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Managing Managerial Identities- Organizational Fragmentation, Discourse and Identity Struggle

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Human Relations
Volume 56(10): 1163–1193: 039823
Copyright © 2003
The Tavistock Institute ®
SAGE Publications
London, Thousand Oaks CA,
New Delhi
Managing managerial identities:
Organizational fragmentation, discourse
and identity struggle
Stefan Sveningsson and Mats Alvesson
This is a case study of managerial identity work, based on an in-depth
case of a senior manager and the organizational context in which
she works. The article addresses the interplay between organizational discourses, role expectations, narrative self-identity and
identity work. Identity is conceptualized in processual terms as
identity work and struggle. The article illuminates fragmentation as
well as integration in the interplay between organizational discourses
and identity. It aims to contribute to a processual oriented identity
theory and to the methodology of identity studies through showing
the advantage of a multi-level intensive study.
discourse identity identity struggle managerial narrative
Identity is one of the most popular topics in contemporary organization
studies, as in many other branches of the social sciences. Identity themes are
addressed on a multitude of levels: organizational, professional, social and
individual. Sometimes these are linked, as when organizational or (other)
social identities are seen to fuel the identities of individuals (Ashforth &
Mael, 1989; Elsbach, 1999; Humphreys & Brown, 2002; Kunda, 1992).
Identity is viewed as central for issues of meaning and motivation, commitment, loyalty, logics of action and decision-making, stability and change,
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leadership, group and intergroup relations, organizational collaborations,
There are trends away from monolithic to multiple identities and from
fixed or essentialistic views on identity to discursive and constructed
approaches to the subject matter. Many scholars of identity and organizations argue for paying more attention to identity processes. Individuals and
organizations are said to be better understood in terms of becoming rather
than being (Ashforth, 1998). Glynn (1998: 238) notes that the literature
about organizational identities is ‘focused more on a static sense of being
identified rather than becoming identified’, reflecting the dominance of the
functionalist paradigm in organizational research. Definitions such as the
following are, for example, typical:
Organizational identification is the degree to which a member defines
him- or herself by the same attributes that he or she believes define the
(Dutton et al., 1994: 293)
Despite the espoused interest in the issue of becoming identified, most
authors do not go very far in this direction. Broadly popular streams, such
as social identity theory and organizational identification, typically emphasize themes such as social identifications in the form of a perceived overlap
between a person’s identity and a group’s or an organization’s identity
(Dutton et al., 1994; Elsbach, 1999). They assume fairly stable views of the
organization and the self, the becoming being constrained to the active
linking of the two. We follow the ‘becoming’ lead, but go further, arguing
that identity work is a more fruitful approach emphasizing dynamic aspects
and on-going struggles around creating a sense of self and providing
temporary answers to the question ‘who am I’ (or ‘who are we’) and what
do I (we) stand for?
Moreover, despite the existence of many contributions at a conceptual
level, there are relatively few empirical studies addressing specific processes of
identity constructions on the personal level in depth (Sennett, 1998 and
Watson, 1994 are good exceptions). The understanding of specific processes
and situations of identity construction in and around work and organizations
is thus somewhat poor. As many authors have pointed out, there is a lack of
in-depth studies of specific acts, events and processes in social science and
organization studies in general (Alvesson, 1996; Knights & Willmott, 1992).
Organizational analysis is often caught in the trap of reification (Chia, 1995),
and in mixing process and process outcomes (Sandelands & Drazin, 1989).
Our approach focuses on specific acts of identification and identity work. The
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concept identity work refers to people being engaged in forming, repairing,
maintaining, strengthening or revising the constructions that are productive of
a sense of coherence and distinctiveness. Identity work may either, in complex
and fragmented contexts, be more or less continuously on-going or, in contexts
high on stability, be a theme of engagement during crises or transitions. More
generally, specific events, encounters, transitions and surprises, as well as more
constant strains, serve to heighten awareness of the constructed quality of selfidentity and compel more concentrated identity work. Conscious identity work
is thus grounded in at least a minimal amount of self-doubt and self-openness,
typically contingent upon a mix of psychological–existential worry and the
scepticism or inconsistencies faced in encounters with others or with our
images of them (Alvesson & Willmott, 2002). We attempt to contribute to a
situational and detailed understanding of organizational phenomena, being
more ‘close’ to experienced reality and everyday practice, focusing on specific
instances of identity presentations and identity struggles.
This approach calls for a concentrated and intensive study. We assume
that identity lacks sufficient substance and discreteness to be captured in
questionnaires or single interviews and to be measured and counted. (We,
therefore, depart from many other authors, e.g. Pratt & Foreman, 2000.)
This assumption provides the methodological background to our study. We
focus upon one single individual – a senior manager in a large R&D company
– studied in considerable depth, as well as in context. Our aim was to
produce a thick or rich case, in opposition to the rather thin notion of
identity expressed in, for example, most social identity and organizational
identification studies. The literature typically concentrates on a limited
element of identity, how social groups or organizational belongingness
informs identity, without trying to assess this in relationship to other
elements of the individual’s identity work.
Thus, based on the idea that individuals constantly strive to shape their
personal identities in organizations and are being shaped by discursive forces,
this article explores the constructions of and struggle with various managerial
and non-managerial identities in a complex, changing and multi-ordered
organization. The article takes seriously, but investigates rather than takes for
granted, the assumption that identities of individuals are, in contemporary
organizational contexts, frequently in movement. It is productive to take seriously a process of becoming of identities in social and discursive contexts to
which individuals relate themselves. We suggest that it is a process in which
individuals create several more or less contradictory and often changing
managerial identities (identity positions) rather than one stable, continuous
and secure, manager identity. As Mead put it, ‘a parliament of selves’ exists
in each person (cited in Pratt & Foreman, 2000: 18). However, at the same
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time, there are organizational and personal life situations, and elements in life,
which are less ‘on the move’ – being more stable or slow moving. These
identity creations can be seen in terms of both socially orchestrated identity
regulations – the exercise of power – and individual identity work (Alvesson
& Willmott, 2002). The article elaborates upon several changing and contradictory managerial identities in the context of a somewhat more stable,
personal, non-managerial identity that is mobilized in certain work situations.
We interpret the latter as a narrative self-identity (Dunne, 1996; McAdams,
1993) and as one important input in identity work in organizations, which
may be less immediately affected by organizational processes and a possible
source of stability and occasional resistance. How various identities interact,
conflict, are backed up and challenged in the context of various organizational
arrangements and forms of social interaction – drawing upon various
discourses – forms an important topic of analysis.
The article then aims:
to describe empirically and make sense of the construction of managerial identity in the context of a multitude of organization/work-based
identifications, identity regulations and identity work, illuminating
fragmentation as well as integration;
to develop identity theory through exploring identity work in a managerial and organizational context; and
to contribute to the methodology of identity studies by showing the
advantage of choosing a limited site, a manager, to study somewhat
wider organizational processes and the importance of using a multilevel intensive study in order to understand identity constructions.
