The Crippling Effects of the Functional Persona on Workplace Learning

I’ve been reflecting on the ways we play dress-up at work and how that affects our ability to learn like we need to in today’s climate. To be clear, I can see I’m as guilty of this as anyone. It’s a cultural expectation. We show up as “professionals” and it’s very important that everyone else sees us as such. So for most of us, going to work becomes a transformative ritual–away from who we really are, to what we might call a Functional Persona.
This Functional Persona seeks acceptance and security. It is shaped by how we perceive (and often misperceive) the expectations of others, leading to an external locus of control. Our sense of autonomy is undermined on the most basic level, which research has shown to be a fundamental contributing factor to disengagement and low motivation.
When it comes to workplace learning, this external locus of control tends to produce a habit of looking to others to tell us not just what to do, but what we need to learn to do it and how we need to learn it. We don’t develop the capability of asking ourselves these questions and discovering the answers ourselves.
It’s worth reflecting on the idea that the Functional Persona has been relatively effective in the past. There, things were clearer than they are today: expectations, job descriptions, required skills and knowledge, etc. This is less and less the case. What’s needed now is a shift to an internal locus of control, as Carol Sanford describes it in The Regenerative Business:
“Internal locus of control arises when people understand that they have full responsibility for their actions, how they experience the world, and the outcomes they produce for themselves and others.”
Things are simply moving too fast and are too complex to be waiting around for external direction. Those that do so are doomed to perpetual confusion, low engagement, incompetence, and a lack of well-being. As L&D leaders, we need to think beyond developing functional skills, to developing this foundational capability of self-determination. This is, arguably, what’s most urgently lacking in the modern workplace.
The cost of not focusing our resources here are high. When we feed the Functional Persona in today’s workplace, we reinforce these old patterns of external control. We find ourselves trapped in an accelerating cycle of waste and frustration updating competency models and training programs, retraining, rinsing and repeating. Everyone is two steps behind today and three tomorrow. Stress builds. Turnover increases. Engagement withers.
So what to do then? If you are expecting to be fed an obvious answer here, you might start with reflecting on your own tendency to look for clear direction from the outside. If I’m rushing to provide one, I’ll reflect on my own tendency. These are patterns that are deeply ingrained in nearly all of us and they will pop up long after we have understood all of this conceptually. It’s a lifelong practice to transcend them.
Gaining clarity on how to support others to do this work emerges through our own practice. How we interact with others begins to take a new shape–toward a developmental form of leadership where we are nourishing both our own capability for self-determination as well as that of everyone else in everything we do. In every conversation where we shift from being the Expert (a Functional Persona) to asking more questions and listening in new ways. In every moment where we take off the old mask and show up as ourselves, letting others know it’s OK out here in the real “real world.”
Tom Palmer