Why Social Identity During Organisational Change is Critical

Why Social Identity During Organisational Change is Critical

The OR Podcast

Understanding the importance of social identity during organisational change is crucial for fostering a positive work environment and ensuring a smooth transition during organisational change events. During organisational change employees often have to adapt to new roles, relationships, and expectations. In effect these change people’s sense of identity in the organisation. Acknowledging and nurturing individuals’ social identity during this period can significantly enhance their sense of belonging, loyalty, and commitment to the organisation.

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Dr. Neela Mühlemann 

Neela is from the Business School, at the University of Greenwich in London. She is a Lecturer in Human Resource Management and Organisational Behaviour. She has a background in social and organisational psychology and holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Zurich, Switzerland.

Professor Alex Haslam 

Professor Halsam is from the School of Psychology, at The University of Queensland in Australia. Alex is Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology and Australian Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland. His research focuses on the study of group and identity processes in organisational, social, and clinical contexts. Together with colleagues, Alex has written and edited 15 books and published over 300 peer-reviewed articles on these topics.


Neela Mühlemann & Alexander Haslam – Social identity during org change

[00:00:00] David: Welcome. Today I’m talking with some of the team who earlier in the year published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology entitled Understanding Responses to an organisational Takeover. So, introducing the social identity model of organisational change, so with me Neela Muhlemann from the Business school at the University of Greenwich in London, and Alex Haslam from the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland in Australia.

[00:00:28] David: So Alex is actually in London at the moment, so welcome. Before we start, can I just ask you to introduce yourselves, give us a little bit of background and what kind of brought you to work together on this study?

[00:00:41] Neela: Alex, would you like to go first?

[00:00:42] Alex: No, you go first. Yeah.

[00:00:44] Neela: Okay. A bit about myself. So I’m a lecturer at the University of Greenwich where I teach about leadership in organisations, but my research all centers around the question how we can manage change better. Whether these are big [00:01:00] organisational changes like merger and acquisition, what we talk about today, or personal life changes, making life transitions, like going into retirement, because these processes are actually quite similar. And yeah, I will talk maybe a bit later about this.

[00:01:19] David: Brilliant. Thanks, Neela.

[00:01:20] Alex: Yeah. And I’m Alex Haslam. I’m a researcher in basically, in issues of identity and particularly social identity which we’re going to talk about a lot today, which relates to people’s membership in groups and their internalisation of those group memberships into their sentence of self and the ways in which the resulting self understandings then affect their cognitions, the way they think, the way they see the world, the way they feel, and most critically the way they behave and we argue and discover and find and show that yeah, group [00:02:00] memberships and changes to group memberships have a massive impact on the ways in which we behave in the world at large and as a result are implicated in most of the processes in which psychologists are interested.

[00:02:16] David: Brilliant. Thanks. Thanks, Alex. So your paper focuses on what happens during organisational change events, specifically mergers and acquisitions. Now the study’s examining what happens to people’s sense of identity as they go through a corporate takeover, and the emergent organisation starts to take on a new identity itself. In the paper, you propose a new model called the social identity model of organisational change or SIMOC, and my question is what kind of led up to this paper and the construction of the model?

[00:02:54] Neela: So during my PhD, I want to figure out, how can leaders manage these [00:03:00]changes better? How can they support their employees going through these stressful transitions? And I came across the identity leadership, a concept, Alex and all his colleagues, have done lots of work on and it made sense to me because I also figured out my participants, they were so stressed, and I thought like, maybe we should look at their health and wellbeing as well, instead of just looking how we can make them more productive during these changes, you know? And so I also came across a model called Social Identity Model of identity Change Alex, y, Katrien, Haslam has done a lot of work on, and when I looked at the model, the original one, I thought like, wait a sec, these psychological processes might apply to the organisational context in a very similar way. So let’s adapt this model to get more insights, what psychological process are [00:04:00] going on when we deal with these big changes. And yeah, then I applied for travel grants flow through down to Australia and visited Alex and his team to work on this.

[00:04:13] David: Brilliant. Yeah, it’s interesting that you kind of bring in the whole thing about wellbeing. I was just reading a paper last night that were looking at high performance work practices and their effects on wellbeing, and it’s just been published and they were finding that things aren’t always rosy in terms of high performance work practices, and it can have quite a deleterious effect on people’s wellbeing.

[00:04:35] Alex: Well, I think, yeah, and I think that’s a good observation, and I think what Neela’s saying too, I think there’s a sort of big history, I guess in organisational psychology and management of, yeah, just focusing on productivity saying, and not looking at how it links in with wellbeing but as Neela says, they’re often related and they can very much pull in opposite directions but I think one of the things that can make them pull in the same direction is really good leadership and that’s what Neela’s saying and [00:05:00] in particular, you know, the issues of managing these identity transitions. So as Neela’s saying, really what we’re, the sort of common framework that she’s alluding to is the idea that what we’re studying here is an identity transition fundamentally because a lot of people’s identity comes from their work and their connection to other people in the workplace, their team, and when they are exposed to or have the face encounter the prospect of change, one of the first things that they’re mindful of is that this identity is threatened, and, or at the very least, this is gonna have very profound implications for the identity. What’s gonna happen to my team, what’s gonna happen to this department I’ve been in for 20 years and I’ve invested so much in, I feel so positive about, just incidentally that we’ve got another colleague in Belgium who does work on football teams looking at what happens to them when they merge or change and so on which happens, you know, and it essentially, it’s exactly the same process.

[00:05:55] Alex: So you’ll de and that’s what Neela is saying I think is that all of these [00:06:00]things, these events, we experience them as things that have profound implications for identity, and then in that context it really becomes critical how other people help us navigate, negotiate that identity change or not, and I think the thing about really bad, badly managed organisational change is it neither recognises the implications of change for identity and even if it does recognise it does absolutely nothing to smooth the way or to facilitate that in ways that assure people and or give them reassurance about their future as a worker, but their future as a human being, again, in ways that are, you know, good for their equanimity and mental health.