First, we begin with a brief conceptual discussion. This is followed by
the method and then we move from the organizational context via the role
expectations and task requirements of the focused individual, before we see
how she is being affected by and struggles with this. Her self-identity and
identity work are described and interpreted in detail. In a sense, we thus let
an organizational logic meet with the identity-based logic and struggles of
the individual.
On identity
The fields of identity theory and organizational identity are huge and we
refrain from providing an overview of the entire field(s), concentrating on
our own theoretical position.
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As noted earlier, identity work occurs in social and discursive contexts
that we see as crucial for the understanding of identity work. In a turbulent
and multifaceted world, identity becomes destabilized. Poststructuralist and
discursive approaches take this very seriously, destabilizing and decentring
the notion of identity and tying it to discourse. Discourse here refers to a
more or less integrated, prefabricated line of using language and reasoning
in which the phenomenon is constructed rather than revealed or mirrored
(Deetz, 1992; Hollway, 1984; Knights & Willmott, 1989; Shotter & Gergen,
1989; Weedon, 1987). We think this is an interesting idea, but take it
somewhat less seriously than most poststructuralists.
In contemporary business life, in particular, social contexts are
frequently portrayed as unstable, ambiguous and sometimes contradictory
(Gioia et al., 2000; Jackall, 1988; Sennett, 1998; Watson, 1994). Even
though turbulence and instability may sometimes be exaggerated, in many
organizational and life situations, the elements of change, contradiction and
fragmentations are salient and create reactions such as curiosity, anxiety and
search for ways of actively dealing with identity. Different available
discourses may be difficult to ‘choose’ between, or – formulated from another
(poststructuralist) angle – no discourse is sufficiently strongly backed up by
material and social support to offer a powerful grip over the subject. This
makes identity constructions precarious and calls for on-going identity work.
Individuals try to make sense of their conflictual and uncertain contexts in
pursuing managerial activities. There is a tendency to put two extremes
against each other among the more ‘progressive’ (postmodernist) authors:
either identity is fixed and stable – an essence, ‘being’ – or it is fluid, uncertain – in movement, ‘becoming’ or radically decentred. We do not have to
choose between a sovereign self and a decentred one (Dunne, 1996). One
may avoid an ‘essentialistic’ position without moving to the other corner,
assuming highly fluid and fragmented forms of subjectivity or privileging
There are some arguments against excessiveness in emphasizing ontological insecurity, anxiety, fluidity and the shakiness of identity formation. The
significance and depth of contemporary organizational changes is a matter of
dispute (Grey, 1999; Thompson & Warhurst, 1998). Even though the contemporary organizational world is frequently said to be more fragmented and
turbulent than many other historical settings, there are variations in terms of
social (in)stability and the ‘ontological security’ offered. There is also
variation in how people may draw upon and cope with different specific
(re-)sources of identity stabilization or, if one wants to stick to process
language, steer these processes so that contradictions are not too salient.
We are, however, eager to avoid following the ‘stronger’ versions of this
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literature, in which a ‘muscular discourse’, that is, ‘considerable constitutive
powers of discourse’ (Alvesson & Kärreman, 2000: 1144) is assumed to put
strong imprints on fragile human subjects (Newton, 1998). Definitely, issues
around subjectivity – including self and identity – are very difficult to describe
and interpret. As Dunne (1996) puts it, ‘the self lacks the substantiality and
discreteness of an object which is amenable to direct description or explanation’ (p. 143). Self and identity are partly overlapping terms, many authors
do not seem to distinguish between them. In this article we occasionally use
the term self-identity, referring to something ‘deeper’, more personal and ‘nonaccessible’ than identity. For us, identity relates more to the (conscious)
struggle to respond to the question ‘who am I?’ and is of a somewhat more
linguistic and social nature. As Giddens (1991) defines self-identity, ‘it is the
self as reflexively understood by the person . . . self-identity is continuity
(across time and space) as interpreted reflexively by the agent’ (p. 53). Identity
and self fuel each other and indicate different layers of self-understanding.
This article aims to contribute to the detailed investigations of identity
constructions in the context of specific forms of organizational preconditions
and coherence, as well as contradictions in construction work. We do not
try to explain acts and processes either exclusively through subjection to
discourses, identification with social groups and organizational role scripts
(Ashforth & Mael, 1989; Goffman, 1959), or solely through a likewise
narrow psychological approach based on a distinct, integrated and separate
identity. Our approach differs from a psychoanalytic focus, emphasizing
inner psychological processes, based on early development, life history and
the unconscious (e.g. Carr, 1998; Eriksson, 1968) as central to how work
life is experienced and acted upon. We are interested in the open, situational
and discursive sensitive nature of human subjectivity rather than depthpsychological issues contingent upon early identifications.
Most of the literature views organizational identity or roles as crucial
input to identity work. Kunda (1992), for example, draws upon Goffman,
and defines role as explicit and systematically enforced prescriptions for how
organizational members should think and feel about themselves and their
work. The self then arises out of the balancing and rejections of the organizational ideology and the member role it prescribes. In this article we try to
balance the significance of discourse, role and other ‘external’ forces targeting and moulding the human subject with the relative inertia following from
life history and capacity to reflexivity and actively to struggle to create a life
project out of various sources of influences, including to produce and edit an
integrating narrative over one’s self (McAdams, 1993). There are thus other,
more personal sources of identity work than organizational discourses,
ideologies, social identities and roles. When we talk about role we focus more
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on generalized expectations of behaviour communicated in the environment
rather than prescriptions for self-understanding, thus making a clear distinction between role and identity, although there is interplay between them. In
relationship to most authors emphasizing managerial roles focusing behaviour (cf. Mintzberg, 1973), we look at subjectivity and how people relate to
their work, including how they embrace, negotiate or reject roles.
Our approach differs from large parts of the identity literature by: (i)
avoiding the static assumptions in most work (aimed at finding correlations)
in favour of a more dynamic view; (ii) taking ideas around crises/fragmentation, decentring and discourse-driven subjectivity into account, but without
privileging it, providing space also for other elements, including life history,
narrative identity and integrative capacities; and (iii) offering a thick description of both organizational context and individual identity work, thereby
opening up how the individual constructs identity in a less pre-defined way
than studies that assume the significance of social identity and organizational
The study
As explained earlier, the article focuses on managerial identity as a focus for
studying the interface between organizational issues and processes and role
expectations, on the one hand, and more individual efforts to navigate
between and reconcile the discourses which position them, on the other hand.
This is a case study, although we have a case on two levels, one is the focal
subject, a senior manager; the other is the organization in which she works.
One idea in the study is that we can understand broader organizational
discourses by how they are played out in the work worlds of the individuals
facing them. Our interest is thus not exclusively at the individual level.
Arguably, strategic and other broader organizational issues that may have
major impacts on work in organizations are often most strongly played out
at senior middle manager levels. Micro-issues at this level may offer a good
entrance or exit to organization as a macro-entity, made up by myriad microissues. Top-level managers frequently live in a more conceptual and thus
abstract world, partly detached from the large parts of the operational and
daily work of the organization, whereas low-level participants may
encounter rather little of more broadly shared organizational issues and
being more caught up with technical details of their own jobs and work
groups. The level of senior middle manager may then be a way of making
significant parts of organizations visible – actors then are seen as sites or
entrances for less visible organizational conditions and processes.
