social identity theory

Organizations cannot function without teamwork. And teams involve interpersonal interactions. These interactions form the crux of the organization’s culture and social fabric.

Organizations immensely benefit from a high level of collaboration and productivity when these interactions are smoothly carried out. Social Psychologists have long been striving for this. One such Social Psychologist has developed the Social Identity Theory which defines how people identify themselves within a group.

Due to its strong relevance to organizations, it has been widely acclaimed and used in building organizational cultures since the 1990s. Applying theories like this not only strengthens culture but also builds effective leadership. Read on to understand more about it.

What is Social Identity Theory?

To explain in the simplest terms Social Identity theory states that individuals try to identify themselves as a part of a group and this becomes a source of self-esteem and pride.

It was developed by psychologist Henri Tajfel in the 1970s and 1980s by examining how individuals react within groups. It was observed that when individuals are grouped together they tend to consider belonging to the group and start to identify themselves with the group membership. The theory also states that this leads to a ‘them’ and ‘us’ phenomenon where the participants discriminate between themselves and people outside the group. If there is outside competition absent, it will lead to discrimination within the group.

There are several aspects of the theory and each aspect details how an individual identifies themselves in the group. The aspects are an interpersonal-intergroup continuum, positive distinctiveness and strategies for it, individual mobility, social creativity, social competition, and positive psychology.

These aspects have consequences, and they are primarily divided into three types: Ingroup favoritism, prosocial behaviors, and reluctance to bet against identity-relevant outcomes are the three implications of the theory. These aspects and implications are predominantly social behaviors associated with individuals.

Social Identity Theory in organizations

As organizations are made of people psychological theories like this are critical to building better cultures and teams. Every interaction people make in an organizational setting is related to a group. As we also tend to spend more time at work than with family, the urge to feel a part of a group is higher at work.

Simple social behaviors like celebrating together, having conversations over coffee, and eating together, can boost employee experience significantly. Organizations and managers often prefer social interactions at work to be less emotional and more transactional. Building social connections at work is found to improve employee well-being by increasing happiness, creating a sense of belonging, improving communication, etc.

Team interactions at work are also detrimental to working in cross-functional teams. This is also reflected in Maslow’s theory of hierarchical needs which states that social interactions are an intrinsic motivator for employees.

In the era of remote work, theories like this hold more importance. As organizations are trying to connect better with their remote workers, identifying factors that motivate employees is essential. Applying the social identity theory for remote teams can help in building teams that collaborate and communicate better.

As employees have an intrinsic need to be a part of a team or a group, ensuring that remote team members interact frequently and build personal bonds can help in building stronger teams. The theory also helps in building diverse and inclusive remote teams by helping people identify themselves with their team members.

Social Identity Theory can also be extremely useful in conflict management. Understanding how individuals in the team identify themselves can be key to conflict resolution.

How does it relate to effective leadership?

Leading a team effectively requires a comprehensive understanding of how people identify themselves and interact within the team. Applying the Social Identity Theory in teams can help leaders gauge the needs of team members.

On a macro level, the theory also relates to how a leader identifies themselves with the organization and its culture. If a leader is closely aligned with the organizational culture, values, vision, and mission, they are more likely to lead their teams toward the collective vision rather than act out of self-interest. These leaders also act toward the greater well-being of their team members selflessly.

When a leader identifies themselves strongly with the organization, they also motivate employees actively and persuade them to accept the organization’s goals. Team members eventually start to identify themselves strongly with the organization. Research has termed this the ‘Leader-Identity-Transfer-Model’. Team members also perceive leaders with more charisma when they identify themselves with the organization.

However, in some scenarios, leaders identify themselves as a part of their team rather than as a part of the organization. In these cases it might lead to in-group favoritism, developing cliques, discrimination, and a reduction in diversity. If such scenarios are identified, this can be worked upon through a series of leadership training programs.

Analyzing the social fabric of the organization with this theory can help organizations in initiating employee motivation activities and building better teams.

As employees start to look for more purpose and more engaging roles in the new normal, understanding how one identifies with the organization can craft more meaningful roles for employees. However, just like any other theory, there are criticisms on applying this. Critics argue that social identity does not always lead to bias and theory is more explanatory than execution. Therefore, using it as the sole criterion for building teams may not be appropriate. Use it along with other social psychology theories such as Maslow’s theory of motivators to build effective teams and leaders.