[00:06:42] Neela: Yes.

[00:06:44] David: Yes. Really. Yeah. Really nice encapsulated. And this whole idea of kind of social identity comes through the paper quite strongly, obviously. Can you just explain what that actually means? You know, what is social identity and why would it change as a [00:07:00] result of an organisational change.

[00:07:03] Alex: Neela, go for it. Yeah.

[00:07:05] Neela: So, you know, we have our personal identities that distinguish me from Alex, from you, David, but we also have our social identities, these are derived from the group memberships we belong to, whether the team, the organisations, we have so many different groups we belong to and once they become important to us, they become a important part of who we are. They give us a sense of belonging, meaning, give us direction, and so these groups our source for social support and so on. So yeah, and they guide us they shape how we feel and think and behave, and that’s why they matter so much to explain how employees go through such changes and why they respond to organisational changes as they do.

[00:07:55] Alex: Yeah, yeah and I think that’s a very good summary. I think that just, again, just to underline the point there, [00:08:00] so personal identities about the I and the me, and social identities about the US and the we and one of the things about psychology is obviously, probably the main central construct in the whole of psychology is the self but one of the sort of problems with a lot of psychology is that we imagine that the self is just the I and the me, we have a very individualistic understanding of self and identity, and really social identity research which has its origins in Europe really challenges that and says no actually the collective self that us and the we is every bit as important and in fact, it’s probably more important in so far as you can show that if I wanna destroy your personal identity, the best way to do that is to destroy your social identities, and actually we derive our personal identity, who we are as individuals from our group memberships and again, that’s why Neela mentioned when you retire, if you lose your valued group memberships also your personal identity is diminished too. So the [00:09:00] idea that we’re sort of psychological islands and our resilience if you like is to do with our, you know, personal self-esteem and personal fortitude is doesn’t really bear up actually for the reasons that Neela just outlined, we get support, agency, control, purpose, meaning from social identities, that is why they provide us with bearings in the world, which is, again, when we’re talking about change, why that has the capacity to be so harmful or at least confusing or problematic, and pretty much all change, even positive change, you know, getting married or going to university though, you know, in and of tho themselves, those things are challenging and you need support to make them and if you look at when people, as it were, come off the rails, it’s pretty much always in the context of some form of change.

[00:09:50] David: Yeah. In fact, there’s some nice examples of social identity, you see it replete across social media, people will put on there their football team, they’ll put in [00:10:00] things like republican, Democrat, conservative, whatever it happens to be, as if it’s them and it’s a large part of who we are, and I was involved in a study many, many years ago actually with the police about police retirees and the question was, why do so many police officers die so quickly after retiring? Because the mortality rate of retired police officers is pretty horrendous, and one of the biggest issues that came up was that sudden loss of social identity and when we looked at the way police officers were, their discourse, the way they were talking about themselves before retirement, their first identity was, I’m a police officer, suddenly that stopped.

[00:10:41] Neela: Actually the same. Sorry.

[00:10:43] David: No, no.

[00:10:44] Neela: I find exactly the same in a research project I do with cast Haslam and some lovely colleagues from the Nottingham Trent University where we looked at firefighters retirement and yes they derive all their sense [00:11:00] of who they are, I’m a firefighter and they feel this loss when they retired dearly.

[00:11:07] David: Yeah.

[00:11:07] Alex: Yeah, yeah. There’s a study also, so some of the other colleagues, well, Nick Stephans and Tegan Crews are involved in, and that basically showed that if when you retire, you lose two group memberships, two, so sources of social identity, your risk of dying in the next six years is 12%, but if when you retire, you gain two group memberships, you know, the net gain, your risk of dying in the next six years is less than half a percent, and so it’s about a 26 fold difference, there’s a function of just gaining or losing those social identities. And a point, and this is a big point in that research that Neela’s alluding to that, you know, she’s part of too, is that, you know, when we retire, we spend an awful lot of time thinking about the sort of financial side of things, but not very much thinking about the sort of identity change side of things. And another study by Tegan shows that actually those identity [00:12:00] changed things, explain about four times more variance in wellbeing and health than the financial thing. And actually the main function of money in retirement is to help you maintain valued group memberships.

[00:12:14] David: That’s an interesting perspective. Yeah. I hadn’t thought about it like that. That’s really interesting. Yeah, I could go on about that all day. I’m an ex-police officer and ex-military, and what’s interesting is when you get into the veteran groups, how they’ve taken on a different identity that’s associated around their former identity and how strong that is.

[00:12:36] Alex: Yeah, and I know, and I think that’s exactly right. I mean, uh, Kath, and again, Neela and all of us in, are really involved in a lot of that work with veterans and there’s a lot of stuff too. We have colleagues, all a Muldoon who does work on trauma and showing that really trauma is consolidated where you can’t, if you like, work through these identity issues in particular with other in-group [00:13:00] members. Whereas if you do have the opportunity to work through those things with group members and as a prospect, and this leads into something that in Neela’s model that there is a prospect that trauma can actually basis for identity gain and then actually can lead to post-traumatic growth. So, and the critical thing that all her and her colleagues said to us but then point out is that yeah, the thing that dictates whether or not you yeah trauma is consolidated and has these devastating impacts or indeed whether it is a pathway to other things is critically pivots on the various issues that we’re talking about now around the meaning of that change for social identity and your ability to potentially with other people to negotiate a course to a sort of higher identity ground, if you like, because and indeed that trauma as a form of change, yeah, is, I mean, you know, of course we conceptualise trauma as almost entirely harmful, [00:14:00] but actually there’s some evidence that, and for a range of people actually trauma can facilitate personal and certain forms of collective development, and therefore, you know, it’s not that something that you would want to endure it but actually the evidence is most people do undergo trauma through in the course of their lives and for many people, it’s actually critical to their development and growth.

