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Understand Social Identity to Lead in a Changing World

Understand Social Identity to Lead in a Changing World

In recent years, globalization, remote work, and a focus on social justice have created a workforce that is more diverse than ever before.

Organizational-level efforts to take action on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace are important, but not enough on their own to create lasting change. Leaders who want to harness the power of their employees’ diverse experiences and succeed in the new talent economy need to understand how to collaborate across boundaries. Leaders must understand and consider people’s different lived experiences to help their teams achieve their full potential. This starts with understanding social identity.

What Is Social Identity?

Social identities are labels that people use to categorize or identify themselves and/or others as members of specific groups. Some common social identities include generation, ethnicity, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, (dis)ability, political affiliation, relationship status, profession, and socioeconomic status.

Social identity is one of the aspects of your “self-concept” — how you see yourself as a person. Along with your personal identity (e.g., personal attributes you use to describe yourself, like being tall or conscientious), social identity influences our values, the stories we tell about ourselves and others, and things that motivate us toward action.

To understand how social identities can inform your equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts, it’s helpful to remember these 4 things.

Social identities are dynamic.

There’s no one specific way to acquire a social identity. You could be born into a social identity group (e.g., being born into a given generation) or acquire one as a result of specific choices made (e.g., becoming a doctor). Still other times, a lived experience may create a new social identity (e.g., an accident or illness may change your ability status). Some social identities are visible, while others are invisible. Some social identities you may hold your whole life, while others may shift throughout your life.

Everyone has multiple identities, and combinations of social identities matter.

Although social identities are often talked about in terms of a single category (e.g., “Republican or Democrat;” “Black or White”), every one of us has multiple social identities that combine in unique ways that influence our lived experiences and interactions. For example, the experience of being White is likely to be different if a person is also rich, heterosexual, and cisgender compared to a person who is poor, queer, and non-binary.

Social identities are shaped by society.

Society and culture determine when and how differences between people become social identities. For example, eye color is not considered a social identity in most current social groups, but skin color is. Because social identities are norm dependent, what is and is not considered a social identity can change over time and in different cultures.

Social identities can be more or less salient, depending on the situation.

Certain social identities feel more prominent in certain situations and contexts. For example, if you are a White American living in America, you might not often think about your national identity. However, if you were to take an expat position in China, being American might suddenly feel like a huge part of your identity, because it will likely impact how others see you as well as how you interpret your experiences.

Infographic: 4 Things to Remember About Social Identity

Why Does Social Identity Matter?

Social identities are powerful because as humans, we categorize ourselves and each other into groups along social identity lines. This categorization often lays the foundation for bias, stereotypes, prejudice, and favoritism. It also often serves as a catalyst for motivation and action (e.g., we may feel called to mobilize, speak out, or organize based on social identities).

Social identity groups are also often at the root of unequal power or privilege. Understanding the nuances of social identity is a critical step in any organizational equity, diversity, and inclusion effort. A social identity lens can help you spot situations when actions and decisions may be rooted in unconscious bias or when you’re unintentionally shutting down diverse perspectives.

An Exercise to Better Understand Your Own Social Identity

To bring focus to the way social identity impacts how you work and lead others, try this exercise.

1. List as many of your social identities as you can. Consider categories such as race, gender, ethnicity, religion, generation, social/relational roles, occupation, nationality, sexual orientation, (dis)ability, neurotypical status, etc. 

2. Reflect on these questions.

  • Which social identities are most central to how you see yourself as a person? Why?
  • Which social identities have the biggest impact on how others treat you? Why? Does your answer change depending on context (e.g., at work, at home, with your friends)?
  • Are there aspects of your identity that you keep hidden at work? What impact might that have on you and those around you? Are there aspects you try to make explicitly known about you? What impact does that have on how you move through the world?
  • What assumptions do you think other people make about you based on your social identities? What assumptions may you have made about other people based on their social identities?

3. Consider how your various social identities have an impact on your:

  • Access to resources and to people in positions of authority;
  • Ability to direct your own and other people’s work;
  • Authority to make decisions; and
  • Ability to influence through position or relationships.

How to Lead Diverse Groups With Social Identity in Mind

Not all of these strategies are appropriate for every group or organization, but some of them may be useful to you. You can also generate your own strategies to fit your specific situations.

  • Notice social identity representation at your organization. Pay attention to how social identities play out in your work group and organization. Is there diversity in your organization, but a less diverse group of people who are the decision-makers? Is there diversity among the decision-makers, but less among those who have cache? Is there diversity for some social identities but not others? Once you notice who’s missing, consider how you could increase representation among the social identities you’re not hearing from.
  • Facilitate routine contact across social identities. One of the simplest and best established strategies to decrease bias and stereotyping is to cultivate contact between people from different social identity groups. Consider which social identity groups do not often interact in your current work structure and how you might arrange opportunities for connection (e.g., projects, social events, retreats, or team-building activities).
  • Use your understanding of social identities to elevate equity. Equity is about giving people the resources they need to succeed (in comparison to equality, which is about giving everyone the same resources). Equity is an important factor when considering diversity and inclusion in organizations; without equity, diversity & inclusion initiatives may be less effective and can even seem tone-deaf.

However, equity can also be very hard to navigate. Leveraging your understanding of social identities can help you reveal opportunities to elevate equity. For example, when creating a new policy, examine how it may impact people with different combinations of social identities (e.g., How would it impact people of color? Single mothers? Black women? Disabled folks? Non-binary folks? Older workers without college educations?).

Pay special attention to social identities that may be underrepresented or oppressed. If it seems like the policy could create an additional burden on certain groups, consider how you could adjust it and be sure to check with people who have social identities likely to be impacted.

These and other such considerations make a world of difference when it comes to leading inclusively and attracting, retaining, and promoting a diverse workforce.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

We can partner with you to create customized leadership solutions that increase understanding of social identity and move beyond unconscious bias at your organization by shifting mindsets, behaviors, and practices. Learn more about our equity, diversity, and inclusion practice and solutions.

November 17, 2020
Leading Effectively Staff
About the Author(s)
Leading Effectively Staff
This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff, who analyze our decades of pioneering, expert research and experiences in the field to share content that will help leaders at every level. Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-based leadership articles and insights sent straight to your inbox.

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