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To achieve sufficient depth in the case company, henceforth called
Arrandee, but even more so in the ‘substudy’, we used a multitude of
methods and long-term fieldwork. More specifically, we studied the focal
subject, the director of administration (henceforth the ‘heroine’, H) of an
R&D cell in depth. Here we can talk about a multi-angled approach. We
undertook six interviews with the heroine and interviewed 40 other
managers (mostly middle) about H and her situation. We also had many
informal discussions with H and her colleagues about role expectations,
identity work and the development of the organization. We made observations at various managerial and employee gatherings where issues of role
expectations and identity were sometimes discussed. In particular, we gained
intimacy with managers by participating for well over a year in a monthly
management committee gathering (we attended 14 meetings), including the
constituting two-day start-up session on the first occasion the group
gathered. In terms of Goffman (1959), one could perhaps say that we tried
to enter the ‘back regions’ of the organization, a bit beyond the front appearances and performances of H and her colleagues.
Talk with the heroine deepened as the study progressed, frequently
addressing complex and difficult areas of role expectations and identity
struggle. Most interviews took place at the company, a few in informal
settings in the evenings and some at our offices at the university. Interviewing at a neutral place may encourage people to talk more freely (EasterbySmith et al., 1991). However, independent of when and where, interviews
are problematic as media for the communication of ‘truths’ or ‘genuine
experiences’ because of the existence of a multitude of contextual influences
as social norms, scripts for talking, value-laden language, expectations of
both the interviewee and interviewer, political interests (Alvesson, 2003a). In
order to strengthen the credibility of the interview material we used a multitude of interviewees and to some extent established close contacts with them.
These interviews were directed towards roles, expectations, coordinating
efforts of the heroine, globalization and the managing of knowledgeintensive companies in general. Not all the material is of direct relevance for
the study presented here, but gives us a good understanding of the organizational situation and possibilities of asking informed questions, to some
extent cross-check answers, etc.
The article is thus based on an intensive approach and approached the
subject matter from several angles over a considerable period in order to
make it possible to give an empirically rich and detailed, as well as nuanced
and varied, account of organizational discourses and identity struggle.
Limiting the focal subject of study to one may look risky, but we think
identity issues call for considerable depth and richness and that the wealth
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of our empirical material compensates for the limited sample. Indeed, one
purpose of the article is to demonstrate the advantages of this method.
The organization1
The organization, Arrandee, is a large, highly research-intensive multinational in a high-tech industry and is the result of a merger between two
corporations, of American and Swedish origin respectively. The study was
primarily conducted at a former subsidiary of the Swedish part of Arrandee.
This was founded in the 1940s and went international during the 1970s by
establishing independent subsidiaries that proved successful. The company
became world leader in some markets in the 1980s. During the 1990s,
however, many products matured and management searched for a merger
candidate, partly in order to share the increasing costs of R&D, but also in
order to establish a stronger market presence. It subsequently merged with
another company and Arrandee was hence created. Arrandee is horizontally
differentiated into several global functions of which R&D is the largest.
R&D is organized in local research cells and through a variety of global subfunctions dispersed across local cells. Hence, for every sub-function within
R&D there is a global and local level. After the merger, local companies were
transformed into substantially less independent research cells. The study was
conducted at a historically very successful cell. The stagnation that occurred
in the 1990s puzzled both management and employees as most of the
researchers from the successful years remained. It was suggested that the
researchers focused on scientifically interesting, but commercially weak,
projects and many described the cell as being more like a university. The focal
subject of this study, H, said that ‘We had perhaps become a bit lazy, spoiled
and comfortable’.
This background constitutes a context in which various organizational
discourses are enacted. The discourses that we elaborate upon are related to
this, creating a complex web in which the heroine struggles to create
meaning. Before we focus on her we briefly account for the discursive forces
that create tensions and contradictions in the organization.
Organizational discourses
Discourse is a tricky term, used in a variety of ways (Alvesson & Kärreman,
2000; Phillips & Hardy, 2002). We use it here to refer to a way of reasoning
(form of logic), with certain truth effects through its impact on practice,
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anchored in a particular vocabulary that constitutes a particular version of
the social world. Discourses here have both an ideational/ideological and
practical/structural element. We do not want to push for a radical discourse
view here, but see the advantage of the concept as indicating the openness of
what ‘really’ goes on in the organization and the combined pressure and
opportunities to define and realize organization in a particular way. We
identify four discourses. This is always contestable – discourses are not always
neatly organized or distinct. We recognize that these four do not constitute
all the possible ways of representing what goes on in the organization – there
are discourses on equal opportunities, technological development, market
changes, etc. as well. However, the impression based on extensive empirical
material is that the four seem to be significant and imprint on the working
life and identity situation of H and other managers, and, more generally,
illuminate some of the variation around the management and organization of
the company. The discourses are so different that they are best addressed as
(analytically) separate, although in practical settings they can be combined or
synthesized (cf. Boje’s theory of interpenetrating and overlapping organizational discourses in organizations; Boje, 1995).
The global company
In its annual reports, Arrandee is described as being ‘a corporation of impressive size and global scope’ operating in a ‘global high-tech market’. After the
merger, the company was conceptualized as ‘global’ referring mainly to
‘harmonization’ among R&D cells. Tasks can be allocated to any cell from
global heads. Corporate management also issued operating models in order
to standardize operations across the corporation. In addition, they centralized decisions in areas controlled previously by the former independent
subsidiaries, i.e. investment, recruitment and project priorities, leaving the
local cell manager with minor coordinating tasks. The aim was to create
more efficient resource allocation between cells, reduce overlapping activities and try to manage the increasing cost of research. Local managers now
report to the global heads instead of to the head of the cell. The standardization and centralization efforts have put pressure at the local level to
exhibit compliance with the corporate administrative demands.
Global is here seen as ‘world wide homogenization’ (Levitt, 1983).
Arrandee uses slogans such as ‘thinking globally and acting locally’, presumably to reduce tensions between the organizational levels. This has resulted
in talk of ‘glocalism’ as one local manager claims: ‘There’s really no conflict
between the global and local level, we combine them into what we describe
as glocalism.’
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Comments like this are rare, however, and people more often raise the
problems of having global managers rarely present, as one researcher
But in the old company (before the merger) I felt like: It was me, I had
my department manager, I had my R&D manager and then I had the
manager of the company. You met him sometimes. It wasn’t that many
steps. Since this new organization has come its like the company
manager is sitting on the moon.
The global discourse thus seems to lay the ground for fragmentation tendencies at the local level, hence strengthening the administrative coordination
demands on local cell managers. The global–local power dynamics produce
tensions at the local cell level and some people perceive negative effects on
local creativity and innovative potential, a topic to which we now turn.
Facilitating creativity
In the merger, analyses of what constitutes effective product development
resulted in a revival of the significance of management and organization. A
research manager explains that: ‘by appropriate organization structure,
culture and leadership, successful product development could be pursued’,
thus suggesting bringing managers closer to the development process.