[00:14:22] David: Yeah, that’s interesting. I’ve just been reading a bunch of papers around post-traumatic transformations, anyway, right. Yeah. Actually this sits very nicely with the next question is, what are the main issues for organisations and their people during significant organisational change events like mergers and acquisitions in terms of kind of change of identity.

[00:14:44] Neela: Once people identify with that group, you can imagine for a merger or an acquisition, a takeover, Steven verse, two organisational groups come together and in a case of an acquisition, one is taken over by the [00:15:00] others, so one group and its identity is likely to vanish. So that is very threatening to the core sense of self for the people, that’s why they react so much to it. So they are at risk of really losing a part of who they are, so it really shakes them to their core of sense of self and so they need to transition these identities to the new emerging identity that forms when a new organisation developed. And, yeah, we looked into these processes, what kind of pathway to adjustment can actually help them to manage this identity transition.

[00:15:43] David: I suppose some of that’s depend on the form of merger and acquisition in whether there’s a dominant culture that completely takes over, whether there’s more of an equitable merger.

[00:15:54] Alex: Definitely, yeah. Neela, yeah. Carry on, yeah, cuz I think, yeah, I mean that’s exactly what you speculate and [00:16:00] hypothesize around in the paper, yeah.

[00:16:01] Neela: When we merge and two or multiple organisations come together, some of these identity will vanish. So some groups will not be able to maintain their identity. We call these identity continuity when two or multiple organisations come together and merge, some of these identities, these group identities will manage over the merger. So some groups will not be able to maintain their identities and they can be experienced as very threatening of course, and they are at risk of losing their sense of who they are. Trying to maintain these identities is one reaction they have to these takeovers, but when the identity is changing, there can be multiple ways of adjusting. So either it’s experienced and this identity loss, or it can be experienced as an identity gain, what we talked about [00:17:00] before. So, but whether it’s experienced as a loss or a gain really depends on the leadership and whether people get help to manage this transition and understand what the new identity is about and what it means to be a member of this new emerging identity.

[00:17:18] David: Yeah, I think that creation meaning is really important.

[00:17:23] Alex: Yeah. So I think, like, just again to sort of consolidate what Neela’s saying there, that the kind of worst thing I think an organisation can do, probably not the worst thing, but a pretty bad thing and a pretty standard thing is just to kind of imagining nothing’s happening here. Oh yeah, there’s change, but don’t worry, you don’t need to worry about it because we’ve taken care of everything and we’ve looked at the spreadsheets and the numbers look good, and yeah, there’ll bit a bit of a transformation of the business and the shop fronts will change, the logos will change and this, that, and the other but basically it’s gonna be business as usual or indeed really not say anything and just sort of soldier off. So I think the very first thing is to acknowledge, no, this is something that is gonna be, this is gonna be [00:18:00] challenging for people, and it’s gonna be more challenging the more that they identify with the extant groups, whether that’s their teams or the organisation as a whole, if that’s, as Neela says, if that’s gonna be lost, then they are straightforwardly, you know, up for a pretty massive sense of loss of self, loss of collective self, so having them acknowledge that this is a thing. Then organisations obviously need to, on one hand kind of communicate about the change, but more particularly, and this is really the data that Neela has, you know, they need to be ensuring that people in leadership roles throughout the organisation kind of understand what that change is about, but also can work through its implications for the people in their teams and work with their teams to say, okay, what does this kind of mean for us and how are we going to deal with it, and potentially too, you know, have input into the [00:19:00] process so that they actually feel or were able to regain some sense of control and purpose and all the rest of it, but often, again, I mean the headline statistic in this space that everybody sort of talks about is that 70 to 80% of organisational change fails and that’s not because it doesn’t look good on the spreadsheet, it’s cuz it doesn’t look good in people’s heads and they’re not, they neither are able to make that transition effectively or helped to make it and that’s because organisations don’t see it as a leadership challenge and even if they do they don’t tool up their leaders with the resources and the time and the motivation to go and work with their teams to help them through that change and actually that’s a general sort of failing of leadership in general is that, and this is a whole other kind of topic, but is what Neela and I were talking about yesterday, you know, we have the view in the field that that sort of leadership is, well, you’re just something that a person has or doesn’t have and it’s a set of personal traits and characteristics and abilities, and you’re either [00:20:00] good at it or not, well, that’s absolute nonsense that actually no leadership is about working with your groups, take those groups forward and it’s only ever as good as those groups are good, so it’s only ever as good as the followership that you see on the ground. And critically then in the context of change, leadership is about enabling that identity based followership and without that you don’t get the followership and it all falls over in a heap.

[00:20:28] David: And am I getting a sense here that there’s an identity co-creation going on and that involving people in that co-creation rather than just letting it kind of drop out and emerge can actually help with that kind of sense of control, but also could be help with the positive transition for people. Is that right?

[00:20:48] Neela: Yes, exactly. So, we understand leadership more as a group process. So it’s leading through people, not over people. Maybe Alex, you want to say [00:21:00] more about this because you are the expert?

