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George Herbert MeadMead (1925). argued that individuals develop a self-conceptA general understanding of one’s self that is learned, organized, and dynamic. It is learned early in life, it categories one’s experiences and fits them in a way that makes sense to personal development, and it is actively shaped ongoingly by experiences. that evolves throughout their lives as a result of interacting with their social world, which may include parents, teachers, and peers. Similarly, William Purkey stated that “self-concept may be defined as the totality of a complex, organized, and dynamic system of learned beliefs, attitudes and opinions that each person holds to be true about his or her personal existence.”Purkey (1988). These interactions help individuals form a perception of who they are based on expectations from, and responses to, their social environment. Our perceptions are stimulated by internal and external factors. These factors can create intense emotional responses, which impact our willingness to learn and our choice of action—they guide individual behaviors. The following example demonstrates this idea of self-concept and how it manifests in one’s behaviors.
Like many teenagers in the United States, Karen was required to take a foreign language course at her school. She chose to learn German because relatives on her mother’s side lived in Germany, and her family was planning a visit in the summer. Unfortunately, Karen’s few months of German class were not fun. She had a teacher who was very strict in her lesson plans and grading of the students. Additionally, Karen fell behind in the class work due to an after school sports injury; she was out for two weeks. When she returned to class, her teacher called her out in front of other students when she didn’t know the correct vocabulary terms and proper responses. She didn’t feel motivated to be in class and learn German.
When summer arrived, her family went to Germany as planned to visit their relatives. Karen’s parents had been excited about her foreign language choice, and her relatives knew she was taking a German culture and language course. During the stay with the relatives, Karen tried to practice her German but stopped trying after her relatives told her, “You need to improve your German.” The next year, her family visited Germany again, and her relatives question her about her German language skills. Upon hearing her speak, they told her again, “You’re not there yet. You need a lot of improvements.”
Twenty years later, Karen works for a financial company that has a location in Germany. Karen’s supervisor tells her that she will need to relocate to Germany for two years; she thinks that with Karen’s great interpersonal skills, she would be able to help the success of the project. Upon hearing this, Karen becomes anxious and uncomfortable. She makes excuses for not going, and her supervisor is confused. Karen has been an outstanding worker and her actions are puzzling and surprising.
Karen’s self-concept has contributed to her self-efficacy. The expectations of her teacher, her family, and her relatives to learn a new language is too much for her to handle. The responses she receives are not what she wants or needs to hear to help her improve her German language skills. As a result, she withdraws from learning the language and culture. She develops a self-concept that may consist of any of the following:
These beliefs and attitudes surface when her supervisor asks her to relocate to Germany. The negative memories and experiences she had become barriers to her success and self-efficacy. She feels anxious, and her behaviors are seen as strange.
There are three general understandings about how a self-concept is developed. First, a self-concept is learned. As Mead indicates, a self-concept gradually emerges early in one’s life and is constantly shaped throughout life by one’s perceived experiences. This means that a self-concept is learned: it is a social product of one’s experiences. The perception of one’s self-concept may differ from how others perceive that person, and it is different during every life stage. When a person is presented with an experience that differs from the self-concept he or she has developed, the person sees the experience as a threat. The more experiences that challenge the self-concept, the more rigid the self-concept becomes. Generally, an individual will try to overthink, overgeneralize, or rationalize the experience so as to reduce the emotional havoc it creates.
Second, a self-concept is organized. Most scholars agree that individuals develop a self-concept that has stable characteristics in order to maintain harmony. Our self-concept is orderly: it categorizes our experiences and “fits” them in a way that will make sense to our development. It discards experiences that present different beliefs and values because it cannot be placed in a categorical way. It is our self-concept that tries to resist change, because the changes disrupt the stability of one’s personality. Let us say you hold a very specific belief, such as, “English is the primary language of this country and everyone should learn to speak and write it. There is no reason to have billboards and signs in other languages.” The more central this belief is to your self-concept, the more resistant you are to learning new experiences and to adapting your belief.
Third, a self-concept is dynamic. Self-concepts are actively shaped based on one’s experiences, which means that they are dynamic. The self-concept can be seen as a guidance system directing your behaviors to match up with your beliefs. I often hear employees in organizations say, “My company does not do what it says it will do around diversity and inclusionThe act of including. In cultural interactions, it implies an acceptance of individuals from different cultures.. It says one thing, and its actions are completely the opposite.” At an organizational level, the company may perceive itself differently, defending its self-concept. There is a conflict between this perception of who they are versus what others think they really are. Complaints from employees will be rationalized, or bended, to fit the self-concept of the organization and its leaders. In psychology, this is called cognitive dissonance, that is, one’s justification for one’s beliefs even when the facts clearly demonstrate the opposite.
The following case study illustrates the self-concept in action.
Joe leads a Public Safety department in Garden Grove, a suburb located just outside of a large urban city in the Midwest. He’s lived and worked in this city all his life, and generations of his family have made Garden Grove their home. They settled in the area when it was just farmland and have seen it develop over time into a bustling city of 128,000.
Garden Grove, like other suburban cities in the United States, has seen an increase in the number of non-white residents. A large number of Asian residents move into the city because they are attracted to the educational system and quality of life the city offers. This change has made the city more racially diverse than ever.
Joe sees the visible differences on a personal and professional level. In his neighborhood, 25% of his neighbors are Asian Indian, 10% are Vietnamese, and 10% are Chinese. He’s had problems with his neighbors; what used to be a quiet neighborhood is now a festival every week. His neighbors have lots of visitors who park up and down the side street, their children running around without any parental guidance. Once, he held a party to celebrate his son’s graduation from high school, and his relatives and friends had to park two blocks away because of his neighbor’s party.
At work, he’s pressured from his director to hire more people who “reflect the community” that Garden Grove has become. From volunteers to paid staff, he’s had to work through policy changes and make accommodations for who he hires. He disagrees with his director that he should hire someone just to make a quota, and besides, he can’t find anyone who has the skills or the experience for the department jobs. Although he loves his job, it’s not what it used to be. He’s increasingly unmotivated to go to work. It seems that all he does these days is attend training sessions on diversity. What’s happened to his passion for public service?
As the director, you have noticed the changes in Joe. You know it has to do with the new vision of the organization to increase racial and cultural diversity as part of the city’s strategic vision. To help Joe manage his self-concept, think about the following questions: What do you think is Joe’s self-concept? What are the beliefs that are being challenged? When evaluating this case study, there are several items that are important to note:
All of these items are some examples of Joe’s beliefs that form his self-concept. In the case study, you can also identify what emotions and feelings he has related to his self-concept, such as his discomfort with nonwhites. Identifying emotions is useful for understanding how the self-concept develops to make the person feel comfortable.
One’s self-concept is developed throughout one’s lifetime and has an impact on behaviors and choice of action. How have you come to understand yourself over time? How has this understanding led to the choices you make? One way of gaining knowledge of who you are is through personality assessments. There is a plethora of assessments and inventories, and I describe three that I have used successfully with diverse audiences. I have found that these three assessments are excellent tools for building cultural intelligence and leadership.