Dr. Alise Cortez Research

As a psychology- and liberal arts-educated professional, Dr. Cortez has developed a long-standing love affair with people and their life stories. She loves to know where people come from, the most salient moments of their lives, and what moves them to euphoria and tortures their soul – in short what deeply matters to them, especially at work. When she began her human capital career in 1998 in Information Technology staffing, she added to that mix a keen ability to interview people about their lives and work, teasing out the most tender of details.

She developed a fascination with how people choose their careers and experienced them. So, when it was time during her doctoral studies to choose a dissertation topic, it was easy to land on the leadership research question of: What is the relationship between meaning in work and personal identity for high-performing Information Technology managers?

Employee Modes of Engagement

Alise earned a PhD in Human Development from Fielding Graduate University. Still fascinated with how people choose and experience their work, her research and dissertation illuminated a fresh perspective on meaning in work and its relationship to personal identity. In a post-doctoral research investigating meaning and work and identity qualitatively interviewing 115 men and women aged 18 to 80 from 20 industries, she built on this doctoral leadership research and discovered 15 “Modes of Engagement” that help individuals understand their unique relationship to their work.

The modes take into consideration the depth or quality of meaning registered as well as the manner in which work is registered to a person’s identity. The most invigorated and fulfilled mode is called Transcendent Connection and is often found in people whose work involves stewarding or nurturing a spiritual relationship within people to something greater, often found among Priests, rabbis, and spiritual teachers.

The least engaged, most miserable mode is Existential Crisis, where the work registers negatively against a person’s identity and they feel completely undone and unmoored by the experience. And then there are 13 modes in between. Alise conducts Employee Modes of Engagement workshops for companies as a Team Building and way to meaningfully connect with a manager’s team. See the description of all 15 modes below.

Trancendent Connection

I am called by a sacred force (usually God or some higher power) to the work I do. This work is “self-abnegational” in nature, meaning I am serving something or someone beyond my own immediate ego interests. A lot of the meaning I register in the work comes from facilitating connection between the people I serve and a higher power or God, as well as my own strong commitment and connection to this faith.

Organizational Mission Alignment

While I am certainly expressing myself in my work, I am strongly attracted to, inspired by, and feel a strong identification with the organization or group of people with whom I work. The mission of this organization inspires me and gives me a purpose for myself that connects me with something much larger (or more important) than myself. I may be a person who highly values collectivism or being part of a group I really believe in and thus highly values belonging here.

Genuinely Impacting the Organization

I am strongly imprinting my work with who I am and often do so by deeply expressing my values, whether traditional in nature or attached to my religion or faith, and I derive much of my work meaning by knowing I am strongly impacting the organization I work for by creating sustainable processes, developing people, implementing a succession plan, or serving my customers, etc. to make it a success.

Relational Caring

My relationships at work are the most meaningful aspect of the work I do. I pride myself in either being exceptional with people and connections and I feel strongly compelled to care for customers/clients or other people in my work realm. This caring aspect of my work is what really makes my work for me – I am actively and lovingly taking care of the people I serve. The trust and dependability that comes with these relationships is also very important to me.

Wanting More but Comfortable

There are some aspects of the work I do that I enjoy, but there are slightly more areas of discontent than contentment. I am primarily staying in this work for the money. I would love to do some other kind or more interesting or suitable work. I’m not miserable but I’m not especially happy, either. I remain in the job because I’m comfortable with the work arrangement and it’s just easier to stay rather than looking for different, potentially better work.

Living My Purpose

I am doing work that represents my highest values, or I feel the work represents my purpose for living. I catch myself thinking, “I’m doing the work I’m supposed to be doing.” In many ways, the work I do is a personification of who I am at my most fundamental core and allows me to profoundly and authentically express myself through it. The work I do is essentially inseparable from who I am.

Challenging Cognitive Resonance

I have a strong need for cognition or intellectual work, and the work I do is a principal way to provide that satisfaction and challenge. I am drawn to the particular work I do, perhaps even “addicted” to it, and am doing work that feels like a natural fit to whom I am – my characteristics, skills, and behavioral tendencies. I tend to “blur the lines” between work and my personal life because I am “just me” at work and the work suits innate aspects of myself.

Gainful Resonant Competency

I am doing work that feels natural to me and suits me – my traits or characteristics, skills, behavioral tendencies, and often my perspective or values. I take pride in working in my field and being competent or good at the technical or profession-specific details of my work. I also enjoy being successful in my field and earning a good income, as those are both important factors for my self-esteem. My work is not highly important to who I am.

Instrumental Marketable Skill

I am happy with the work I’ve chosen and take pride in being competent and good at the work while achieving strong results. I recognize I am primarily exchanging skills for an income or work-life balance that affords me access to other really important parts of my life, or I simply don’t expect work to provide more meaning beyond these things (“work is work”). I have many other parts of my life that make me “me,” and work is only a small part of that mix.

Diminished Esteem

While there are aspects of the work I do that I find satisfying, they are overruled by a sense of distraught I feel about the work and myself. I like many aspects of the field or work I do, but I’m also keenly aware that I feel like I’ve not achieved what I’d like to through my work, and I am not who I would like to be as a person through this work. It is upsetting, and I long for meaningful work where I can be more successful and just be more of who I am.

Authentically Impacting Society

I am strongly imprinting my work with who I am and am doing so by deeply expressing my values through my work, whether traditional in nature or attached to my religion or faith. I both find deep fulfillment and it is very important to me that I am contributing to a cause larger than myself, that I really make a difference at work, and am having a legacy impact on my community or society at large.


While I am certainly expressing key aspects of myself in my work, I first and foremost recognize it to be a vehicle for my own constant personal growth or self-cultivation to realize my potential and who I can ultimately become. I may even realize there is an active synergy, or interaction, between me and my work, which creates an upward growth spiral to which I aspire. I feel like I’m in a constant and active state of “becoming” through my work.

Chosen Achievement Path

I may not have known I wanted to do the kind of work I am doing or may have fallen into the work I do, but I find it satisfying and make the work with how I do it. Tangible results and hard work are really important to me, as they demonstrate my contribution and success to myself and to others. The most meaningful aspects of my work are the career advancement, compensation, power, prestige, respect, status or rank, and feeling of success.

Conflicted Fit

While there are some or even many aspects of the work I enjoy and feel fit with my personality or talents, there are also a large or almost equal number that are just not working for me or don’t suit who I am. I feel conflicted about my situation, but I’m not so unhappy that I am contemplating leaving or quitting, just settling for it for now. It’s likely I am doing the right (or suitable) work but in the wrong place or environment.

Existential Crisis

I enjoy some or several aspects of my work and feel I am quite good at them, but I intensely long for work that allows me to express much more of who I am. I often feel I am wasting my potential doing the work I do, which makes me feel very bad about myself and my life. Very distressing, it is very hard to come to work each day and I may resent many aspects of the work or work experience, but right now I feel trapped and unable to leave for a different opportunity.

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