[00:21:03] Alex: … but I think that’s exactly right, you know, that we often think of leadership as something we do to other people, and it’s about, as Neela just said, power over them but actually no, effectively she was about power through other people, and it’s about mobilising them. So, and again, that is absolutely critical in these moments and as you say it’s effective, you know, group process, effective outcomes are the products of co-creation but one of the critical bits of co-creation is around who we are. And actually again, the project I’ve been working on here in London really is around helping leaders to help their groups to negotiate those identity changes. So we have a sense of, and also some often, I mean, change is everywhere, right? You know, it’s inescapable and a lot of that though is about, is not just about if you like negotiating change that happens to you, but also of course taking control of your, of the changes that you want to produce in your own group, so how are we gonna evolve? And that’s [00:22:00] something groups do all the time, and typically with a view to some aspirational goals associated with what the group is about, whether it’s a sporting group or a community group or a work group, you know, well there’s things we wanna do, we wanna win the cup or not get relegated or we wanna, or whatever it might be. Well, you have to set goals there, but a lot of that is around understanding who you are and like where you’ve come from so that you are in a position to negotiate the various pathways, how are we gonna grow in a way that’s true to who we were? So it’s what Neela said a minute ago, it’s surround these two pathways of identity continuity and identity gain and bringing those into alignment. And that is, yeah, you can’t do that just by looking at a spreadsheet or, and you can’t do it on your own, and you can’t do it by just going on a workshop or on a away day to a five star hotel and pontificating about what you are like, you know, whether you are a lion or a tiger or whatever it might be, some other personality based nonsense. Okay, no, it’s something you’ve gotta work out with your [00:23:00] team, who are we? And again, almost no leadership training does that, in fact, it tends to do exactly the opposite, it’s very damaging because it gets, oh, this is all about me, the leader, and I’m gonna devote energy to working out what I’m like rather than directing you towards the group and actually giving you the experience of working with your group to solve the kind of problems that Neela’s research shows need to be solved.

[00:23:23] David: I think one of the things certainly that came out of your paper and a number of others as well, is this whole idea of kind of understanding what our values are and whether they’re aligned or not. Is this a group I actually want, you know, is this a thing I want to be part of? Does it align with who I am and where I want to be? But also that co-creation piece together about having something that’s very values based actually.

[00:23:47] Alex: Yeah. I mean, the things that we sort of talk about really in this space, and again, I think it’s spoken to by Neela’s paper is identity, strength, like you know, do we have a strong sense of shared identity, a strong sense of [00:24:00] aness identity alignment like is what we’re trying to do aligned with the interests of other groups in the organisation or the organisation as a whole or other groups in society or other groups in our lives? And then identity content, which is yeah, about values, norms, beliefs, goals, and so on and those three things are absolutely critical to, you know, a effective group life but to mental health and also they are the very essence of what leadership is about. Leadership is about building those things and helping people, you know, at various junctures to reestablish identity, strength, and clarity of content and alignment because those things are always, you know, they’re like, you know, they’re a bit like a car, you know, they’re always in need of servicing you know, and if you don’t attend to them as a leader then the wheels will come off.

[00:24:48] David: Yeah. I think this shift from this understanding of leadership as an individual set of behaviors into a more relational thing is really important. And there’s a really nice tale that I was told by a chief. I was [00:25:00] brought up in Africa and there was a chief and we were talking about leadership and he said, he said, if you go for a walk in the bush and you turn around and you are on your own, you’re going for a walk, if you go into the bush and you turn around and the village is behind you, and with you then you’re a leader and it’s that kind of sense of community and relationship. Just before we move on, I’ll send you a paper about this, there’s a paper and a video that I did, the 70% things are over rubbish by the way, it came out of a misunderstanding from Harvard Business Review.

[00:25:33] Alex: Well, it also depends on..

[00:25:34] David: …to think about that.

[00:25:36] Alex: Yeah, no, I take the point about the 70% thing. It depends a bit about, like the other thing too is any number’s nonsense because I mean there is no one single definition of whether a thing succeeds or fails and no change is, you know, entirely successful and probably no change is a complete failure, I mean, that might be debatable but yeah, but I think the basic point is a lot of change doesn’t achieve what it’s meant to achieve and leaves a lot of people [00:26:00] behind a lot of carnage at the side of the road but in lots of instances, from the point of view of the people who are driving the change that doesn’t really matter cuz that was never their goal they knew that there was, and the things that we’re talking about today, they don’t care about, they just want to get, they wanna strip the asset or they wanna run it down and so we’re making assumptions about what people want to achieve, well there’s quite a lot of people in this world, unfortunately, who are quite happy to have you know, a train of, you know, human sort of, yeah carnage behind their leadership and that just doesn’t trouble ’em at all you know, and indeed they see that as badge of honor, unfortunately, that is a model and actually that sort of hubristic sense of superiority is baked into lots of models of leadership.

[00:26:41] David: Yeah, I’d agree. And we go a very long way to have this slide. One of the things that I found interesting in the paper, it kind of touches on an age old argument that goes on in organisational change about the change curve and Elizabeth Ku KU Ross’s 1969 model, which was originally called the Kubler Ross [00:27:00] Model for Death and Bereavement Counseling personal Change in Trauma, in 1976, Adams Hayes and Hobson’s books transitioned understanding and managing personal change noted that Kubler Ross’s model closely conformed to their data about reactions of people undergoing change. Now, later in 19 98, Schneider and Gold wasser published a paper transforming the Kubler Ross’s model into what is now the ubiquitous change curve. In 2010, a study published by researchers from the universities in Finland and the US called empirical validation of the classic change curve on a software technology change project found that the change in IT change projects closely fits the change curve. Now, whilst you kind of stay away from the argument probably very wisely in your paper, you do mention studies that show that employees often experience this sense of loss and you [00:28:00] quote the 2001 Marks and MUR study, which, and to quote your paper draws parallels between employees’ reactions to takeovers and those that follow death and loss more generally. Supporting such claims research in a range of social context has found that even when change is obs tensibly desirable and positive, associated identity change can have a profound consequences for individuals mental health and wellbeing, as witnessed in increased levels of depression, burnout, and lower levels of life satisfaction. Now, without getting into the arguments about the change curve, because they’re all over the internet, my question is if we take this set of reactions as a given that some people will experience a severe sense of loss in a organisational change context, how are these reactions related to social identity during organisational change?

[00:28:59] Neela: A [00:29:00] distinction to this studies you cited and this argument, they look more on individual changes like the personal level, what we argue as this sense of loss, this is really more about the group that is threatening, the group that loses its identity and so it’s a more collective experience. So that’s the down in the change curve but it develop once this new identity develops, it can go up again and that’s where the leadership comes in to speed up this growth at the end of the change curve, if that makes sense.

