Identifying with purpose

When working with mentees, one of the key things I listen for is any statement beginning “I am …”. Such statements are a good indicator of how the mentee defines their personal identity.

“I am …” statements often arise when discussing a mentee’s goals. I might first ask them to clarify their goals, and perhaps to specify how they will know when these have been achieved. I also usually ask “what will the achievement of that goal give you?”, so that they dig deeper into their motivation (purpose) and the values they are aligning with.

The statements we make about what we do, where we work, and what role/s we play, project our identity to others (see header chart above). Beyond that function though, they also have the potential to limit what we can and will do e.g. “I am only …”, “I am not …”. These statements may also take the form of “I can…” or “I can’t …”, and we sometimes refer to these as ‘self-limiting beliefs’.

Some ‘I am‘ statements have been used for so long that they have become part of our unconscious ‘operating system‘. Bringing them to the surface and examining them allows us to adjust (re-program) or jettison those that are not serving our present and emerging needs and purpose/s.

As for individual people, so too for organisations – hence “We are …” statements are worth close scrutiny. The collective or group identity built around a worthy or common cause can engage us, but it may also impose certain limits on our achievements.

Goals and their achievement

Once a mentee’s goal is clear, I ask them what they are currently doing towards the achievement of the goal. That question may trigger a pause, possibly because they have not yet translated their purpose into a plan or set of actions. Sometimes a mentee will pause because they recognise that they were expecting me to offer them answers. This is the point at which they begin to recognise (or are reminded) that a goal without an implementation plan and a commitment to take action is worthless. Waiting for someone or something to bring the desired outcome to you is not likely to succeed.

Using only affirmation statements (or ‘abundance thinking’), without taking action to move closer to your goal is a fruitless undertaking. So too for organisations that have a worthy purpose. They may have expressed their purpose in aspirational vision and mission statements, but if they have failed to set a practicable strategy and oversee its execution, they are simply engaged in ‘magical thinking’. Wishing doesn’t make anything so.

Shaping identity – personal, social, and collective

We think of personal identity as the unique set of characteristics that can be used to identify a person as themself and no one else. This involves comparing ourselves to other people so that we can differentiate ourselves from them.

“In general, ‘identity’ is used to refer to one’s social ‘face’ – how one perceives how one is perceived by others. ‘Self’ is generally used to refer to one’s sense of ‘who I am and what I am’. However, these are not dualistic constructs.”

While personal identity focuses on what makes us different, social identity is where we focus on similarities shared with others. Our sense of belonging to an interest group, organisation, sub-culture, or other ‘tribe’ comes from our common purpose, and our shared values, culture, and experience.

Sociologists define identification to mean ‘acceptance of the values and interests of a social group as one’s own’. Psychologists use the term to mean ‘a process by which one ascribes to oneself the qualities or characteristics of another person’. It can also refer to the transference to one person the feelings or responses relevant to another, e.g. the identification of a teacher with a parent, or alternatively, the perception of another as an extension of oneself (projection).

IAM – identity and access management

As an interesting aside, the acronym IAM stands for identity and access management. (A poetic or ironic acronym, depending on your point of view).

This management system seeks to ensure that the right people and job roles in an organisation can access the tools they need to do their jobs – while restricting or blocking their access to systems and files they are not authorised to see or use.

Despite its poetry, IAM does not define who a person is, nor does it encompass all aspects of one’s personal, social and collective identities.

Personal, social, relational, and collective identity can be slippery concepts, and the boundaries between them sometimes blur.

A person’s social identity refers to the persona they project when engaging with the informal group/s of people who share similar beliefs, habits, and mindsets. People sometimes mistrust those with different social identities.

The chart below draws attention to the connection between a person’s self-esteem and their social identity, especially through their ‘sense of belonging’.

A tetrapartite identity model

I found the four-part identity model proposed by Nathan and Jonathan Cheek helpful in distinguishing between the various aspects of identity mentioned above. While recognising that the self is comprised of both independent (personal) and interdependent aspects, it also creates useful distinctions between social, relational, and collective identities (sub-aspects) within the interdependent self.
(See Cheek, Nathan & Cheek, Jonathan. (2018). Aspects of identity: From the inner-outer metaphor to a tetrapartite model of the self. Self and Identity. 17. 467-482. 10.1080/15298868.2017.1412347).

The first chart below is adapted from the model the authors described in their 2018 paper, while the following chart is my own interpretation of the spectrum of identity perspectives described by the Tetrapartite Model.

“Collective identity is an interactive and shared definition produced by several individuals (or groups at a more complex level) and concerned with the orientation of action and the field of opportunities and constraints in which the action takes place”.

Melucci, Alberto. Nomads of the Present: Social Movements and Individual Needs in Contemporary Society. Eds. John Keane and Paul Mier, Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press. 1989.

Social theorist Alberto Melucci saw a gap between theories on how collective actions form and how individuals find motivation (purpose), and so he proposed an intermediate process. In that process, individuals recognise that they share certain orientations in common and so decide to act together. He saw this process as one that is negotiated over time and consists of three parts or stages: cognitive definition, active relationship, and emotional investments.

  • Cognitive Definition: the group develops specific common goals, and actions to achieve those goals. The individual group members accept the shared beliefs and goals, and these become part of the individual identity of the members.
  • Active Relationships: the group members become directly involved with each other, actively working collaboratively to achieve the common goals of the group.
  • Emotional Investment: the collective goals of the group become part of the individual identity of the group members and they become more committed to the causes of the group.


The model’s emphasis on forging active relationships is reminiscent of Dr. Bruce Tuckman’s ‘storming, forming, norming, and performing’ stages of team development. It also emphasises the importance of taking action as opposed to simply having a goal. Sometimes the action we need to focus on is strategic – a step or stage in a program of action. At other times the actions we need to consider are better described as the habits we have adopted – our way of habitually doing things around here (i.e. our systems and procedures).

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit”

Will Durant

Working together to achieve our purpose

My experience in the non-profit and for-purpose sectors suggests that Melucci’s stages need to be deliberately built into organisational renewal programs if future generations of members and leaders are to identify with the entity’s purpose and contribute meaningfully to its attainment. The new year might provide a good opportunity for your organisation to consider such a renewal.

See also:

Leave a Reply