Professional superheroes: Working beyond the job description / by Tim Mahlberg

You may have heard of organisations inviting their people to “bring their whole selves to work”. To work with our passions and a sense of authenticity no doubt leads to greater employee engagement, performance and a great workplace culture. But how might we actually do this?

In my doctoral research, I’ve observed many professionals who do so much more than just turn up to work to do what is asked of them. On top of their formal requirements, they perform types of knowledge work that reflect other aspects of who they wish to be at their organisation. I call this working beyond their formal role, an alter-identity performance. I like to think of it as our workplace superhero; who we wish we could be at work, doing the work that really matters to us; the colourful costume peaking out from underneath our collared shirts.

The value of the alter-identity

My findings suggest that people performing alter-identities are creating value for the organisation which perhaps is going unrecognised. Firstly, they appear to be redefining “who they are” at work, and have a keen awareness of why they feel they are here.

This sense of being and purpose is about them playing a larger “role” in supporting the organisation to be a great place to work and helping the organisation to have a greater societal impact. For example, a number of people I met were actively connecting people across and beyond the firm, acting as “switchboards” for knowledge to flow between people from different teams, and new relationships to flourish. Some also proudly brought new perspectives into the firm from outside communities, such as the burgeoning startup scenes across Australia. Digital technology is an apparent enabler of this “boundary spanning” for many. I was also inspired to learn that many held a positive long-term vision for the firm, and felt a great sense of custodianship and responsibility to bring about this change.

Nurturing alter-identities

My research has shown that the employees with the most effective and impactful alter-identities have the best support from their senior leaders. This could be encouragement from their direct manager, a close mentor, or their career coach. If you want to foster the alter-identities of your people, be curious about the extra-curricular interests of your team around you. Ask the question, “how could their passions help our organisation to face an uncertain and ever-changing future?”

Our alter-identities need safe spaces to emerge in, be explored and eventually be accepted as new ways of working.

Our alter-identities need safe spaces to emerge in, be explored and eventually be accepted as new ways of working. These spaces could include online platforms, “experimental” roles, partaking in internal and external “innovation” events, engagement with professional networks, self-directed learning, and partnerships with clients. You might see your team members participating in some of these around their “formal work”, as a indication of an alter-identity just waiting to be developed and nurtured under your support.

The future of work

My research suggests that fostering our alter-identities at work can help organisations be more responsive to new opportunities. I propose that they could be a powerful avenue for a bottom-up innovation of work and working, based on the interests and passions of our people, and to create our work roles for the future. They can help us to surface new and valuable expertise that might otherwise go unnoticed, and may also lead to new products and services. Identifying and nurturing “new” work identities can also help us to make our work feel more human, more meaningful, and more impactful individually and collectively. It starts with recognising that who we are and who we might be at work goes way beyond our job description.