Is Your Organization Suffering From a Corporate Identity Crisis?

When we think about having an identity crisis, we think of people not quite knowing who they are and what they want out of life. An identity crisis is about the conflict between how we see ourselves and how the world sees us.

A corporate identity crisis is the same kind of conflict, played out through the company’s culture. When we say that an organization has an identity crisis, it means the way that the organization perceives itself and promotes itself are in conflict. Some companies are well aware of the conflict, but either do not see it as an obstacle or do not know how to resolve it to move forward. Many companies, however, are completely clueless.

The types of corporate identity crises

The homecoming queen as bookworm: inside-out conflict
Inside-out conflict is when the image (brand) that the company promotes to the world (and its customers) is vastly different from its internal culture. It is similar to the high school homecoming queen who secretly prefers to stay home and read rather than go out and party. The face the world sees is different from her true self.

Branding has become a vital activity that businesses cite as being a key initiative. However, many organizations fail to realize the impact that this can have on their employees. When an external brand is successful, it not only attracts customers, but it also attracts employees who want to work at an organization they perceive as possessing the values it espouses to its customers.

A company’s internal employee brand does not have to be the same as its external customer brand. In fact, it is rare that they would ever be an exact match if for no other reason than a company’s external brand serves a different purpose than its employee brand. One dictates why a customer should buy its products; the other shapes why someone would work there.

The med student comic: internal conflict
Internal conflict is conflict that occurs within the organization. Internal conflict is similar to the situation of the medical student who wants to be a stand-up comic. He is at conflict because he does not know which path in life to pursue—becoming a doctor or becoming a comic. The result is paralysis.

For organizations, internal conflicts often stem from changes in leadership and strategy. A founder of the company may have created a very patriarchal, yet caring, internal brand where people are valued for what they know. Then the founder retires and is replaced by a professional manager, who sees that in order to compete, people need to be valued for their performance. The caring, trusting identity becomes conflicted with the performance-driven hardnosed identity.

Resolving internal conflict is not necessarily choosing one identity over the other. Our promising med student may find his stand-up talents perfectly suited to creating a great bedside manner. Success in resolving this kind of identity crisis comes not just in knowing what the identities in crisis are, but knowing which characteristics of each identity employees value.

The lost soul: lack of identity
Perhaps the least common corporate identity crisis is the lack of a strong sense of self. In reality, every business has some kind of identity; it just may not know what that identity is. If a business does not know who it is, leadership cannot effectively drive performance. The lack of identity does not mean a business has no identity; it is just clueless about what that identity truly is.

For organizations, becoming a lost soul can stem from many sources. It can be due to radical changes in the business environment, or it can be changes in leadership and values. But more often than not, leadership has not invested any time or care into understanding who it is and the impact this has on the business.

These organizations do a lot to get on track, but never seem to get to the heart of the matter. They constantly struggle to find a strategy that gives them traction. They fail to express who they are as an employer to job candidates, and seem in a constant state of reinvention. To recognize the problem, an organization must realize it is missing something, which can be tough to do.

From identity crisis to identity management
In each case of identity crisis, the underlying opportunity is in learning more about who an organization is, what is in conflict and then working from this point to actively manage that identity.

Lots of energy is often put into supporting an external brand, but companies are now realizing it is important to put an equal amount of focus on their internal brand. Knowing who you are as an employer can yield substantial gains in how you manage and lead your employees. A strong employer brand can help shape your recruitment campaigns, selection programs, performance management systems and succession planning. It defines what it means to work at this company, and what you want people to bring to it, and get out of it.

It is about managing your internal brand and using it to help effectively run your business. The place to start managing is by first understanding through listening and assessing your culture. Once you understand your identity and issues relating to it, you can begin building actions that help support that identity (e.g., through formal branding initiatives to employees) and build upon it (e.g., through processes that best suit the energy that identity provides).

Resolving your corporate identity crisis will unleash new energy and focus for your organization and employees. But just as people are constantly evolving and changing, organizations should as well. Managing your corporate identity is an ongoing process that must be looked after and continuously cared for to help your company thrive—now and in the future.

Learn how we can help uncover and express your authentic organizational culture.