Corporate culture is seen as being particularly important to create a facilitating research climate. Some managers have said that the best research is
often done outside, and in opposition to, established routines and practices.
People find authoritative support for this view: ‘I talked to our CEO at a
dinner last night and he said that we have to have people that violate the
systems and follow their own logic, that’s how we create the real innovations’
(research manager).
Several managers at the local level fear that the standardization and
centralization reduce creativity as they jeopardize the importance of local
culture work. Many argue that products often are the result of informal practices and small-scale organizational arrangements that form favourable
cultural conditions. A research manager says:
Now, with the new organization and centralization and bureaucracy I
think that all those projects that emerge between various functions will
not appear any more. The most successful research actually comes
about by chance and without any prior planning, they just appear by
the fact that engaged people are allowed to do a little of what they feel
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is right and sometimes follow their intuitions. I mean here at the local
level I have a very restricted budget, which doesn’t allow me to take
any initiative.
Some managers fear that the focal points in the new organization will remain
with the functions, sustaining ‘functional egoism’ which is perceived to be
damaging as successful research is seen as an outcome of multifunctional
teamwork. In sum, there is a strong discourse of the necessity to balance
large, functional and formal organizational arrangements with informal and
small-scale practices allowing for mavericks and disobedience. As the cell
manager explained: ‘You know in Lyon, they have this guy who refuses to
sit at a table of a certain form and you have to live with that as long as he
develops products’. According to many, creativity and innovation process
thus need a supportive culture.
Exploiting networks
Whereas the two above-mentioned discourses emphasize the internal organization, a third emphasizes networks and says that ideas are mainly developed
outside established companies. As the CEO stated when visiting the cell:
Ninety-five percent of all exciting research done in the world is actually
done outside the companies in the industry, which is why the company
needs to have big ears, open minds and fast feet.
The idea of allowing researchers to pursue their own projects and develop
links with the research community is common. Academic publications,
although not commercially motivated, create credentials and facilitate
networks. Unexpected results and additional information about products can
bring about surplus value, it is argued. After the merger, the fear arose among
employees as to whether it would be possible to sustain external networks.
Following the merger it seems that the strong network discourse remains in
circulation, favoured by employees with links to the academic world, in
particular. It does not dominate, but the company has close links with
universities and scientific communities all over the world, which forms an
important context for the cell manager’s job:
The cell manager has a role to be an external face to the region. The
surrounding region here doesn’t think of global functions but of
Arrandee here in this city. Arrandee has a reputation here in this region
and it’s an important role for our cell manager to be that external face.
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This is in line with contemporary writings on management suggesting the
loosening up of organizational boundaries (Miles et al., 1997).
Management control
Following the merger, ideas of making product development more structured,
transparent and manageable were advanced, a development that was perhaps
part of broader trends towards management control (Kärreman et al., 2002).
In contrast to the typical university, they were supposed to build ‘a lean and
mean product hunting machine’ (HR manager). Product development is not
a result of just putting some researchers in the same room and giving them
freedom, as a research manager declared:
it is an old fashioned view and it was the old view of this company, it
is the view which says that ‘oh, you can’t possibly measure all what I
put in research, we’re creative people, it just happens’, put a bunch of
creative people together in project and things just come that’s just
Instead he proposed that product development is:
a production line, same as anything else, perfectly measurable, like
anything else, it’s not any different.
We’re just going to focus on new products in the future so everybody’s
role is very clear and critical, there’s no duplication, all the projects are
now wide open, we’ve put all the project reporting on the intranet page
for everybody to see, all reporting is open and transparent for anyone
to see.
The statement suggests a discourse aimed at making product development
more regimented, explicit and visible. Part of the management control
discourse emanates from the demands of conceptualizing the corporation as
global. Because global partly refers to a greater extent of standardization and
bureaucratization, the operating models issued by corporate headquarters
consist of rather detailed time and activity schemes. Product development is
coined ‘management process’ in order to emphasize the managerial significance. There is a revival of planning; a global product plan is broken down
into short-, mid- and long-term strategies. These are then broken down into
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integrated project plans that are further broken down into functional stage
plans. Together with the intranet reporting system, all this has stressed the
importance of management systems such as performance management, time
registration and the use of balanced scorecards.
Summary – Organizational diversities and tensions
Four discourses seem significant, creating a multidiscursive setting in which
managers try to manoeuvre, exercising pressure on possibilities for, as well
as uncertainties and tensions around, identity. Tensions are significant (i)
between globalized and centralized control and local identity, (ii) between a
technocratic managerialist approach and a cultural and creative one, and (iii)
contingent upon the generally high level of ambiguity in this kind of work
fuelled by organizational changes with a debatable (internally debated)
validity for improving results.
Having given a picture of the organizational context in terms of discursive diversity, it is time to see this from the point of view of a subject working
with and within these discourses and the roles and tasks they tend to
construct. We, therefore, move to the identity work of our heroine, the cell
manager, and investigate the consequences of this multidiscursive setting for
her managerial identity work.
H’s background
The heroine
First, we need to develop the pre-understanding of the heroine (H). She is in
her 40s, has a long background with the company, formerly being a
researcher and engaged in lower level managerial activities. After completing her PhD at university she started at the cell in R&D. There she engaged
in managerial and organizational issues, becoming what she describes as ‘one
of those who rather naturally took the lead in things’. Later, she was
promoted to director for one function and also selected by corporate
management for various leadership programmes. One larger programme was
run over a couple of years by an executive training company known for its
orientation towards ‘soft’ management issues, i.e. reflections on culture,
meaning, identity and especially leadership as opposed to traditional administrative management (Kotter, 1990). She was also selected for an internal
leadership programme in which potential future leaders were first identified
and then ‘educated’ in leadership by a senior mentor. From early on in her
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career, therefore, H has been fashioned to lead and to do so in an indirect
and supporting manner, supposedly designing the organizational conditions
in which others create and innovate (Senge, 1996).
According to a subordinate at that time, H saw her managerial job as
engaging people in visions, strategy and culture as a way of empowering
people, being serious about delegating authority:
she was very much into delegating authority when she was the director,
and I think that she really believed in delegating, it was not something
that she just talked about but rather something that she really identified
herself with.
Being a cell manager
H was recruited to general cell manager after the merger with the American
company. Having been occupied with leadership for a while she was pleased
to be able to leave the position as a lower level director. Indeed, she left her
former job with the hope of never returning to that managerial level, taking
nothing but a photo of her favourite sports team with her to her new
position. The merger and resulting changes at the organizational and
personal levels were characterized by H as:
The enormous changes. What has surprised me most is me myself, it
has been extremely difficult for me to realize what enormous changes
that this will imply and that for every step I have realized that the
change becomes even greater than I thought. I conceive of myself as an
individual that usually understands changes and see them a bit before
other people do. But I have been surprised several times.
Still, she views it as:
Terribly exciting. I think this has been very fun.
