What can coffee shop trainees and corporate talent shows teach us about identity and community?

I’ve not blogged for a few weeks now as I’ve been dedicating my writing time to drafting further chapters of my book.  This means that I’ve spent a lot of time recently in coffee shops as I find the lively and varied environment far more stimulating for writing than my home office.  However, I noticed something, a pattern across a number of the larger coffee chains that got me thinking.  Normally, if a server is wearing a name badge I make sure to notice what their name is so I know who I’m interacting with.  Sometimes I’ll mention their names…”Thanks Eduardo“, “Thanks Jayne” which seems to make a connection at a far less transactional and far more human level.  However, what I have noticed over the last few weeks is that in many coffee stores new members of staff have a badge that only says “Trainee“.

This anonymity troubled me in a number of ways.  I couldn’t engage with the new person in the same way as those with a name badge.  Of course, I could ask their name but being naturally introverted and a little shy I would never do this as it might seem a bit weird!  Everyone else behind the counter has a name badge that adds a bit more of a colourful description as to who they are.  Some stores even have little flags to indicate the employee’s country of origin.  But not the trainees.  They have no name or place of origin.  I got wondering how this little thing impacts the trainee’s experience of being a trainee and learning/demonstrating how they engage with customers.  Assuming the whole purpose of the “Trainee” label is to encourage customers to be a little more patient with their server as they learn the role why can it not also say their name?  I’m sure that it would really help their confidence to hear “Thanks so much Giselle, you’re doing a fab job” or “Don’t worry about it James, is all part of learning the ropes”.  I came to the conclusion that the “Trainee” name badge was, unintentionally, denying the rookie employees an identity within the community of the organisation they were hoping to join until they had proven their worth enough to become differentiated as an individual from every other trainee.

Identity is an interesting thing in the corporate world.  How much of ourselves do we want to bring into the community of our workplace and how much does our organisation allow us to bring in?   A socio-complexity perspective suggests that our identity isn’t a solid, static thing that we have but is a sense of ourselves that is continually negotiated in the moment through our relationships and interactions with others.  Our organisations (as well as our families and other communities we are part of)  play a big part in forming our sense of who we are and what we bring to the community – either affirming or denying our perception of self.  I’ve often thought that instead of a ‘bring your pet to work day’ or ‘bring your daughter to work day’ that organisations would do well to hold a ‘bring yourself to work day’ where employees are given permission and encouraged to bring as much of their whole selves into the workplace for a day (hobbies, clothes, habits, skills, guilty pleasures etc.) to see how the fixed ideas of identity one has for work colleagues can be shaken up by seeing a different side of every individual.

I was privileged to be invited to host a talent contest fundraiser for a large corporation last week.  The format was based on the popular TV show Britain’s Got Talent but the acts, judges and audience were all from the organisation’s corporate HR community.  It was a fantastic event with jugglers, singers, musicians, magicians and dancers and the audience were stunned at the talents that were displayed by their colleagues who, a few hours earlier, had been sitting, smartly dressed at computers in the office!  I realised after the show that this event had done more than raise money for charity, it had been a shared experience of individuals bringing more of themselves to work.   Perceptions of the identity of individuals shifted as more of their talents were publicly revealed.  People who had previously been thought of as HR professionals were now also seen as talented singers,  those perceived as placement students were now also perceived as a well-disciplined and talented dance troupe,  those  perceived as having great career potential were now perceived as also having great musical potential.  There is a wonderful principle I first learnt from the world of Appreciative Inquiry which is ‘to perceive the other in relationship and not in role’ and this event amplified the power of this idea immensely, creating a stronger sense of identity and community that I am told has rippled back into the workplace and continues to grow.

How much of ourselves do we allow to shine through on a day-to-day basis?   What decisions do we make as to which individuals or communities we allow ourselves to be fully seen in?  How much do our organisations intentionally or unintentionally dampen our identity and sense of self through their procedures, processes or the space in which they give us to play and experiment?  How much detail about who you are is overtly displayed on your actual or metaphorical name badge and who or what is it that restricts it from being even more colourful?

Next time you spot a coffee shop trainee – be excited about what potential is lying beneath the name badge just waiting to be unleashed.