What Does Social Identity Mean?
The context of leadership has changed. Traditionally, leaders worked in organizations in which one predominant culture and set of values were normalized. But today, leaders must be more intentional about recognizing and respecting different histories, perspectives, values, and cultures.
As our world becomes more complex, the people you lead are likely to be different from you, and from each other, in significant ways. But that reality offers tremendous opportunity, which is why you should collaborate across boundaries.
While organizational-level efforts to take action on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace are important, you and your colleagues are interacting every day with people of different ages, ethnicities, races, religions, genders, sexual identities, nationalities, education levels, and socioeconomic statuses.
As a leader, you need to understand how these multi-layered aspects of social identity impact how you respond to other people — and how they respond to you. And understanding social identity helps you spot situations when actions and decisions may be rooted in unconscious bias, or when you are unintentionally shutting down diverse perspectives, or when long-established structures reinforce unequal power or privilege.
Social Identity: An Overlooked View of Diversity
A helpful way to think about diversity, social identity is the parts of your identity that come from belonging to groups, and it is a combination of multiple components:
- Your Given Identity: The attributes or conditions that you have no choice about. They may be characteristics you were born with or given to you in childhood or later in life. Elements of your given identity include birthplace, age, gender, physical characteristics, certain family roles, possibly religion.
- Your Chosen Identity: The characteristics that you choose. They may describe your status as well as attributes and skills. Your occupation, hobbies, political affiliation, place of residence, family roles, and religion may all be chosen.
- Your Core Identity: The attributes that you think make you unique as an individual. Elements of your core identity may include traits, behaviors, beliefs, values, and skills.
Some aspects of your identity are visible; others are not. Some are fixed; others may change over time. And some may be spoken about openly at work; others may be hidden or unacknowledged.
Why Does Social Identity Matter?
All of us use social identity to categorize people into groups based on a shared belief, experience, or characteristic (for example, women, engineers, millennials). Unintentionally and unconsciously, we naturally identify with certain groups and compare groups with each other.
But people in other groups and with other identities are also making comparisons — ones that may be very different from yours. Parts of your identity that matter to you may not matter to others, or may matter only in certain situations. Aspects of your identity that seem insignificant to you could become huge benefits or obstacles when you are working with particular groups.
To bring focus to the way your social identity relates to how you work and lead others, try this exercise:
- List your given, chosen, and core identities.
- Reflect on these questions — maybe even talk about them with a colleague or mentor. Use the following prompts to drive dialogue:
- What aspects of your identity help you make connections with people at work? What aspects of your identity get in the way of making connections with people at work?
- Are there aspects of your identity that you keep hidden at work? What impact might that have on you and those around you?
- What assumptions do you think other people make about you based on your social identity? What assumptions do you make about other people based on their social identity?
In addition, explore the ways in which the various aspects of your social identity 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.
By thinking through your own social identity, you gain awareness of the lens you see through, and can seek out others with different perspectives.
You can think more broadly about your context and connections at work, noticing how social identities show up in the organization and groups you are a part of and understanding which identities are “at the table.”
How to Lead Diverse Groups With Social Identity in Mind
As you grow your understanding of how social identity informs how you lead and how others interact, you’ll want to find productive ways to help your work groups and teams leverage their differences and their similarities.
The strategies listed below are from our book, Social Identity: Knowing Yourself, Leading Others. Not all these strategies are appropriate for every group or organization, but some of them may be useful to you. You can also use this list to generate your own strategies to fit your specific situations. More information and ideas to try can be found in Boundary Spanning in Action.
- Create routine contact. The simplest and perhaps best-known strategies involve constructing situations so that individual members of different groups come into contact with and get to know one another. Arrange opportunities for personal interaction among supervisors and subordinates and among team members, such as social events, retreats, or team-building activities. This creates more opportunity for one-to-one interactions that are based on individual people rather than the categories they fall into.
- Mix it up. Either randomly or systematically rotate work group roles in a way that involves people from different identity groups. Again, this softens boundaries between groups, and individuals have more opportunities for interpersonal interaction.
- Identify with the organization. Foster a collective identity by emphasizing that everyone belongs to the same organization and is working toward a common goal. The organization becomes an all-inclusive identity group, and differences between groups are minimized.
- Share the status. If groups are tightly formed around identity, create situations in which different groups are given equal status. Structure a project or a team so that members of each group have distinct but complementary roles in reaching common goals. This strategy is potentially risky, however, because difference between groups are made apparent. But if the situation is handled well, individuals learn that they can maintain their group identity and also value another group’s unique conversations.
- Create an inclusive environment. Organizational elements such as policies, practices, and the organizational climate are key. Policies of inclusiveness and practices that encourage an open dialogue about problems stemming from social identity conflict may be helpful. Policies of zero tolerance for fighting, harassment, and discrimination do work. Also, mechanisms for allowing social identity issues to emerge in safe and orchestrated ways may be effective. Of course, it is critical to consider the country’s culture and laws when determining a suitable remedy for addressing social identity conflicts.
- Take action. Problems started by social identity conflicts can become worse when they are ignored. Actions taken early help to quell some of the disruptive outcomes. What specific action to take depends very much on the country and cultural situation but allowing a situation to continue without intervention is an invitation for greater trouble.
Above all, keep in mind the power of respect.
We can partner with you to create customized leadership solutions to shift mindsets, behaviors, and practices towards more equitable, diverse, and inclusive teams and organizations. Learn more about our EDI practice.