The move forced her to make sense of being a senior level manager, in charge
of several administrative and technical departments employing 300 of the
1000 people working in the cell. In doing so, three aspects of being a cell
manager have been raised by her. These partly reflect organizational
discourses, and partly the specific work organization and role expectation on
her job. First, she (and others) describes herself as manager of one of the
functions at the cell, operations, which deals mainly with infrastructure. As
we shall see, this part of the job is partly characterized by role expectations
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that H finds frustrating and that trigger intensive identity work. Second, she
sees herself (and is seen as by others) as representing the cell internally and
externally. This aspect is more strongly manifested externally than internally.
This includes PR/information and having a mediating role between different
internal stakeholders. Third, she talks about her role as chairperson of the
newly created management team. The status of this group is unclear but is,
in the eyes of most people, not very high. The group is partly comprised of
H’s subordinates, e.g. IT, finance and human resources (HR) managers, but
mainly by local heads of various R&D functions who are peers to H. H has
chosen the latter to be in the team in order to create and sustain a common
culture, thus trying to reduce the inherent tendency towards fragmentation
between various functions and levels. Although regarded by H as a leadership team aimed at managing organization culture, most of the other
managers do not share this view, viewing it as a group for administrative
issues. Nevertheless, the team constitutes yet another arena for the cell
manager to elaborate upon the various roles and, by implication, identities.
The three functions call for particular roles – expectations of behaviour and
performances in the context of the tasks of others – but because these roles
also imply certain self-definitions and are loaded with personal meaning they
also lead to inputs to different managerial identities and struggles between
The three roles are quite different, possibly leading to quite different
managerial identities. However, parallel to these managerial identities, the
heroine has also expressed a need to sustain identity work by a nonmanagerial identity. At some arenas she moves to what might be conceptualized as a narrative self-identity (McAdams, 1993), providing her with some
basic security that aims at reducing the struggle between the various managerial identities and possibly reaching some reconciliation between these. The
managerial and non-managerial identities can be thought of as expressing
images and knowledge that she refers to and mobilizes in her dialogue with
herself and others. This characterization thus takes seriously the roles H is
expected to perform but avoids reducing her work to being nothing but those
roles. The later material also gives us an opportunity to shed some light upon
how H feels and thinks of these roles in terms of (at least part of) her life
story and life projects, i.e. how she relates to these in terms of a seemingly
more coherent sense of self-identity and puts a personal touch on the job.
Roles influence identity, but roles are also formed (and enlarged, modified,
marginalized, rejected) in identity work. The identity work accounted for
later is contextualized in terms of the four discourses discussed earlier.
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Janitorial talk as negative identity
The work as manager for operations includes managing technical facilities
and administrative work, i.e. information, conference equipment, housing,
gardening, local HRM and finance. In this role the heroine is also expected
to implement some of the management control systems mentioned earlier.
This role is also an effect of globalization, according to some people reducing
local cells to industry hotels, providing the infrastructure for work and with
few coordinating or controlling functions. This role is problematic for H to
identify with and she talks of it as a ‘cell janitor’. Despite this pejorative label
she emphasizes that she does not regard such work as generally unimportant, but rather as something that is basically not her ‘thing’. As cell manager
she began by inviting the new management team to a two-day culture session,
implying the cultural and strategic agenda of the new manager and management team. For more than two years after that, however, ‘janitor issues’
consumed most of her time. She said that:
If janitor issues continue to take a major part of my time, well, then
this role and position will be problematic in the long run. I have ten
people reporting directly to me and that’s too many. Especially since
they have the habit of sending problematic issues to me rather than
trying to manage it themselves. I mean, I have to manage things like
where to put the coat hangers on doors and things like that.
While our heroine tries to distance herself from this managerial role, most
people in the organization seem to regard it as the most important, as one
manager says:
her mandate is not to lead anything really. It’s more that she shall
manage the buildings, the finance and the gardens. She will manage
generally about resources, in some way overall resources and buildings
and people and salaries a little. But she will not lead any projects and
she will not lead processes or performance management.
An employee explains: ‘She’s pushed into a locker and there she’s supposed
to dance’ implying that she is unable to manage independently. Another
manager explains the role of cell manager as:
when it (the new management team which is led by the cell manager)
was constructed I saw it as a way of managing things like the dining
hall, human resources and IT and such functions that are service functions to the three important scientific functions.
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These role expectations are not confined to the particular cell, they also
derive from the higher levels. Global managers espouse the ‘janitorial’ aspect,
although not describing the work as pejoratively as some local managers. H’s
superior once gathered all the cell managers together with the purpose of
discussing archive matters at the cell level (an issue usually considered to be
of minor importance). Indeed, H was ordered to participate in those discussions while being present in a meeting concerned with a more significant
issue, namely, the possible firing of employees. Not surprisingly, H expressed
strong frustration at this:
I don’t really know what my boss expects from me but if it’s things like
the archive issues I really don’t know what to say, I mean, is that what
I as cell manager am supposed to occupy myself with or what?
She actively positions herself apart from what she views as trivial matters:
I have difficulties seeing why the person who discusses strategy for the
whole cell and the direction in which the cell will develop also has to
be boss for the office cleaning. They don’t fit together and this is why
I’d like to talk about it.
In the organizational arena H struggles to avoid the ‘janitorial’ aspects of
her work and instead move to the strategist and culture tasks. Through the
introduction of the global organization, power was redirected to the global
managers while the work of the cell manager has been confined to the infrastructure. Strategy and culture issues are downplayed in favour of operational activities, the latter facilitated by the management control devices, i.e.
time registration systems and balanced scorecards. This is problematic in
the context of the heroine’s view of product development as largely dependent on issues of culture, creativity and to some extent, small-scale
teamwork. She has often expressed the view that research is something
dependent on relations, culture, mavericks and multifunctional teams.
When comparing her own cell with another considered more successful, she
refers to differences in culture and atmosphere, underscoring her belief that
a creativity-supportive culture is what managers should work on. Hence, H
constructs her (‘conventional’) management tasks in a specific way. It could
also be constructed as a vital job, with 300 subordinates, in charge of many
of the major management functions: finance, personnel, information, information systems, technical support, etc. By using the modern leadership
emphasis on a creativity/culture-development discourse as a yardstick and
ideal, the traditional management tasks appear as, or can be constructed
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and presented as, ‘janitorial’ work. This indicates a negative or anti-identity
as it is constructed in opposition to work on culture and values that
emanates from the creativity discourse. H is clearly unable to personalize
the social role of being manager for operations and situate that in her own
life story. Hence the resulting frustration and potential ‘identity malaise’ (cf.
McAdams, 1993) of getting stuck with a script that she could perform but
not personalize.
Cell ambassador and figurehead
A second aspect of being a manager of the cell, according to H, is being a
representative of the historical logic of local autonomy, a strong embeddedness in the local societal community and a certain distancing from the
company as a whole. This aspect of her managing concerns participation in
societal and scientific boards in the adjacent community. H pictures this role
as a natural part of management; it is the ambassador’s role to participate
in the community.