[00:29:37] Alex: Yeah, and I think that’s right Neela and I think the critical thing about lots of those models of, you either have the organisational level or you have the individual level, you don’t look at the group level and actually what you see in organisational context, and this is really body of other research and social entity and organisations is yeah, it’s often at that group level that a lot of the activity is happening. So again, yeah, well of course we [00:30:00] experience these things individually, but those things are massively structured, and again, we got mountains of data on that but what’s happening in your own team and your relationship to your team and the shared experiences and the shared sensemaking around that are absolutely critical. So my critique of that whole organisational change literature, and it’s a pretty massive one I think, is that, yeah, it’s incredibly individualistic and in the sense that it’s saying the unit of analysis psychologically is the individual, well, it’s not, no, I mean, of course you can look at it, the level of individuals, but to imagine that those individual experiences are not structured by the realities of group life is a fiction and a failure to look at what’s happening at that group level and then critically the way in which leadership is shaping those experiences is a I think a whopping great big sort of black hole at the heart of those models.

[00:30:47] David: Yeah. You can’t have one without the other and the individuals changed by the group and the group are in and were inherently it’s..

[00:30:54] Alex: That’s right. And if you look, if you just think about it, think about any change that you’ve undergone in [00:31:00] your life, organisational or kind of otherwise bereavement even, the point is that you talk with other in-group members about what that means and they either sort of help you deal with it or they don’t, as it were and whether this co negotiation of that experience is absolutely critical to, you know, I just think about when your parents die or something like that, I mean, one of the reasons we have rights of passage like funerals and memorial services is precisely to help us negotiate those change, that’s the function and yeah, of course you have a personal reaction, but if that’s all you have, actually I think the reality is if that is all you have, then by and large you’re gonna have a pretty wretched and miserable life because you’re not gonna have the opportunity to work through those things in ways that may be positive and again your parents dying that is never a good thing but nevertheless, the point about a funeral or a memorial service is to try to collectively negotiate a narrative around how you think about the [00:32:00] positive things and you think about how all the positive things have been made possible by what they were and helping you to deal with all the stuff that comes up in that context but again, the organisational change literature is written as if we only ever go to the funeral alone.

[00:32:15] David: Yes. It’s a really nice analogy. Yes. Yeah. And the funeral really, and the process that is engaged around a bereavement or a change is actually a process of negotiation of identity as we transition from one identity of being a child, I suppose, into one of being the adult.

[00:32:33] Alex: And if you go to, again, talking to the model, you know, when you go to a funeral service, you know most of what the narratives there are around are around identity continuity, they say, well, okay, yeah, they’re dead, but look at, they live on in us, the community, the family, and so on and you also talk about the gain, you talk about what we achieved through their lives, and then you say, and hopefully, you know, we can carry on and do and carry on the good work that they did [00:33:00] and be proud of it and that, you know, we’ve been made stronger by what they made us, that’s the sort of narrative, you know, that you see and to the extent that that’s successfully, you know, led again, because people don’t just randomly turn up and start, you know, pontificating about what someone’s, no people in the family or the vicar, the priest or whatever they’re doing leadership there to help you negotiate that change. So, you know, it’s a very transportable model. So, and again, I put it another way, I often say when I’m lecturing about these things, like, so when we talk about change or indeed when you’re talking about organisations generally, if it’s a valid model, it shouldn’t just apply to some narrow strip of life, like the workplace, it should apply to everything else in life, like your family and like these other examples that we’re talking about, Neela’s model is a model of bereavement, if you’d like and we could just as easily, or she could just as easily turn it into a model for the people who are working in, you know, family and community psychology or whatever, you know, or indeed, clinical counseling psychology, because [00:34:00] that’s effectively what it is, you know? And again, I think, and all the maldoon were trauma is, you know, basically taking those same ideas and looking at them in more that realm but again, I think well, if we’re gonna talk about the limitations of organisational theory this is gonna be a very long podcast, but one of them is that the knowledge is very siloed and it has this sort of hallowed privileged status as though this is some rarefied thing that is not connected to anything else that goes on in the world, not only a very elite number of people have access to the sort of truth here, and I know it’s about connection in the broadest sense between these phenomena and what happens in the workplace and in organisational life is but an aspect of a broader array of these meaningful realities, identity-based realities and identity-based journeys that are the stuff of life.

[00:34:44] David: And rarely within organisations, is that discussed and that transition, well, I’ll say managed, but led so that there is a transition rather than it just being that expectation of you were this yesterday you’re this today.

[00:34:58] Alex: Yeah. And just again, just [00:35:00] to think about it, think about when you have been exposed to really good leadership around these times, and it might be some personal difficulties you’re having, when you’ve been ahead of good leader, they have understood where you are at and they’ve talked to you and with you and helped you through that process, you know, and, that’s what’s made them a good leader not the fact that what was on their CV or the fact they’ve got an MBA or whatever, you know? No, it’s the fact that they understood us and the implications of what was happening for us.

[00:35:26] David: Thank you. Could you just talk us through your model.

[00:35:29] Neela: So let’s start what is before the change? People, of course, they start to identify with groups, the team, the organisations they work for. So they feel strong sense of pride, they talk in terms of we and us when they talk they talk about the organisation might have served this in your own organisation. So once a change happens like a big merger or kind of any change actually, what people [00:36:00] try often is to maintain this identity they cling onto it but many of these changes are, and if they can maintain their identity, that’s fine they can transition very easily they can adapt to the new organisation and all is fine that’s very straightforward kind of change but most changes like an acquisition are so disruptive, an impact on their identity to an extent that the identity of the former identity can’t be maintained. So then it comes to an identity change, so these, and then there is this identity change pathway and how does this experience, the identity change, whether it’s experienced as a loss or a gain that depends on the leadership we just talked about. So if it’s experienced as a loss, people can make this transfer from their former identity to the new one, emerging ones. So they are really resistant to the new emerging [00:37:00] identity. We see in the literature a lot around resistance to change, especially mergers and acquisition, even sabotage. And so when they can’t identify with this new organisation and you can think about identification also as the motivational capital of the firm, then they can’t adjust well and we see these, all these negative impacts on their health and wellbeing and that’s what we talked about before, really this sense of loss. However, identity changes can also be experienced as a game and this happens when leaders help them to make this transition, to help them understand what it means to be a member of the new group, why should our group actually change to gain something out of this change and helping them to negotiate this transition, and that’s the other, the second identity pathway that is actually [00:38:00] successful for adjusting. So you can remember from this model, there are two identity pathways that are successful for adjustment, either you can maintain your identity or you gain a new one but if this gain is not met, the change is not managed well, it will be experienced as a loss.

