The Power and Possibilities in Positive Work-Related Identities: How Do Self-Definitions Make Us Stronger?

September 30, 2010

By Jane E. Dutton

Sociologists and psychologists have long been interested in self-identity or the ways that people define who they are. How we define ourselves shapes what we do, how we feel, and how we think about the future. A positive organizational scholarship take on self-identity asks an intriguing question: What are the different ways that individuals at work can define themselves positively, and what differences do these different forms of self-identity make? When we talk about positive work-related identities we are including how people define themselves as  professionals, as organizational members, or as members of an occupation. Any one of these work-related identities can imbue an individual with meaning that is beneficial or valuable in some way.

Our research suggests there are at least four types of positive work-related identities:

  1. Virtuous – The individual defines him or herself using qualities of character that scholars consider virtuous or good (e.g., “I am a wise professional,” or “I am a compassionate employee.”).
  2. Evaluative – How positive the identity is depends on how the individual or others value it (e.g., “I am a valued professional because others hold my profession in high regard.”).
  3. Developmental – The individual derives benefit from defining him- or herself as progressing in a positive direction (e.g., “I am a person who is growing or becoming stronger.”).
  4. Structural – The individual acquires a positive work-related identity by seeing different aspects of him- or herself as aligned with each other.  This more structural take on positive identity looks at how coherent or balanced thoughts are about how one defines oneself in different roles or life domains. For example, an employee might acquire a more positive identity by defining herself more consistently across different roles (e.g., “Who I am at work complements who I am in other aspects of my life.”).  These different takes on positive identity (virtuous, evaluative, developmental, and structural) each provide different pathways that individuals can pursue in defining themselves in ways that strengthen or bolster resources. In our articles, we develop the logic for how each form of positive work-related identity can strengthen individuals through the cultivation of social resources. We define social resources as the number, breadth, diversity, and quality of social relationships.

Three implications follow from our research, and they invite further empirical confirmation:

  1. Individuals in work organizations have access to multiple means for defining themselves positively;
  2. These forms of positive self-definitions can strengthen individuals, increasing their capacity to endure stress or hardship or increasing their capacity to take on new challenges and self demands; and
  3. Work organizations can make a difference by fostering the cultivation of positive identities that can strengthen individuals in multiple ways.


Dutton, J. E., Roberts, L.M., & Bednar, J. (2010). Pathways for positive identity construction at work: Four types of positive identity and the building of social resources, Academy of Management Review, 35(2), 265-293.

Roberts, L.M., & Dutton, J.E. (Eds.) (2009).  Exploring positive identities and organizations: Building a theoretical and research foundation. New York: Routledge.

Dutton, J.E., Roberts, L.M., & Bednar, J. (Forthcoming).  Prosocial practices, positive identity, and flourishing at work. In S. Donaldson, M. Csikszentmihalyi, and J. Nakamura (Eds.), Applied positive psychology: Improving everyday life, schools, work, health, and society, New York: Routledge.