This identification gives H external legitimacy like that of the
traditional manager (CEO). However, because this is contested within the
organization, the ambassador’s role also creates tensions. For instance, H has
no influence over strategic directions concerning future investments in the
local cell, although she is still met by expectations that this could be the case
in the adjacent community and to some extent internally. The fact that the
heroine is sitting in the former CEO’s room and employing the same personal
assistant creates the impression of a certain degree of continuity with respect
to previous heads of the unit (CEOs). These symbols are thus ambiguous in
their effects on identity work. Another example of a similar impact is when
she was invited to talk about strategy and leadership at educational institutions, based on the assumption that she was the top manager of a large
and important unit of the company. As a lecturer that invited her to the
university said: ‘Well, we’re having her as a guest now and that is really heavy
considering she’s running that large company’.
Most managers and their subordinates in the organization favour this
external ambassador role, although emphasizing that it is symbolic with
minor effect on the ‘real decisions’. Such symbolic representations, however,
also create essential input to processes of managerial and self-definitions. H
personalizes this role beyond superficial role-playing. The identification with
the ambassador role expectations is partly a result of, as well as a mobilization and sustaining of, the network discourse. The local cell has a long
history of being considered as an important actor in societal and scientific
networks. Hence, by subjecting to the network discourse the heroine
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preserves a practice that partly serves to strengthen her general identity as a
senior manager, playing a strategic role.
Culture generator
When entering as a cell manager, H’s mandate was vague and this gave her
some freedom to form the management team and management roles according to how she saw herself. The culture/creativity discourse, rather than
specific role expectations, put some imprints on her work in this arena. For
example, at the culture and identity session mentioned earlier, in which she
formed the management team, ‘soft leadership’ issues comprised the agenda.
There, H emphasized the creativity discourse while downplaying the technocratic management control discourse. Also at that session, the participating
managers were expected to construct an identity for the management team
and begin to work on cultural issues. Through these activities the heroine
clearly indicated that being a cell manager did not imply only a limited focus
on infrastructure. H manages this identity work as related to others explaining that: ‘The person with the same job in another cell almost fainted when
he heard about me dealing with culture issues’. For H this does not indicate
being on the wrong track, but rather boldness and leadership drive.
About her ambitions she said that:
When I took this job I wanted to shape a culture. I have a kind of belief
that in a global organization there’s a need for cultural glue. I think
that research is done in environments where people meet each other,
not up and down in global structures. I think it’s really interesting when
we as cell managers also have a responsibility for the culture. The
responsibility is to see the whole, what are the consequences of certain
decisions being made and so on.
The management team is an on-going project and a challenge for H:
I feel there is a real attraction in the role as chairperson in the team
because it is difficult, because it is a matter of trying to get a group of
managers to create a common view concerning what is important for
this cell there are some administrative concerns as well, but what is of
special importance is the culture of the cell. I feel that the most important issue for this cell is to affirm the whole in what we are doing and
produce a feeling that all parts are equally important and that we can
give cultural support to some parts that have not been successful for
some years.
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The quotations elucidate H’s ambitions to govern the management team
using the creativity discourse, focusing in particular on creating a cell-based
identity and a research-supporting culture. The issues raised by H are longterm and more strategic than the ‘janitorial issues’. They are in line with some
of the ideas on bringing managers closer to the R&D process, performing
leadership, hence the receptiveness for some of these ideas in the management team. However, in spite of H’s intention and some receptiveness, the
management team has been occupied to a large extent with issues related to
administration and management control, including transforming the cells
into ‘cost centres’, introducing time- and cost-reporting systems. H has
responded to this, not by active resistance, but as something that she manages
reluctantly, handled instrumentally rather than being something with which
H identifies.
H’s initiatives to shape a culture are partly supported by some
managers in the management group, particularly those sceptical about the
possibility of achieving globalization in terms of standardization and centralization. However, the very same initiatives are considered by a few global
managers to be illegitimate exercises of power as they jeopardize the advantages of globalization. Local actions thus constitute potential resistance
against global implementation of standardized management models. In the
management group H has come to talk of her own culture coordination
efforts as ‘rebellion’ akin to ‘guerrilla’ activities. The metaphors used illustrate a willingness to identify with a sort of grandiose leadership, of a revolutionary (and thereby potentially dangerous in the management group as
well) and idealistic character. At the same time, these ideas are to some extent
supported by stories in the industry about how innovation really is made and
by reports of statements such as the one of the CEO above about the need
to violate the system.
The subject as a location of contradictory discourses
With every one of the three managerial roles as constructed by H, there are
demands and expectations depending on how one interprets them and the
discursive context that constitute their content. Every role can be interpreted
differently – in terms of content and significance – depending on which
discursive material is mobilized. A variety of managerial identities are
possible, between which there are tensions and contradictions, hence the
constant struggle bringing about temporary views of the self, where certain
identity versions dominate over the others, depending on the context.
H subjects herself to the creativity discourse and finds that the demands
emanating from the global managers’ interpretation of the global and
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management control obstruct culture-creating efforts. This creates frustration for H and she develops a negative or anti-identity, the janitor. This
overlaps with what Elsbach (1999) refers to as (organizational) disidentification, i.e. an active, negative separation between one’s identity and something else (organizational identity). We also focus, however, on the
metaphorical construction of the object of distanciation in a particular way,
thus creating a difference explicating the not-me quality. H also subjects
herself to the network discourse; it continues a long tradition within the
company having close contacts with the local university in particular. Both
the creativity and network discourses constitute her identity construction
positively. The global discourse is problematic because it obstructs the realization of the creativity discourse and local cultural and identity issues. The
management control discourse is also problematic, seen as a necessary evil;
H performs what is expected from the global level thereby fulfilling a role,
but it does not directly effect her identity, i.e. it is not mobilized in positive
self-definitions or communicated to others that ‘this is me’.
While H constructs as specific and prioritizes the role as chairman of
the management team, hoping that it facilitates her work (and identity) as
strategy and culture generator (the creativity discourse), managers around
and above her construct the (single) managerial role for H as ‘operations
manager’ because that presumably facilitates their respective work (mainly
based on the management control and globalization discourses).
The case gives a rich picture of a complex of discourses and roles to
which the cell manager has to situate her identification process. The expectations from others in the organization exhibit several identity regulations
that give rise to the identity work of the cell manager, which in turn also
affects the role expectations and identity regulations of others. There is,
however, another aspect of the identity work of the cell manager, seldom
focused on in cases of identification processes in organization studies, which
we refer to as the narrative self-identity and to which we now turn.
A narrative self-identity as stabilizer
As we have shown, H has substantial difficulties in identifying herself with
being a (traditional) manager of operations, because it locks her into operative and administrative issues that she finds frustrating. H’s want for something more meaningful is grounded in the creativity discourse and the
networking discourse. These discourses constitute resources for personal
identification, more than just superficial role performance. We can see H’s
problems in terms of a fight between different discourses, in which her
favoured discourse scores badly as the others have powerful sponsors. But
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we need to ask why this strong identification with the culture-creativity
discourse, why is she not, as her colleagues at other cells and most managers
seem to be, more ‘flexible’ and let herself be regulated by the discourses and
role expectations dominating in the company? Where does her resistance
come from? We clearly need to go beyond a focus on organizational
discourses and roles.