[00:38:19] David: Yeah. And by gain that includes the creation of a new identity and it’s not just a kind of a passive thing we can actually actively be involved. That’s brilliant.

[00:38:28] Neela: Yeah, exactly. So I believe maintaining the identity that’s more of a fast simple way of doing it probably doesn’t cost so many resources and energy, but developing and gaining a new identity that’s where a lot of effort needs to be put in, so that’s really an active process where leaders and followers negotiate active how what we want to become and how do we get there and what does that mean for our groups, this really [00:39:00] active process. Go on Alex, please.

[00:39:02] Alex: Yeah, now I was just gonna, so I think you described that beautifully there. I think the other thing just to say is obviously in that gain bit, which is Neela says it’s more complex and time consuming, that’s typically experienced both in a sort of formal way and an informal way. So you know, if I think about, you know, Neela’s relatively young so you know, hasn’t been through like 30,000 changes to our organisation, but if anyone’s been in the university sector for any period of time will have been through a lot. But you know, you start off that, you know, there’s been some decision about some change, your faculty or department structure, and the head of school comes in and sort of talks to you in a sort of staff meeting about what’s gonna happen, and there’s that, and then explains to you kind of what this means, but then they follow that up with lots of discussions in the common room over a cup of coffee or you know, when you meet them at a due or something, or you know, and, or you go for a drink or whatever and then you talk amongst yourselves and you come back with some questions and then you work it. So it’s always this creative co-production you know, [00:40:00] I think, and I think a lot of that is around the willingness to have those particularly the informal conversations actually, cause I think, you know, obviously they’re gonna, all the change I’ve been involved in the sort of leaders have gone away beforehand and they’ve had a sort of powwow about how they’re gonna sell this thing and they come back and they give you the juice, the good oil on the change and if they just left it at that, well chances are you’re not really gonna be that persuaded. So you’ve gotta go the extra mile and then really sit down with people and try to make it work and I mean, I guess the other side there too is if change has been, you know, designed with some thought to the people who are gonna be living it, then there should ostensibly be some kind of upside there, there should be some prospect of gain, I mean, of course that’s not always absolutely and there is a possibility of getting gain out of this, it’s just a car crash, the whole thing. And again, we’ve all been in those two but nevertheless, you know, I think in most of the changes that people go through, there’s kind of nothing either good or bad, but leadership makes [00:41:00] it so if you like, and I think that’s specifically true here but what Neela’s paper model suggests is, you know, obviously in the context of change, this is where really leadership really either stands up to the plate and, you know, is worth what it, on doing what it says or it’s missing an action and so on. So it’s absolutely critical at this point and also too, there’s lots of other research is that a lot of that leadership is redistributed with it, it is not just done by people who’ve got the title of leader, it’s done by sort of everybody in the group like and again, if it’s only being done by the leaders, you’ve probably got a problem, you need, you know, everybody in the team sort of saying, okay, yeah, right, is it a gonna bit of a nuisance, but I can actually see some positives here for us and let’s try and take a bit of control of this thing, you know, let’s try and see if we can get you know, we can get a room on the third floor rather than in the basement, you know, that type of thing.

[00:41:54] David: I think that’s important because this is a social process, so it needs to involve the people. [00:42:00] Yeah.

[00:42:00] Alex: Yeah.

[00:42:00] David: Great. So, just moving on, so, because there’s kind of two stages to all of this, and it was what does the model mean in practical terms for leaders and managers firstly on the lead up to change, before a takeover, for example.

[00:42:17] Neela: So before, what managements can do is mapping out the different groups that are involved in the change and how they are affected by the change. How the identities are affected, are the values, the norms, for example, how we work together, are they gonna change? That gives you some insights, which groups, and how they will respond, so they are not affected at all, that’s fine but adopted most changes affect identities to some extent, and then work with these groups, becoming aware and as Alex before said, work with the people, involve them in the [00:43:00] process of developing and see how we can, as a group, gain from this whole process, how we can advance our groups, yeah, if that makes sense.

[00:43:09] David: Yeah.

[00:43:10] Neela: So, and in terms of preparation, what can be done before the change is actually developing the leaders, developing their ability to demonstrate identity leadership, what does it actually mean to be an identity leader and Alex and his team are working on a leadership program and which is, he gave the talk yesterday, how effective it is. Alex, you might want to say more about the five R leadership program and how that could help leaders to develop these skills that are needed during change.

[00:43:46] Alex: Yeah. So I mean, again, our work is really around, again, the idea that lots of leadership development is just points people in the wrong direction and focuses on this eye of leadership and so our work, and this is what we’ve been doing with really colleagues around the world [00:44:00] for, I dunno, 30 years now, says no leadership development just basically has to help people to work with their teams and to give ’em the skills and the confidence to engage with their teams, to have these kinds of conversations, but also to structure them around understanding who we are, how where we wanna get to, and then thinking about how making concrete plans about how we’re gonna do that. So it’s really around constructive engagement with the identity of the team and the people in it. And again, directing leaders to the team and understanding that all leadership is identity leadership. I would argue there is, if you are not building and embedding and advancing social identity, you can’t do leadership. You can’t do leadership if there is no we to lead, and that’s your example, your African example, you, that person wandering out into the bush can say, oh yeah, I’m a wonderful leader but if there’s nobody behind them, they’re not. So it’s the followership of others, it’s the team that makes, that is the proof of your leadership. So it is just [00:45:00] logically true that any leadership development program worth the name must involve people working with their teams and giving them the skills to do that better but the irony is, is that 95% of leadership development programs don’t do that, they don’t, they take you away from your teams, they take you off to a five star resort and they just feel your ahead with psycho trash.

