How can organisations deal with conflicting views of their history among their employees? Dr Christian Hampel and Dr Elena Dalpiaz explain how a fintech company resolved its identity crisis and moved on with confidence
Our identities as individuals and groups are shaped by our past experiences and memories. But what happens when we disagree about our past? How can we understand who we are when we can’t agree on who we were?
This is a common challenge for societies and organisations that face polarisation and conflict over their history. For example, the Brexit debate in the UK was partly driven by different interpretations of how the country had been connected to the EU and whether that was good or bad.
The case of DigiCo: a fintech company with a divided past
Similarly, organisations can suffer when their employees have divergent views of their past. A case in point is a leading British bank: its employees disagree about whether its struggles during the great financial crisis were primarily due to the problematic behaviour of its traders or due to the high turnover among leaders. Such disagreements can create a dilemma.
We studied this problem in a European fintech company that we call DigiCo (not its real name). The company was losing its employees’ commitment because they were split between two opposite views of its past: some thought DigiCo had a shameful past of irresponsible behaviour that would always haunt it, while others thought DigiCo had a glorious past of innovation that would never be matched again.
Temporal synergising: a way to reconcile different views of the past
How can organisations overcome this deadlock and restore their sense of identity?
Our new study in the Academy of Management Journal shows how by using a process called “temporal synergising”, managers can combine different views of the past in a way that supports the core values and goals of the organisation, rather than ignoring or dismissing them.
DigiCo managed to reconcile its employees by showing how its past innovation and recklessness had both contributed to making the company more efficient and customer focused. This helped to create a shared vision and identity among the employees, allowing DigiCo to focus on its future again.
Ignoring polarised views about the past may seem like an easy solution, but doing so risks letting the problem grow over time. Our research shows organisations can benefit from finding and using common ground between different perspectives on their history. This can help them create a shared identity and get back to deciding who they want to be.
This article draws on findings from “Confronting the Contested Past: Sensemaking and Rhetorical History in the Reconstruction of Organizational Identity” by Christian E. Hampel (Imperial College London) and Elena Dalpiaz (USI Lugano, Imperial College London).