One response is to consider what can be referred to as a narrative selfidentity associated with personal history and orientations ‘outside’ the
immediate work context, at least as conventionally defined. The understanding of narrative self-identity here is close to what McAdams (1993)
conceptualizes as ‘personal myth’, a kind of ‘life story’ as a central dimension in identity and something that potentially integrates the diversity of role
expectations common in modern life. It goes beyond role presentations (à la
Goffman) and discourse-driven subjectivity (à la poststructuralism) and
points to a more integrative and meaningfully created identity. According to
McAdams (1993), Dunne (1996) and others, identity can be conceptualized
as taking form through life stories, which to some extent also could be seen
in the case of H. These can be connected to fantasy and myth and can be
seen as existing outside the sphere of management control and
reactions/resistance to it (Gabriel, 1995).
At the culture session mentioned earlier, when H first met her management team, she presented herself as a farmer, a simple woman with ‘both her
feet on the ground’. She told a story about herself and showed a photo of
her in her garden in the countryside. There she was pictured in quite simple
clothing with a shovel in her hand and against a background of gardening
equipment and some cats. Clearly, this presentation was quite unusual for
the other managers who did not show themselves in such a personally
comprehensive way as H did. Nor did they come close to signalling such a
strong anti-identity to the predominant organizational structuring principal,
globalism. To this she also contributed a quite extensive story about living
in a remote house in the countryside with animals and a large garden. From
that highly personal presentation she tried to set the agenda for the management team around locally grounded identity and culture. She also elaborated
on the meaning of creating a management team as a means of ‘curious reflection’ and a ‘partnership group’. From the beginning, then, the management
team has been an arena in which she could act out her self-identity. This
provides some rationale for her in defending and promoting the culture
aspects of her managerial identities.
The narrative self-identity also gives her some support in reflecting on
the turbulence and uncertainty in the organization on the basis of a more
fundamental and solid (though not static) self-identity. In the course of the
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merger there was much uncertainty and a significant number of people from
the local cell were made redundant, which created enormous tensions locally.
During the course of those events H often returned to these values seemingly
seeking comfort and stability. As she said when the merger was in a critical
A lot is demanded by a personality in order to keep calm and maintain
the balance when everything around oneself goes in circles. I have seen
how certain persons who enter this have gone in circles themselves and
have not felt particularly well. It’s extremely important to have some
personal balance in this process and realize that my pets, picking mushrooms and watching sports have been equally important as anything
else in this process, all in order to focus on something which is good
for you.
The citation suggests that the self-identity is partly based in these narratives
where she presents herself as a farmer and sports fan, interested in cats and
walking in the woods picking mushrooms. Thus, the non-managerial identity
seems to have a particular impact on the cultural aspects of the managerial
identities. H has stated repeatedly that although they are a global company
people work at the local level which is why it is important to create a local
atmosphere: ‘We can have a global network but have a need for a local
everyday life, we are local as human beings.’ This connects to her interest in
a football club, by definition always locally rooted, and her identification
with the concrete everyday countryside life, as well as the importance of
gardening and raising animals, the latter referring to craft rather than
The self-identity makes the identity struggle both more comfortable
and problematic. It is a resource for well-being as it represents stability and
reliable satisfaction – the opposite of the turbulent corporate world. But it
is also a source of tension and pain, as it is at odds with the new organizational regime and makes smooth adaptation and compliance more difficult.
In the case of H, it fuels an up-hill struggle with powerful organizational
arrangements and discourses and specific expectations about what she should
do in her job.2
The managerial and identity work of organizational actors, in particular at
senior levels, mutually define each other. Organizational discourses and
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material arrangements affect identity constructions, but identity is also
crucial in organizing processes. In the case of H, this is clearly illustrated by
her self-definition as a person focusing on people and culture, which means
that culture work is put on the agenda in the management team. It is also
apparent in her antipathy towards viewing herself as a ‘janitor’ or as
‘manager of an industry hotel’, meaning a (more or less successful) decentralization of a number of managerial tasks to subordinates, and presumably
more janitor-minded types.
The major work roles – administrator, spokesperson and cultural integrator – go in different directions. Through pointing at the metaphors used
– explicit or underlying – the diversity becomes even clearer: janitor, ambassador and culture creator. Her work can be seen as a hybrid – which is
increasingly common in many managerial jobs. Fragmentation of managerial
jobs has been well known for a long time (Carlsson, 1951; Mintzberg, 1973)
and it can be argued that managerial work calls for considerable flexibility
(Denison et al., 1995; Jackall, 1988). But fragmented work does not necessarily imply (equally) a fragmented identity. Successful identity work increases
coherence and may act as a buffer against a threateningly diverse and
ambiguous external world (cf. Dunne, 1996; McAdams, 1993). In this case,
H’s integrative efforts backfire. She cannot avoid being located in work situations implying different, indeed contradictory, notions of self – from being
seen as the equivalent of a CEO to being in charge of facilities. She unintentionally constructs/reinforces fragmentations through efforts to impose on
her work and her surroundings a line of action emerging from her selfidentity narrative, but incongruent with dominant organizational discourses
and role expectations on her job, threatening any sense of coherence and
meaningfulness in work. As work by Watson (1994), Alvesson and Sveningsson (2003) and others indicates, this may be part of a broader trend.
One significant element here is the expansion of a grandiose discourse
on management. Whereas managers were previously seen as ‘apparatchiks
of various forms of bureaucracy’ (Scarborough & Burrell, 1996), the contemporary understandings exalt managers as ‘entrepreneurs’, ‘leaders’, ‘culturecreators’ or ‘visionaries’ (du Gay, 1996). Dominating discourses turn the
senior administrator making the apparatus work into ‘the leader’ – the strategist, the entrepreneur and the visionary culture-creator as the norm for the
manager. It is now common to make distinctions between managers and
leaders, in which the latter exercises the more ambitious, thrilling and
positive tasks, making people feel inspired, committed and obey without
feeling any negative power forcing them (e.g. Zaleznik, 1977). H seems to
have been thoroughly exposed to this discourse when she participated in a
longer management training programme. H’s pejorative view of her janitor
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role can be read as a consequence of the normalizing effects of the grandiose
discourse on leadership in combination with its adjacent creativity-culture
creation discourse (cf. Foucault, 1980, 1982). The janitor role associates H
with being just another cog in the organizational wheel, perhaps close to
being an impostor (Gabriel, 1997), as compared with the grandiose leader
facilitating creativity and culture. Beyond the strong preference for and
choice to stick with the creativity-culture discourse, we find the selfnarrative making H less inclined to accept the dominant discourses and more
prone to act based on her convictions and identity. A more moderate reproduction of such norms seems to follow a broader organizational trend where
managers generally talk of how leadership should replace management,
fuelling the expectation of every manager being a strategist, visionary and
culture-creator. However, as suggested by Alvesson and Sveningsson (2003),
a lot of that talk seems to function (although vaguely) as input in more partial
forms of identity work rather than be closely related to any substantial managerial practice, potentially creating discrepancies between ideals and experienced practice and leading to frustration among many managers. The case
of H is revealing, although probably somewhat atypical. This is, however,
for future research to establish.
