Photo by fotologic
I have been thinking about the issue of identity lately. Take for example this article from the PSYblog. It describes the surprising success of the Toyota Prius in the U.S. given its relatively high price and lower performance on environmental issues that are supposed to be an important factor in the decision to buy a hybrid car. The reason, according to the article, is interesting:
What it does have is a marketing campaign emphasising its fuel-saving, environmental pedigree. So people buy it to do their bit to save the planet, or at least to save fuel.
Or do they? When Prius owners were asked in a survey why they bought the car, environmental concerns came in at fifth. Fifth?
Top of the list was it, “makes a statement about me.” So the market tells us that people are prepared to pay more for an inferior product in order to display to others their environmental concern. Can this really be true?
People buy a Prius instead of a BMW both because it’s just as expensive (“Hey, I’ve got money!”), and because it’s a mobile billboard for the driver’s environmentalism (“I’m well off, but I’m prepared to make sacrifices, therefore I’m a good person”). This only works because of how people think others will view them. If it was cheaper, Toyota might not have sold 1.6 million of them. Same goes if their owners couldn’t be seen by others driving around in them.
In the book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss what Matters Most the authors claim that each difficult conversation or conflict people have is actually made up of three conversations. The “What happened?” conversation; the feelings conversation; and the identity conversation. Here is how they describe the identity conversation:
This is the conversation we each have with ourselves about what this situation means to us. We conduct an internal debate over whether this means we are competent or incompetent, a good person or a bad person, worthy of love of unlovable. What impact might it have on our self-image and self-esteem, out future and our well-being? Out answers to these questions determine in large part whether we feel “balanced” during the conversation, or whether we feel off-center and anxious.
The thing about the identity conversation is that it is rarely a discussion made out in the open. Even though it affects many of our decisions and responses, we rarely consciously discuss it, even with ourselves. And we rarely contemplate how our demands, actions or influence strategies, affect other people’s identities.
Simple questions like: “what does that say about me?” or “what kind of person acts like that or feels like that?” are questions that remain unasked. And it is a shame. Not only can these questions allow us to better understand our own decisions, but when pursued carefully and with respect, they can allow us to help people achieve great things. Identity thinking should be a tool on every manager’s mental tool kit. And the sooner the better.
When is the last time you had an identity conversation?