12/19/2014 12:27 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2015

You Are Not Your Job! How to Avoid the Identity Trap

Recently, the CEO of a renowned multinational corporation was asked how he manages to accommodate so many things and even stay healthy. He's CEO of a very big company with such a huge amount of responsibility and father, husband and individual with a private life at the same time. His answer was: "From Monday morning through Friday evening, I am 100 percent there for my organization and fully lean in to it. On Saturdays and Sundays, I am there for my family and myself and available for only very few people in very urgent matters. I consistently stick to this rule."

For many people though, reality looks quite different: In times when the borders between work and private lives become blurry and continuously dissolve, managing them actively becomes an ever increasing challenge. Without the clear distinction between roles, a time-wise separation of the two areas of life is bound to fail.

To some extent, an organization is like a theatre. The producer (CEO) decides which actors and actresses (employees) will play a role in the various plays (projects). The distribution of roles is done by the director (head of department) and the actors are paid for playing a defined role by a defined script. In all of this, some directors would grant their actors more freedom for interpretation than others and some actors are more suitable for certain roles than others. Just the way it is in the workplace.

The actress slips into her role, mentally and physically. And then: As soon as the curtain falls it is show time and she will play her role -- at 100 percent, with passion and authenticity! This is what she is paid for. If she does not achieve this, it is highly unlikely that she will be hired again for future roles.

It is the same in the workplace: We too, are in some way remunerated for playing our role in the play. Be it as a CEO or a team leader, a service manager, sales person, account manager, pilot, clerk or politician. Once the curtain opens, we are on stage and it is show time. This is what we agreed to when signing the contract: The play, the role and the rules of the game.

Ideally, the role we play is an optimal match with our own personality, our competencies, strengths and weaknesses and allows us to bring in our whole potential and passion. Hence, it makes sense to find a role that fits everything we bring to it as well as possible. At best, we get up every day to do what we do best and what we love doing and what contributes to greater good.

The farther away the role is from all of these aspects, the more adaptation is required and the higher the potential for stress and the risk for burnout. If we have to bend all the time to meet the demands of the role and if our work has little meaning for us, we will become discontent sooner or later -- unless we recognize that we always have a choice, that we can give meaning to our roles ourselves and that we can make this decision every day anew.

The more we define ourselves through our role and derive our identity from it, the higher the risk of losing ground and falling into a sort of limbo after a dismissal. Because what remains of ourselves after all? This is a phenomenon I often see in clients who are dismissed and forced to look for a new job. The higher up in hierarchy the old role was, the stronger this effect. The stars in the entertainment industry are often good examples of this.

It is therefore of utmost importance that we know who we are outside our role and that our identity does not fully depend on it. To consciously slip into our role also means that we become less vulnerable. If the angry customer shouts at me on the phone and I am aware that he attacks my role rather than me as a person and that in this role it is my responsibility to handle this situation in a professional way, I will manage to do so much better, and the situation will be less of a burden on me.

The same is true for teamwork and leadership. The more distinctly the various roles in the team are defined and the more consciously they are played, the more effective and frictionless the collaboration will be. Moreover, a leader can gain acceptance and credibility if he is conscious of his role at any given time and also clearly communicates it.

Conclusion: If we want to stay happy and healthy and want to make leadership and collaboration more effective, a conscious approach to our roles and to our identity is crucial. The more we are aware of the fact that we are not our job, the lower is our potential for stress and our risk for burnout; the more effective and frictionless is our collaboration with others and the more enjoyable is our life.

About the author: Based in Switzerland, Thomas Gelmi stands for executive coaching and learning & development on an international level with a focus on personal and interpersonal skills in leadership, sales and collaboration. He works for multinational corporations such as Siemens, Credit Suisse and Zurich Insurance, SMEs and private individuals. Thomas Gelmi was born 1968 and speaks German, English, French and Italian fluently. For more information visit