[00:45:23] David: Yeah, you’re right. Yes. Yeah

[00:45:26] Alex: I mean, sorry to be so blunt about it, but I’m assuming people are listening to this podcast cause they, you know, cuz they don’t want some just academic erudite distanced like theoretical narrative. They want something that speaks to their everyday experience, which is what I think this is about

[00:45:42] David: No, it’s very true. So I’m doing a research project at the moment around leadership styles, the whole idea of these styles, and actually as you’re talking, what I’m starting to realise is quite a lot of them are based on a more individualistic due to them type. And, I’ve been kind of scratching around for [00:46:00] dimensions and I think you’ve just given me one, so thank you very much.

[00:46:03] Alex: Well, I can ask stuff around, you know, a lot of those things. It causes, of course, leaders have attributes, qualities, you know, abilities, traits, and so on but those things are transformed by membership in groups and then the idea that they’re sort of static. I mean, and there’s things that you sort of just bring and put on the table as the leadership, this is absolute nonsense. No, you know, leadership and leaders are transformed by a group process as much as the group has transformed. And again, you know, everybody, and I think these, it comes a lot clearer as you get older you, you know, you are very conscious that, you know, we all have our personal identities as Neela says. We all got our CVs and our experiences and you know that you can go into some groups and you can do a really good job of mobilising them and feeling energized and feeling, as it were, charismatic. And you can go to other groups in other contexts, and sometimes even the same group on a different [00:47:00] occasion and have none of that. So again, things like charisma, these are outcomes of the process, they’re not inputs and actually that is true of authenticity. This, I mean, again, let’s just, I mean, and again, we could again, spend all day going through the whole shopping list of these things and just debunk them one at a time but let’s talk about authenticity, so work again of Nicks, like what matters in this context that we’re talking about, is it about being true to yourself as an individual? That’s what people imagine authenticity is about, like, so I’m just gonna come in as a leader and I’m gonna tell you what I think, what I’m like, and I’m gonna be true to myself, actually, that gets you nowhere. And just that, you know, it’s a bit like, you know, people who say never lie to people, well, you know actually, sometimes you’ve gotta, you know, you gotta go with the flow, as it were but critically the forms of authenticity that people respond to and that are positive are being true to us, they’re collective authenticity. Do you know what it means to be a police officer or an academic? And can you be authentic in the context of our experience? And of [00:48:00] course, you can’t be authentic at that level unless you understand the group that you are leading and failing to understand that your group that you’re leading is probably one of the primary causes of leadership failure, you actually don’t know what the we is that is being led and again, Nick’s work shows clearly that that collective level authenticity is a much bigger driver of group outcomes and is what is valued in a group. So you know, again, the teams that Neela and I are in and where we may get to do some leadership, they don’t really care what we are like as it, and they might do a little bit, and they might be vaguely interested, but if all we bring to the group is our individuality, that’s a very little use to them, what they want us to bring to the group is an understanding of the group and a motivation and a capacity to take it forward and that’s what leadership is, and it’s in the context of identity change that it’s really required again, but then of course, if you do that, then people will say you’re authentic and charismatic, but don’t confuse the output with the input.

[00:48:59] David: [00:49:00] Yeah. Nice. Yeah. Nicely put, really nicely put. So, again, just moving on slightly, what does this mean for leaders and managers and also kind of organisational development practitioners during and after the change?

[00:49:15] Neela: During, we talked about this before. I would say the leaders, or even in HR, the people who help the process, the change managers, they should work with these groups because these groups are a source of force to drive the change and make the change actually happen. So work with the people in these groups and what it means, and help them to make this transition to figure out what it means to be a member of this new organisation, what this new organisation is about and stands for and how this advances us as a group. So this is during the change, and I think after the [00:50:00] change is done, probably then now new change is already coming but, I haven’t done research on this myself, but I believe it is a good practice to reflect on how we dealt with this change, how our groups change to learn from it for the next change around the corner.

[00:50:22] David: Yeah. And, I also think that, identity creation is an ongoing process where as an individual we’re doing it all the time, groups are doing it all the time, but quite often it’s so unconscious that it just kind of evolves and happens where with organisations we have this abilities we’ve been talking about to actually construct it.

[00:50:41] Alex: Yeah. And I think it’s something we sort of just take for granted. It’s like the sort of sea that we swim in, I think, and again, I think part of our work is, it’s just saying, look, no, this is the thing you really need to focus on and you need, you know, this needs to be more than just in the margins, this needs to be the center of your consciousness as it is, particularly in the [00:51:00]leadership space. So in our program, but also in the stuff that we, in various projects we have, you know, yeah, the critical questions of your own leadership are ,do I represent the group? Do I understand it? Am I helping to create a sense of shared identity? So am I in the work of our colleagues, Steve Rice, you know, am I an entrepreneur of identity in that sense, but also my, an impor of identity, am I creating structures and activities that bring us together as a group. And again, I think in relation to what Neela’s talking identity leadership, the three things there I think are like identity pro typicality or four things, identity pro typicality, like being of the group, identity advancement, helping, giving people a sense that the group is moving forward, then the identity entrepreneurship around working with people to explain what this means to us in the way that Neela just said, and but finally this impresario ship where, you know, and again, I think we’ve all seen that in when changes managed well [00:52:00] is you have events and activities which help people kind of ease into the new way of life, like you have a, as it were a launch, you know, you have a party or whatever it is and say, you know, okay, this, we know this change being really challenging but this is the new US and this is the new brand or the new mark, or whatever it is and then you sort of inhabit it and again, getting people to inhabit it and to live it out is absolutely critical. So the identity is something you’re walking through rather than just looking at from the spectator stands if you like. So I feel that that, and again, if you think about those four bits again, I think if you reflect on change that you’ve seen done well, my assumption is, and the model assumption is, is that the leaders in question, were doing all of those things but where leadership goes badly, they’re doing none of them.

