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Why our relationships at work become part of our identity

In an excerpt from ‘The Missing Links,’ two experts in organizational psychology discuss why our work (and our workplace relationships) seem to define us.

Why our relationships at work become part of our identity
[Source images: RF._.studio/Pexels; Bigmouse108/iStock]
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The driver of identity is a fundamental human motivation to feel ownership of ourselves as individuals and how we fit into the world. Identity and self-concept are huge drivers in our beliefs and our behaviors in relation to ourselves and others. So, when an important aspect of your self-concept is shared with others’ self-concept, we experience shared identity. This shared identity translates into trust, the willingness to do favors (even for strangers), and cooperative behaviors. Within an organizational context, it translates into greater team alignment and performance.

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Therefore, we feel a strong sense of unity with our coworkers because we identify with them in some way; in other words, because they are like us. Furthermore, we feel a strong sense of connection and commitment to our organization because our definition of who we are is positively influenced by the fact that we work at that company. To illustrate this, let’s start with a simple experience that many of us may have had. If you are an avid fan of a particular sports team who has just won a major game or championship and you pass another fan of that same team while you’re both wearing one of their jerseys, what are the chances that you’ll smile and wave at each other? Does it matter if you’ve ever met? Now, take it a step further. How likely is it that you’d do a favor for him or her? Research by Michael Platow and others from 1999 shows that shared fandom of a sports team does, in fact, lead people to be more likely to do a favor for strangers.

There is a well-researched link between identity and behavior. One’s identity serves as an internal compass for choices, including how to act in different environments. For example, if you identify as “a healthy eater,” you will be more likely to choose carrots as an afternoon snack over a piece of cake.

However, it is important to note that because we are interested in controlling behaviors to drive results around this concept of unity, this identity-belief link is critical and is therefore one more reason identity is the human driver to which we link feelings of unity. This same research is also why you want to recruit employees whose beliefs are already in alignment with the organization. Changing a belief linked to an individual’s identity can be extremely difficult.

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From a cultural standpoint, the link between “unity” and “identity” is important because people look to the cues around them to guide not only how to behave but how to feel about themselves. For organizations that want engaged, happy employees, this point can’t be overemphasized. From psychology, we know that when researchers measured whether the individual differences between people or the environment had a bigger impact on how people behaved, they found overwhelmingly that the environment had a much bigger impact. The Stanford Prison Experiment was one of the most famous studies to demonstrate how much the environment could impact how humans behave. Participants entered the experiment as healthy, normal college students, but when asked to embody the identity of a guard or a prisoner, the setting of the study transformed them into cruel “guards” treating other humans inhumanely or into powerless “prisoners” behaving like zombies obeying the guards. People look to their environment for cues about how they’re meant to behave, so you’ll want to be intentional about designing the environment to create a unified organization.


Excerpted from The Missing Links: Launching a High Performing Company Culture. Copyright © 2021 Laura Gallaher, Phillip Meade. Published in the United States by Leaders Press. All rights reserved.

Laura Gallaher, PhD, is a leadership coach and organizational psychologist. She is the founder of Gallaher Edge. and a co-author of The Missing Links.

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Phillip T. Meade, PhD, is a coowner of Gallaher Edge, and USA Today and Wall Street Journal best-selling author, with expertise in improving team cohesion, organization design, leadership development, process engineering, strategic planning, and communication. He is a co-author of The Missing Links.