Using The Theory of Positive Selves To Help Others At Work

4th May 2016

In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg talks about how women often fail to apply for a promotion because they can’t imagine using their skills in the new role, or are anxious about how it might impact on other areas of their lives. One way of encouraging anyone, of any gender, to step up to promotions, new projects and opportunities, is to use the concept of Possible Selves.

Possible Selves is a concept coined by Stanford Professor Hazel Rose Marcus and her co-author Paula Nurius, who believe we have a countless number of Possible Selves.

All that we need to identify these selves is our imagination, So, in the case of the workplace, what we need to do is get people imagining their Possible Selves in this new position or project, and exploring what it feels to be in that role.  

Possible Selves have plenty to reveal.

A Possible Selves Exercise

You can begin by explaining that this a tool to get them thinking a little differently and encourage them to just day dream about this new role or placement.

Really help them to get into the daydreaming. Ask them to imagine a typical day: what they’re wearing, how they feel when they tell others what they are doing, their routine, the job that they are doing, what will be different and who they will be with.

They don’t have to share all this with you (it’s worth emphasising this!) but it will help them explore what this new role feels like. It’s useful if you can stay neutral too. Be aware that whilst they may decide that it’s well within their capabilities and feel better about applying for it, they may also hesitate when they realise how much work or responsibility is really involved.

Negative Possible Selves

If they are keen to take things further and accept or apply, a next step that will make this even more powerful is to ask them to think of a negative Possible Self, one that inspires them to take action to move away from it. In this case, it is probably what will happen if they don’t go for it. Don’t lead them in this: just ask them how life is if this miss out on this chance and ask them to, again, imagine this as vividly as possible.

The concept of Possible Selves can also be used in your personal life to, to help you stick to exercise goals, give up smoking or start meditating.  For me, this definitely makes it an exercise worth exploring. 




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