Our case study offers four contributions to the understanding of identity
constructions in a (managerial) work context: the metaphor of identity as
struggle, the invoking of narrated self-identity constructions, the role of
negative or anti-identity, the importance of thick descriptions of identity and
the limitations of some dominant, ‘thin’ ideas in the organizational identity
literature. We do not claim that we are the first to address these topics, but
rather that we add some ideas and aspects, in particular, in the context of
managerial identity work in a multidiscursive context.
Many studies of identity emphasize coherence, continuity and distinctiveness. Many of these assume a stable self-definition and/or a stable definition of the organization as well as of the link/overlap between these (e.g.
Dutton et al., 1994). Other studies tend to view subjectivity as an effect of
discourse and typically assume a fluid and fragmented self (e.g. Hollway,
1984; Weedon, 1987). This study argues for identity as struggle. Individuals
are assumed to strive for comfort, meaning and integration and some correspondence between a self-definition and work situation. Discourses, roles
and narrative self-identities all are involved – they fuel and constrain identity
work. The identity as struggle and identity work metaphors offer an
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alternative approach to many influential streams in the field, moving in
between conventional (‘quasi-essential’) and postmodernistic (decentred)
A key element in this struggle is between (i) the pressure of the leadership discourse to move from being an ‘apparatchik of bureaucracy’ to being
a ‘leader’ and (ii) the pressure of corporate bureaucracy to not spend too
much time on leadership and instead see to it that the bureaucratic apparatus works.
The notion of a narrated self-identity (identity narrative) construction
also moves in this terrain (e.g. Dunne, 1996; McAdams, 1993), but we think
that our study adds two potential insights. First, we see this as not necessarily a kind of overarching, integrating kind of personal framework successfully securing a purposeful whole or consolidate different parts of a person
as the personal stories of McAdams (1993) accomplish, but as open in this
respect, potentially contributing to fragmentations and conflicts. Narratives
may align with or inspire ‘pro-identity’ re-constructions of discourses, or vice
versa, but as the case shows, the opposite is also possible. Second, we think
it is important to consider the deeply personal nature of self-identity narratives irrespective of origin. The case illustrates that not just the usual suspects
– organizational and occupational belonging, gender, ethnicity, etc. – but also
other themes may be central. It is interesting to note that H does not refer
to her gender at all and generally gives the impression of not seeing this as
significant and interesting. Gender does not appear to be invoked in
conscious identity work. These unconventional themes may originate outside
work and organization, but still be present and vital here. Sometimes extrawork identity constructions may reduce the vulnerability and process-nature
of identity struggles, making them less billiard-like. It may be argued that
future work on identity should take stabilizers and antidotes to the ‘external’
turbulence and fragmentation of the organizational world more seriously.
The self-identity narrative of H paradoxically illustrates both this tendency
and the previously mentioned opposite one: it stabilizes and counteracts
strains, but also fuels fragmentation and conflict.
A third possible contribution concerns the idea of the anti-identity. A
similar concept – organizational disidentification – has been developed by
Elsbach (1999, see also Dukerich et al., 1998; Kunda, 1992) although
focusing on the organization and the distanciation from it or some of its
traits. It is sometimes used to refer to negative assessments of organizational
conditions without necessarily exploring the meaning of this for personal
identity and identity work (Elsbach, 1999; Humphreys & Brown, 2002). Our
point rather concerns the ‘not-me’ positions invoked through the antiidentity in relationship to the work situations and role expectations. Our case
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also illustrates the importance of the metaphorization of this position. The
‘janitor’ offers a powerful counter-image, as does the ‘hotel manager’. As
identity constructions typically involve images and lively ideas around ‘who
am I’ and ‘how am I like’, anti-identity metaphors are presumably an important part of identity work.
A fourth possible contribution concerns the need for in-depth and
more open studies of identity, or rather identity constructions. As this is the
starting point of this study we cannot claim this to be a finding. Nevertheless, the case indicates the need for considering process, for thick descriptions and for avoiding linking identity prematurely to standard categories
such as organizational identity, but also age, sex, ethnicity, occupation.
Many identity studies assume that social categories and links and/or
perceived similarity with groups or organizations are significant for identity
formation (e.g. much work on social identity and organizational identification theory; cf. Whetten & Godfrey, 1998). In our case it is rather
‘farmer’, ‘anti-janitor’ and ‘culture-creator’ that are significant identity
constructions, being metaphors and not referring to distinct social groups.
Discovering this presupposes an open approach (see also Thomas &
Linstead, 2002). It is, for example, not self-evident that people have clear
beliefs about the attributes of the organization as a whole, or that any such
beliefs matter that much for their own identity constructions (Alvesson,
2003b). There is a certain ‘thinness’ to the treatment of identity in much of
the literature. In order to understand identity in depth we need to listen
carefully to the stories of those we claim to understand and to study their
interactions, the discourses and roles they are constituted by or resist – and
to do so with sensitivity for context. We are certainly not claiming that
conventional social categories are insignificant, but would encourage more
open-minded efforts to explore the more vital aspects how people define and
re-define themselves. We can ask how do people see themselves in organizations, as part of and/or in addition to how do they perceive and
identify/disidentify with organizational identity and/or distinct social
Such more open projects may not make academic life easier for those
aspiring to be published in academic outlets calling for large numbers and a
strict research design, thus making identity work contingent upon publication in career-enhancing journals even more difficult for us (them). This
kind of research may, however, give the readers a better feeling for the
contexts, complexities and processes of identity constructions in workplaces.
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1. In order to facilitate anonymization, we have concealed some of the characteristics of
the organization which are of less relevance to the specific theme of this study.
2. It is often emphasized that female managers face more demanding struggles than their
male counterparts. H did not report any thoughts or feelings about her gender, nor did
her subordinates or fellow managers indicate any scepticism about her associated with
gender. H herself did not seem to see gender as an important issue. When invited to give
talks, she said she was happy to do so as long as it was not about women and management. Her emphasis on home and locality may be seen as an expression of what might
be read as feminine orientations, whereas her strong interest in football signified the
opposite. We can certainly not rule out any underlying gender tensions, but we refrain
from speculating about this.
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Stefan Sveningsson is Assistant Professor of Business Administration
at the School of Economics and Management, Lund University. He is
currently working in research projects covering several organizational
topics, one concerning identity work in modern work life and another
one dealing with leadership. He has recent publications in Organizational
Studies, Leadership Quarterly and International Studies of Management and
[E-mail: stefan.sveningsson@fek.lu.se]
Mats Alvesson is Professor of Business Administration at the School of
Economics and Management, Lund University. He is currently leading
several research projects that deal with a variety of organizational topics
such as work, identity, method, gender, organizational culture and leadership. He has published extensively in many international journals and
published several books. His most recent books include Understanding
organizational culture (Sage, 2002), Postmodernism and social research
(Open University Press, 2002) and Knowledge work and knowledgeintensive firms (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).
[E-mail: mats.alvesson@fek.lu.se]
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