Identity management for zombies Time to start recognizing the other layers underneath office stereotypes

[ Mon. Jan. 1. 2007 ]

It doesn’t matter whether you’re making a resolution for the new year or a new day. The point is to change who you are. It’s not always a case of completely transforming yourself: you just want to be recognized as something other than one of David Berreby’s zombies.

An online forum conducted by recently asked a slew of scientists and intellectuals what they are optimistic about. Berreby, the author Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind, said he was hopeful that the idea of a “zombie identity is coming to an end, or at least being put into greater context. I’ll let Berreby explain the notion of a zombie identity himself.

“(It’s) the intuition that people do things because of their membership in a collective identity or affiliation,” he writes. “It's a fundamental confusion that starts with a perhaps statistically valid idea (if you define your terms well, you can speak of ‘American behaviour’ or ‘Muslim behaviour’ or ‘Italian behaviour’)—and then makes the absurd assumption that all Americans or Muslims or Italians are bound to behave as you expect, by virtue of their membership in the category (a category that, often, you created).”

Berreby is primarily concerned with zombie identities in their socio-political context, and with good reason. It’s not hard to see how a fixation on zombie identities could lead to racial profiling, religious bigotry or worse. In the business world, zombie identities are often used as a lazy form of market research, as companies try to aim their products at demographic stereotypes. Advertising based on these identities, in turn, reinforces the way we perceive co-workers in the enterprise, especially in IT.

A zombie identity is more than just a stereotype. It is, if I am interpreting Berreby correctly, the emphasis of a given set of characteristics to the exclusion of others, whereas a stereotype is shorthand for describing a group of individuals. It’s not that stereotypes don’t exist, but we have to examine more than one. “It’s clear that all of us have many overlapping identities (American, middle-aged person, Episcopalian, Republican, soccer mom can be attached to one person in a single morning),” Berreby goes on. “It’s what we're doing, and who we're doing it with, that seems to determine which of these identities comes to the fore at a given time.”

We all know the zombie identities ascribed to IT department personnel. We also know that those same digitally literate, problem-solving technocrats differ wildly in terms of their family background, religious affiliations and range of education. Over the last five years, IT employees have been drilled on soft skills, but the zombie identities have been hard to shake. Maybe another way to transcend them is to pinpoint the zombie identities of their enterprise counterparts in HR, finance, marketing or administration, which are similarly well-known.

Identity management is a term we use to explain how individual users interact in a variety of online transactions and processes. Perhaps it’s time to expand that definition to take in the complex task of reverse-engineering the traits of co-workers that often get buried under a set of preconceptions. This form of identity management could lead to much deeper, more fulfilling relationships among enterprise teams, who would work more cohesively on shared goals.

Zombies tend to walk mindlessly onward no matter what gets in their way. From a distance, that might look like progress. Get a little bit closer and you see why someone among them should show a little leadership.

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