’s a mismatch, that’s when the problems arise.

GP: I think it’s true that not everyone needs one, but I think more people need one than they might think they do, because I think uncertainty and mobility impacts a lot more people than it used to in the workplace. I think the problems arise when you need one but you can’t get one, then I think you might feel powerless and resentful. Or when you need one and you don’t want one, or you actually might not want to arrange your psyche and your life around mobility, you might want to arrange them around stability. I think in those situations what happens is, as Jen was saying, you can get caught up in a sense that you are not the author of the story that is your life, and that tends to be a very difficult position for anyone to bear.

TH: Now let’s go to the production of this paper. How did the paper evolve during the review process? You alluded to, briefly, that the editors find this to be a very exciting idea. Was [there] anything over the process that you added into the paper that changed from the very initial design of what you wanted to do?

GP: Production makes it sound like it’s a thing.

JP: A pie.

GP: You see, a paper—especially this paper, for us, is the first project we started working together on—it’s a live thing, I would use the word conception and then gestation and then watching it take its first steps. I think one thing that happened was, the editor and the reviewers were like these more experienced friends that make you be a less anxious parent, because I think when we wrote the paper it’s fair to say that we had this idea that this was a more psychodynamic story. But we wrote the paper in a much more traditional, mainstream way. We were pretty cautious.

School, she had the intuition, I think she wrote, “You’re being perhaps a bit too deferential to what you imagine I and the reviewers want to I read, but I would encourage you to be more upfront about your theoretical perspective and your interpretive voice.” I think that really freed us up to look at the richness of the setting and the data. It also raised the stake because then it became a more personal kind of assertion. It was in many ways a way of saying, “This is who we are, this is how we think, this is what we talk about, this is how we write about it,” and I think at the end of the review process one of the reviewers wrote, “I appreciate that this might be one way in which you are not just publishing a project, but you’re actually asserting an identity as scholars,” and that’s true.

JP: I also think when we started the project—absolutely not now, but when we started the project—there hadn’t really been a paper in ASQ using systems psychodynamics for 20, 25 years.

GP: There had never been a paper in ASQ using the words “systems psychodynamics.” There had been systems psychodynamic papers under different names.

JP: So it felt quite risky. Now, of course, in the last year five have been accepted to ASQ using that language and using those dynamics. So I think the benefit of hindsight. But at the time when we started, it felt that we were taking a big step—not into the unknown because we knew the theory, but certainly into the unknown of how the reviewer is going to react to this, how is the editor going to react to this. And I think given the career state we were at then—which I was a PhD student, Gianpiero was junior professor—it’s the sort of thing that a lot of people tell you, “Don’t do it.” It felt very risky. And now we’ve gone through it…

GP: It was right.

JP: …it was the right thing to do.

GP: It was the right thing to do because in some way…see academia can feel very mechanic, and we can use words like production, but really, for us, it’s like an art. If you look at any kind of artist, your early work defines you. If you don’t take risks with your early work, you will never take them. This is where I really kind of return to the gratitude I feel for the editor or for the reviewers because sometimes we write to each other in this sort of correspondence which is a mix between love letters and lawsuits. It’s a very peculiar genre because we write to each other without using our names and we try to help each other in the best of days.

I feel the editor and the reviewers did more than see the potential of this paper’s contribution. No, they really imagined our identity as scholars in a way that I don’t think we would be sitting here as the scholars we are if those people hadn’t pushed us out there in those moments. And certainly this wouldn’t be the paper it is if we hadn’t had that dialogue.

You’d be surprised … I remember, we used to write … The response of reviewers became quite personal. I think it’s important to speak about this because we sometimes can look at published papers, and they become a little sterile. We wrote once how we’re feeling embarrassed about one of the reviewer’s comments and trying to make sense of the embarrassment about, as an expression of our own cautiousness, which of course was stifling the theorizing and all that.

JP: I also think we were riding a wave because this paper was gestating at the same time as multiple other papers were that we were working on. I think it wasn’t just Robin and the reviewers at ASQ, it was also the other editors and reviewers that were working on the other papers. And it felt like there was a cumulative effect of these papers, to the point where I remember Robin saying to us one day, “It’s good that it’s taking this paper a long time to gestate because there’s a timing aspect as well, that a lot of papers are coming out at the same time, and so they’re re-enforcing each other.”

GP: In many ways people will say, “Oh, that is hard to do,” but it is a moment in time which we [are] really trying to understand the individual in social context, and there’s never been a time at which understanding the role of work, understanding the function of organizations, understanding what happens in the economy is so important because business is so central to the social fabric. So, you have to understand it existentially, you have to understand it psychologically, you have to understand it culturally, you have to understand it socially, you have to understand it economically, you have to understand it politically. And so, in many ways, a systems psychodynamic lens is extremely suited to do that because it’s always looking at how the intrapsychic reflects and generates the social and vice versa.

So I think the times were ripe for looking at our working lives in a slightly deeper and broader ways than we traditionally do in the more mechanical studies where there’s a phenomenon and there’s an explanation, there’s a variable and there’s an outcome, which of course not only just give us a relatively narrow piece of the puzzle—that is a career and working life at an organization—they also sometimes deceive us to think that things actually work at that level.

