New research: How businesses can support employees’ epiphanies

  • January 26, 2024
  • By Jill Young Miller
  • 3 minute read

It’s a trend. Businesses are trying to embrace employees’ distinctiveness and self-expression.

Yet “doing so is more complicated than meets the eye,” says Erik Dane, WashU Olin associate professor of organizational behavior.

Erik Dane

Personal identity is complex and dynamic, and people often lack a comprehensive understanding of who they are, he says in “Promoting and supporting epiphanies in organizations: A transformational approach to employee development.” The journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes published the paper this month.

Dane theorizes that organizations can navigate the challenge by inviting employees to undergo a novel method of development designed to produce sudden, personally transformational realizations—or epiphanies.

If, as you say, people often lack a comprehensive understanding of who they are, why should an organization help them tease that out?

The potential benefits are substantial. Few things are more powerful for people than gaining fundamental insights into who they are—and employees should hold in high regard organizations that have helped them to attain revelations about themselves.

As such, promoting epiphanies may enable organizations to bolster their members’ sense of loyalty and commitment and create bonds that endure, even after people exit the organization.

Moreover, research indicates that self-awareness is positively related to well-being and performance in the workplace. By helping their members gain heightened self-awareness via epiphanies, organizations can help them reap these benefits.

How could an organization benefit from enabling employee epiphanies?

Promoting epiphanies as a method of employee development enables organizations to navigate the challenge at the heart of this paper: On the one hand, organizations are seeking to honor and cater to the personal distinctiveness of their members; on the other hand, people are not always well-attuned to who they are.

Engaging in this method of employee development should be voluntary—and organizations should emphasize the voluntary nature of this program whenever possible.

—Erik Dane

Promoting epiphanies allows organizations to address their members’ personal distinctiveness without putting pressure on them to possess readily available, thoroughly articulated responses to identity-level questions.

By focusing employee development on identity-related questions rather than identity-related answers, organizations can privilege the identity-related journeys of their members—and help them understand themselves better along the way.

Do you think employees might feel that such development exercises are personally intrusive?

It’s important for organizations to administer this method of development as respectfully as possible. Otherwise, employees might grow concerned that the organization is crossing their personal boundaries.

Much hangs on such matters as who, specifically, is coordinating this program and how much care and consideration they show. Above all, no one in the organization should be cajoled into this pursuit. Engaging in this method of employee development should be voluntary—and organizations should emphasize the voluntary nature of this program whenever possible.

Have you ever had a workplace ephiphany?

I’ve experienced multiple epiphanies, both personally and professionally. There’s one I often discuss when I talk about my research in this area. 

Note: To hear about Dane's ephiphany, please see this article. It includes a link to an audio description of an epiphany Dane often discusses when he speaks on the subject. At the bottom of page 14 of the PDF (page 52 of the article itself), click on the “Author’s voice” box to open an audio file.

About the Author

Jill Young Miller

Jill Young Miller

As research translator for WashU Olin Business School, my job is to highlight professors’ research by “translating” their work into stories. Before coming to Olin, I was a communications specialist at WashU’s Brown School. My background is mostly in newspapers including as a journalist for Missouri Lawyers Media, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Washington Post and the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida.

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