How social identity and stereotypes play out in the workplace

by Elizabeth Yardley, Psychologist

Throughout any given day, we constantly interact with other people. Many of us take the simplest social cues for granted – a smile, a nod, a “good morning” – failing to appreciate the psychological ‘boost’ they provide our self-esteem and wellbeing. But the truth is that even the smallest interaction serves an important role, reinforcing that we belong and are valued as part of a group.

Those who are accepted as part of an environment’s majority group may assume that everyone regularly receives these social cues. However, research shows that the experience of minorities can be very different.

What is social identity?

We naturally categorise people into different social groups, based on their characteristics. It’s how our brains have evolved; to simplify and make sense of the world around us. These categories can be based on surface-level differences, such as gender, ethnicity and age, or deeper-level differences, such as personality or sexuality. We identify more easily with those we share characteristics with, sharing a ‘social’ identity and seeing ourselves as part of that ‘in-group’.

The fact that our brains work in this way means that we spend a significant proportion of our waking hours in artificial ‘tribes’. The dominant tribe in Western society has historically been white and male. If you’ve never known anything different, you probably don’t give this much thought. If you’re a white male in particular, you’re likely to be constantly reminded of your membership of the dominant group whenever you look around your organisation.

But the experience of a minority, particularly in terms of ethnicity, is likely to be very different. We are much more likely to define someone by a single shared characteristic when our understanding of them as an individual is lacking or flawed. So, a lack of meaningful contact with the majority group puts minorities at risk of stereotyping, bias and micro-incivilities.

The cumulative impact of these behaviours on our people decisions is that minorities will often see fewer people who are similar to them in senior positions. They will have fewer opportunities to excel and develop, and may even find that they’re overlooked for certain roles or responsibilities. But when managers make an effort to ensure that minorities feel fully integrated into their team, they are more likely to feel that their performance is comparable with that of the majority group.

It’s clear, therefore, that having surface-level differences pointed out can make members of minority groups feel like outsiders. It goes deeper than that, though. It can also be predictive of job performance and whether someone will even remain in an organisation.

Why ‘we’ is important for a sense of ‘me’

It’s important that neither a shared social identity nor the inclusion of minority members in the majority group are seen as “nice to have.”

In the workplace, a shared social identity conveys several benefits, both to the individual and to the wider group. We may, for instance, feel a greater sense of purpose and be more motivated to contribute to the success of our team. After all, their success is our success; just think about how good you feel when your favourite sports team wins a match.

We also feel stronger than we do alone. We perceive that we have more support available to us and are more likely to stretch ourselves, take on demanding tasks and persist when faced with challenges. We know that we’re more likely to receive discretionary help from our ‘in-group’ if things become too much.

How can we foster stronger social identities?

It’s clear that an inclusive culture isn’t simply a perk or an added bonus. It addresses a fundamental human need, and one which directly correlates with our ability to perform at our best.

Many organisations have adopted a “we’re all the same” approach to inclusion, emphasising shared characteristics. Such approaches are often well-intentioned, aiming to create a shared identity. But in reality, they suppress minorities. They encourage people to adapt their thoughts, behaviour and sense of self to fit the environment around them. In some organisations, this environment has inadvertently been created by having an unwritten rule that, to progress, you need to act more like the dominant group.

A genuinely inclusive culture celebrates different group identities. Of course, this doesn’t happen by accident; it requires conscious effort and needs to be continuously reinforced. While there is much an organisation can do to encourage this – such as celebrating the religious festivals of various different faiths – line managers clearly play a key role. The extent to which they encourage diversity of thought and expression of difference will either reinforce the central messages of the organisation or contradict them.

To sum up…

Our social environment is essential to our self-esteem, confidence and wellbeing. But many organisations favour individuals who have an affinity with the majority group. In Western organisations, able-bodied white individuals are likely to receive a psychological boost every time they look around them. As a result, minorities are at a distinct disadvantage, and research suggests that this could have a profoundly negative effect on both their health and performance.

Until the link between having a shared group identity and good mental and physical health becomes more widely recognised, we must make sure that our leaders don’t lose sight of the importance of social identity within our organisations.

This is one of a range of issues relating to the relationship between race and wellbeing in the workplace, explored in depth In the new book, Free to Soar: Race and Wellbeing in Organisations, by a team of business psychologists, edited by Professor Binna Kandola.


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