Understand Social Identity to Lead in a Changing World

People working to understand social identity and why it's important

Today’s global workforce is more diverse than ever before. Leaders who want to tap the potential of all their talent and harness the power of their employees’ diverse experiences to succeed in the new talent economy must understand how to lead multicultural teams and build a climate of respect at the organization.

To do this, they must understand and consider their team’s different perspectives and lived experiences. This starts with understanding social identity. 

Social Identity Explained

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.

Why Does Social Identity Matter?

Social identities are powerful because they’re also often at the root of unequal power or privilege. 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 action (e.g., we may feel motivated to mobilize, organize, speak out, or demonstrate allyship based on social identities).

Understanding the nuances of social identity is critical for any people leader, because aspects of social identity affect how you lead and work with others. A social identity lens can help you spot situations when people don’t feel free to share their perspectives or are being unintentionally shut out, or when actions or decisions may be rooted in unconscious bias. It’s also foundational to any organizational-level efforts to take action on DEI in the workplace, build belonging at work, and foster a more inclusive culture.

Our (Better) Leadership Project highlights the ways leadership can (and should) evolve with our changing world, including understanding social identity, and how this leads to organizations that are more innovative, successful, and (better) prepared for the future.

Join us for the Better Leadership Project

4 Things to Know About Social Identity

To understand how social identities can inform your equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts, it’s helpful to remember that social identity is:

  • Dynamic,
  • Multiple,
  • Sociological, and
  • Salient.

1. 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. Social identity isn’t static; it can change over time.

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

Although social identities are often talked about in terms of a single category (e.g., “Republican or Democrat;” “Black or White”), everyone 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, as compared to a person who is poor, queer, and non-binary.

3. 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.

4. Social identities can be more or less salient, depending on context.

Certain social identities may feel more prominent in certain situations and contexts. For example, if you are a White American living in North America, you might not often think about your national identity. However, if you were to take an expat position in China, this 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

Understanding Social Identity

An Exercise to Explore 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 own social identities as you can.

Consider categories such as race, sex, gender expression, ethnicity, religion, generation, occupation, nationality, sexual orientation, social or relational roles (such as parenting or caregiving and leadership roles), (dis)ability, neurotypical status, etc.

2. Reflect on these social identities you’ve listed.

Consider the following 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 you.

Do your social identities affect your:

  • Access to various types of support, resources, and people in positions of authority?
  • Ability to direct your own and other people’s work?
  • Authority to make decisions?
  • Ability to influence through position or relationships?

How to Lead With Social Identity in Mind

3 Strategies for Leaders to Try

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.

1. Notice social identity representation at your organization.

Pay attention to how social identities play out in your work group and organization. Is there diversity within your organization, but less so among the decision-makers? Is there diversity among the decision-makers, but less among certain groups?

Once you notice who’s missing, consider how you could increase representation among the social identities you’re not hearing from. Make an intentional effort to increase representation of different social identities where possible, and consider how inclusive leadership practices could help.

2. 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 to increase collaboration across boundaries where you can. Consider which social identity groups do not often interact in your current work structure, and how you might arrange more opportunities for connection (e.g., projects, social events, retreats, or team-building activities). Relationship-building starts with empathy and inclusion, and they’re imperatives for diversity initiatives.

3. Use your understanding of social identities to elevate equity at your organization.

Leveraging your understanding of social identities can help you reveal opportunities to elevate equity and lead with compassion. Equity is about giving people the resources they need to succeed (which is different from equality, which is about giving everyone the same resources). Equity is an important factor when considering diversity and inclusion in organizations, because without a focus on equity first, diversity & inclusion initiatives may be less effective and can even seem tone-deaf.

For example, when creating a new HR policy, examine how it may impact people with different combinations of social identities at your organization. Pay special attention to social identities that may be underrepresented or historically oppressed. For example you might ask, How might this new remote work policy impact people of color? Caregivers? Disabled people? Non-binary team members? Older workers without college educations?

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. Inviting them to share their input directly, and listening to understand their perspectives (while providing psychological safety) can go a long way.

These and other such considerations make a world of difference when it comes to 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.

February 7, 2023
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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