TH: I think this is quite relevant to Ph.D. students who are beyond qualitative scholars who are looking at a lot of the phenomenon out there that hasn’t been studied much. As you mentioned, you started this project when you were a Ph.D. student. How would you advise students who are interested in very novel phenomenon, who really want to engage in qualitative research to approach their ideas and projects? How long did this project take?

JP: So this project took a long time. It took about two and a half years to collect the data and probably 10 years in total. And it was absolutely worth it. I think the advice a lot of doctoral students get now is incredibly instrumental, and it makes me very sad to hear it, that “you just have to publish something, anything, so you can get a job on the job market.” But this is about your identity, right? It’s about who you are, and I think if you find something you’re passionate about, invest and go for broke because this is how we push the field forward.

We know this about qualitative papers: they’re more difficult to get in, they take longer. And yet if you look at what wins the ASQ award every year, if you look at the most cited papers right now on the ASQ website, they’re almost all qualitative. So we know that it’s higher risk but much higher reward. I certainly would not encourage people to shy away from that.

I think we need more people who are really pushing the boundaries on this and also doing it in a thoughtful way. We wouldn’t have got this paper through, or any of our others, without a big community supporting us. But just like any research, you can’t just go off there and do it in a vacuum, but I think if you have that supportive community then it’s incredibly rewarding and you have the chance to make a huge impact in the field.

GP: And as always with anything, if it feels risky, then buckle up. Make sure you create the conditions that either make it feel less risky or ideally that actually make it become less risky. That almost always starts with building the connections that allow you to think about how to go about doing a project like this. How do you push it forward, how do you theorize it, how do you get it published?

I think it’s also fair to say that, of course, we are also now talking about a paper that is certainly the most ambitious that we did within this project, but also we wrote other pieces on the way to that. So there was a stream of work that was appearing that was useful in the context of those pressures that we know exist within our profession, to have a stream of papers, to find jobs, and all those things because those things do matter at the end of the day. No one wants to be the starving artist if they can help it. You need to figure out what’s going to feed you, both economically and socially and practically but also psychologically.

It’s interesting that for the three of us, this was a project, of course, that we did together and we spent a lot of time on, but then we were also doing other work separately so that we could actually go back and forth between those different streams. I think if you were just doing one project and it was a project like this where the data collection is two-and-a-half years long, I think you would probably feel a lot riskier because it would be a lot riskier. It’s a beautiful basket, but it’s still one basket to put all your eggs in.

JP: I think that’s about the project, not about inductive research.

GP: Absolutely.

JP: Because both of us only do inductive research.

GP: It’s challenging, I think. It’s fair to say that when you’re in this kind of work you have five things going at the same time because if you engage in it in the way it ought to be engaged in, it’s going to absorb you entirely. It’s a little bit like writing a novel or putting on a play: you have to get deep into the field, and then you also have to come out of it without leaving the field behind. You cannot do it in two, three different fields at the same time, so there’s a limited amount of things that you can do.

TH: I really like that you mentioned that there’s this synergy…among all of the projects that you worked concurrently. A last question before we wrap up. I’m a rising third-year Ph.D. student. When was that moment that you found … Because to create the synergy, you need to know that you, at the core, you love work related to identity research. How did that come to you?

JP: My answer may not be very helpful before the Ph.D. program. I think I’m fairly rare in coming into a Ph.D. program knowing exactly what I wanted to do and leaving thinking the same thing and now being faculty still thinking the same thing. For me—I can only answer this question personally—it connects to who I am, and so there’s a sense of the questions that I struggle with individually are reflected in the research, and so the two align with each other. Carl Jung said, “All social science is autobiographical.” I think that’s true. I think some of us disguise it better than others maybe. For me, it’s that sense of, is this project, is it an expression of who I am? And if it’s not I’m not going to do it. I think I had that sense pretty early on. I was also older when I started my Ph.D. program, I had many years under my belt, so it wasn’t something … I feel like it was something that was looking for me as opposed to I was looking for something, if that makes sense.

GP: I would lie if I said there was a moment where that lightning bolt hit me and say, “I must study identity or people for occupational leadership or organizations.” I think the question of home and what is a home and what does it do to you and where are the places where we go to find ourselves has been with me for a very long time.

The desire to do work that was personal but also wasn’t just about me has been part of my training and growth as a psychiatrist and a psychotherapist, that’s part of the ethos of that profession where I have my conceptual rules and the desire to use writing and scholarly writing as a means to address questions.

There’s other ways in which you can find out about the human conditions—you can write poetry or make film or build a company or run for office—but this felt both the “what” and the “how” that was most me. And I was ridiculously lucky to have the opportunity to do it for a living. Then, for me as well, doing it over time and realizing, yes, this is it, this is my home.

TH: Thank you so much. It’s a very interesting discussion, I found it really intriguing and helpful, and I’m sure the listeners will feel the same. For those listeners who want to take a deeper dive into this paper, it’s available Online First on the ASQ journal website. I hope you all will come back for our future podcasts.

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