Contesting “the basics”: the necessity of social identity

This post is inspired by a conversation I recently had with a friend of mine. He is a successful professional and is now in a management position in the Australian public service. I was, as often is the case, singing the praises of the social identity approach and its potential for application in the business world. At some stage in the conversation he said something along these lines…

I agree with what you are saying, and the science sounds great, but the vast majority organizations are simply not going to be interested. And that is not because they can’t see the value. It’s just that they are too busy struggling to get even the basics right.

Said otherwise, for him the social identity approach is a luxury that most organizations cannot afford; they have more fundamental problems to deal with. He continued with the following example…

Take some colleagues of mine. They were tasked with addressing the low performance in [Company X] and so they got some consultants in. The consultants discovered that the managers at [Company X] weren’t even measuring individual performance and there were no individual incentives.

To put it bluntly, my friend is wrong. But he is not alone in being wrong. His views reflect the dominant understanding in organizational behaviour: That there are “basics” to management, and that those basics can be understood via individualistic economics and psychosocial egoism.

Fortunately for us, my friend has provided a perfect opportunity to challenge the misconception that the social identity approach is merely an icing to be put on an already high functioning organizational cake.

As mentioned in our first post, this social psychological perspective describes how “we understand ourselves as a function of who we are similar to and who we are different from”. In other words, our sense of self comes from the social categories that we perceive ourselves to be members of (or not members of).[1] For example, at any particular time I might define myself as a male, an Australian, a blogger, a consultant, a son, a skier, etc.. These are not social masks that I wear from situation to situation, but rather are contextually dependent social identities that are equally as “real” as my sense of being the unique individual ‘Andrew’. It is no understatement then to say that the social identity approach is in many ways an answer to the question ‘what is the self?’.[2]  If we think of ‘basic’ as core to the human condition, then it doesn’t get much more basic than that.

Unsurprisingly, the implications for organizations are far reaching. How organizational members define themselves determines in large part who they listen to, what they value, how they behave, and most critically to our present purposes what they are motivated by.[3] At times people will be motivated by individual self-interest and personal goals. At other times, when a more inclusive social identity is at play, they will be motivated by whatever is normative for that self-defining social category. In an organizational context we can expect that they will be motivated by team success and shared achievement.[4]

Carrots? Sure, but which carrots?

Carrots? Sure, but which carrots?

This is exactly what has been found in the research. In an experimental laboratory study Stephen Worshal and colleagues asked participants to engage in a group task. All aspects of the environment were the same for all participants, except for the type of reward structure. This was varied across participants. Consistent with predictions derived from the social identity approach, the researchers found that in the group task individual incentivisation was less effective at increasing productivity than group incentivisation.[5] Along the same lines, Alex Haslam and colleagues found in field research that when organizational identification was strongest the availability of individualistic motivators was not associated with increased rule following or ‘going the extra mile’. Instead, the availability of team based motivators was. More dramatically, they also found that in that high organizational identification environment individualistic motivators were associated with reduced team loyalty.[6]

Both theory and data are clear. For the best results any particular reward structure needs to reflect the social identities of employees. The universal application of individualistic reward structures is not just inefficient, but potentially damaging. Looking back to Company X, while the consulting team, and my friend, might be flabbergasted by the absence of individual performance monitoring and incentives, our response would be different. We would instead ask the right question: What type of reward structure is appropriate? And if we were to have any hope of answering correctly, we would absolutely need a social identity analysis.

To sum up, we have seen how the dominant myths of management and organizational behaviour can so easily lead us astray. Moreover, it is only by moving beyond individualism and recognizing the role of social identity processes that we can understand, and respond to, the reality of behaviour and motivation in organizations. Said otherwise, in order to ask the right questions and make the right decisions we need to appreciate the fact that social identity processes are at the heart of organization behaviour. In other words, the social identity approach is the basics.


[1] Turner, J. C. (1985). Social categorization and the self-concept: A social cognitive theory of group behavior. Advances in group processes: Theory and research, 2, 77-122.

[2] Turner, J. C., & Onorato, R. S. (1999). Social identity, personality, and the self-concept: A self-categorization perspective The psychology of the social self, 11-46.

[3] Haslam, S. A. (2001). Psychology in Organizations. London: SAGE Publications.

[4] Van Knippenberg, D. (2000). Work motivation and performance: A social identity perspective. Applied Psychology, 49(3), 357-371.

[5] Worchel, S., Rothgerber, H., Day, E. A., Hart, D., & Butemeyer, J. (1998). Social identity and individual productivity within groups. British Journal of Social Psychology, 37(4), 389-413.

[6] Haslam, S. A., Powell, C., & Turner, J. C. (2000). Social Identity, Self‐categorization, and Work Motivation: Rethinking the Contribution of the Group to Positive and Sustainable Organisational Outcomes. Applied Psychology, 49(3), 319-339.

2 responses to “Contesting “the basics”: the necessity of social identity

  1. I basically agree with your characterisation of my point “they are too busy struggling to get even the basics right”

    You use two phrases: “icing to be put on an already high functioning organisational cake”
    “For the best results any particular reward structure needs to reflect the social identities of employees.”

    My point was if the organisations are struggling to get the basics right, where are your social identity tools to fix this? How can the average organisation uncover the social identities of employees, and how can it align its rewards to this? (Especially in an environment of centralised wage bargain and rigorous negotiation frameworks of 37.5 hrs vs 38 hrs work week).

    I believe is well recognised in management that money is not necessarily the most effective motivator. Hence why Google has a nice cafe, or the APS has good leave provisions. To me that translates in identities as: people who like to eat and people who like to take holidays. Safe ground for organisations who are struggling with the basics.

    • Aha! See everyone; we don’t just make up stories for dramatic effect.
      Hi ‘Someguy’
      I think you have changed your tune somewhat…which is actually great. I’ll consider it a win.
      I am not sure if you remember, but all those months ago you were claiming that there things that organizations need to take care of before they can afford to start worrying about social identity processes. If you now agree that social identity processes are part of those basics, as you seem to, then that is excellent.
      With regard to your other question, we do plan to introduce readers to some of the specific social identity tools that have been developed, as well as those that are currently under development. In fact, we have already started. If you can’t wait for these upcoming posts though, I would recommend Alex Haslam and colleagues’ organizational tool “ASPIRe” as a good example. You can find the details here:
      Haslam, S. A., Eggins, R. A., & Reynolds, K. J. (2003). The ASPIRe model: Actualizing social and personal identity resources to enhance organizational outcomes. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 76(1), 83-113.
      There is, however, another point to make here. That is that an understanding of social identity processes in and of itself leads to more skilful navigation of organizational behaviour. This is because a) it opens our eyes to the possible ways to leverage and accommodate social identity processes in a practical day to day way, and b) it inoculates us against the dominant, often individualistic, misconceptions about the psychology of organizations.
      Anyway, I can fill you in more on Friday, but for all others expect us to make a strong case for these assertions as the blog continues.
      Cheers
      Andrew

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