[00:52:50] David: Yeah. Yeah. You’ve got it, well we wear our own identity and from an organisational point of view, we’ve gotta wear that identity or be in it as well now and [00:53:00] in a a very wise way.

[00:53:00] Alex: Yeah, I mean, I, I think some of the best, you know, I think when again looking back on it, the best changes that I’ve been involved in is where, you know, firstly there was everybody recognises there was a bit of a need for it cuz something wasn’t really working, and we were a bit stuck in a previous place and we just didn’t have the energy to kind of like do anything about it, so then some leadership comes along and says, look, okay, we really gotta do this but then you get to that new place and then you say, okay, yeah, that was a bit of a pain and we’ve is been a bit of an upheaval for everybody, we recognise that, but you know, we’re gonna have a sort of launch of the new structure and we’re gonna start with, you know, a barbecue and drinks, you know, at Christmas, that type of thing, you know, so just something that okay makes you think, oh, right, okay and we’ve done it, and feel a bit more sort of positive about it and you are, again, it’s a, you know, making it into a sort of right of passage in a way but again, in critically that everybody feels part of, you know, so that everybody’s kinda welcome and you can say, okay, yeah and the absolute worst ones I’ve been involved in are basically where you’ve been brought into [00:54:00] the head of department’s office and you’ve winged a little bit and they said, well, you’ve got two choices.

[00:54:04] David: Yes. Yes. Brilliant. Thank you. Okay. So as a result of the work, this paper, if you were to give a couple of pieces of advice each to organisations who are heading into a significant change especially from the angle of social identity, what would they be?

[00:54:21] Neela: First, map out what groups are involved in this change, how they are affected by the change and how their identities are affected, and to what extent, first bit, and to help to develop this new identity work with the leaders and our followers together, involve them in the change so that people understand what this transition actually means for them to make this change and how this group and the energy by the group can be a force to drive the change and make the change a success. [00:55:00]

[00:55:01] David: Great. Thanks Neela. Brilliant.

[00:55:03] Alex: Yeah. So I would just say to, I’d say you have that mapping bit, which is important, I think do that with the followers like don’t just sit in your desk and think, what does this mean for those groups? Go and find out what it actually means to them and involve in that, so they, that’s I think, quite critical but yeah, I think the things that Neela said. So I think the other thing is steer away from a lot of the snake oil in this space, of which there’s quite a lot, and read some of our papers and read through some of our work and tune into what is actually really a massive agenda in the organisational space but it’s not just about organisational lives. So I think there’s, you know, there is a kind of rich theme of research and knowledge here but at the moment I think notwithstanding, you know, some of the successes of the stuff that we’ve done and the prove and efficacy of the things that we’re talking about, I still think it’s very much on the sort of periphery of people’s consciousness and so, you know, at some level, I mean the value of doing the podcast like this is to make people aware of the fact, well, there may be a different way to think about this and a different way to tackle it, but it’s very hard to do justice to that I think in a one [00:56:00] hour podcast whereas, you know, a short podcast but I think, yeah, and again, I think the emerging literature, the evidence based for the things that we’re talking about is really strong and the other thing I would say is that we know from big studies now that we’ve done is that when you put the kinds of things that we’re talking about into a horse race, against all the other things, actually it’s the identity stuff that wins out, at the end of the day, if you don’t get that right, you won’t get much else right.

[00:56:24] David: Yeah. Nice, nice. Yeah, and that’s what the Oxford review’s all about is, is trying to get things a lot more evidence based than, rather than just relying on something you’ve read on LinkedIn. That’s fantastic. Well, hey, I won’t even go there. So, if people want to contact you, what’s the best way for that to happen?

[00:56:45] Alex: I think you can just probably Google us so we’ve got so sufficiently distinctive names and you probably, Neela is at Greenwich and I’m in Queensland. So yeah, I think we come up but if you have any difficulty, you’re just not regular at googling.

[00:56:59] David: Yeah, I’ll [00:57:00] put some links to your LinkedIn profiles.

[00:57:01] Alex: Yeah, sure. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

[00:57:02] David: They can do it that way. Thank you again for being so generous with your time, and helping us understand the model a bit more, and how it can be useful. Great. Thanks guys.

[00:57:10] Alex: Thanks for the conversation, David. Yeah, it was great.

[00:57:12] Neela: Thank you for having us.

[00:57:14] Alex: Yes.

[00:57:15] David: Real delight. I’ve really enjoyed it.

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David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Review. He is also acknowledged to be one of the world's leading experts in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing emotional resilience. David teaches and conducts research at a number of universities including the University of Oxford, Medical Sciences Division, Cardiff University, Oxford Brookes University School of Business and many more. He has worked with many organisations as a consultant and executive coach including Schroders, where he coaches and runs their leadership and management programmes, Royal Mail, Aimia, Hyundai, The RAF, The Pentagon, the governments of the UK, US, Saudi, Oman and the Yemen for example. In 2010 he developed the world's first and only model and programme for developing emotional resilience across entire populations and organisations which has since become known as the Fear to Flow model which is the subject of his next book. In 2012 he drove a 1973 VW across six countries in Southern Africa whilst collecting money for charity and conducting on the ground charity work including developing emotional literature in children and orphans in Africa and a number of other activities. He is the author of The Ambiguity Advanatage: What great leaders are great at, published by Palgrave Macmillian. See more: About: About David Wikipedia: David's Wikipedia Page