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Social Identity in the Workplace

Updated: Apr 18

Our social identity plays a profound role in shaping our perception, interactions and experiences. Our sense of belonging to an organisation impacts our social identity, after all we spend a significant proportion of our lives working.

This sense of belonging can lead to organisations being united and working effectively to achieve common goals, but conflicts in social identity can also impede productivity, innovation and inclusion.

What is Social Identity Theory?

Social Identity Theory, proposed by psychologist Henri Tajfel in the 1970s suggested that individuals define their sense of self by categorising themselves and others into groups.

These can be labelled as ‘ingroups’ or ‘outgroups’, referring to the groups to which they belong and groups to which they do not belong respectively.

There are many identity groups that we associate ourselves with in work; they could relate to our job title or department but also extends to lifestyle categories such as being a parent, sports interests or age.

Understanding the dynamics of social identity allows us to better address problems related to prejudice, discrimination, and intergroup conflict, ultimately fostering more inclusive and cohesive workplaces.

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flower and thistle to represent hidden sides to people

The dangers of social identity

Despite laying the foundation for belonging, social identity harbours hidden dangers. Excessive identification with a particular group can lead to ingroup favouritism, resulting in discrimination against the outgroup. This can foster exclusion and create pressure for individuals to conform to group norms which can stifle creativity and innovation, hindering organisational growth.

Social identity can also lead to conflicts between groups leading to resentment and tension that undermine collaboration and teamwork. When this is not explored, these conflicts can create a toxic working environment with foundations of distrust and siloed mindsets. This can often happen without organisations realising until it is too late…

unconscious bias - making assumptions about people

Unconscious Bias

The way that we group others is often an unconscious process, leaving us vulnerable to making assumptions about others that we are not aware of – this is unconscious bias.

Often shaped by stereotypes and cultural norms, unconscious biases can influence our perception and decision-making processes without us realising. In the context of social identity, these biases can lead to preferential treatment towards individuals who have similar identities to us, marginalising those who are different. This can have a negative impact on psychological safety within teams and organisations as well as reducing belonging and inclusion.

Challenging Assumptions

In an age where workplaces are becoming more diverse, recognising and challenging our own biases to understand and appreciating others is paramount for success. For example, many organisations are currently facing challenges of a multigenerational workforce and many of these challenges are rooted in stereotypes and bias.

Research has shown that people view older employees as ‘technophobic’ or resistant to change whilst younger employees are more likely to be classified as lazy or entitled. However, research also shows that these stereotypes do not apply to the majority of these groups.

It is by recognising and challenging these biases that organisations can avoid stifling individuals and instead harness the unique strengths to drive innovation and success.

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Using social identity to cultivate belonging and inclusivity

Amidst the complexity of social identity, there is an opportunity for organisations to cultivate a culture of belonging and inclusivity. Developing an understanding of key topics such as age diversity, unconscious bias and intersectionality are key to promoting inclusive working environments.

Creating opportunities for facilitators to support employees to share their experiences and learn from others can help break down barriers and foster understanding across diverse groups whilst raising awareness and promoting inclusive behaviours.

Furthermore, leaders play a significant role in setting the tone for inclusive practices and creating an environment in which each person feels able to fully contribute. By prioritising diversity and inclusion initiatives organisations can unlock the full potential of their employees, driving innovation, productivity and sustainable growth.

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Social Identity Theory

In conclusion, social identity in the workplace is a multifaceted phenomenon that intersects with unconscious bias, age diversity, and intersectionality. While it holds the potential to foster belonging and collaboration, it also poses inherent risks that can impede progress and hinder inclusivity. By acknowledging and addressing these challenges, organizations can create a workplace culture that celebrates diversity, fosters belonging, and harnesses the collective power of social identity for the greater good.

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