The impact of social identity on workplace learning

Published by Richenda Sabine on

social group of people in the workplace

Who do they think they are?

The impact of social identity on workplace learning

According to Richard Jenkins, Professor of Sociology at the University of Sheffield: “Without social identity, there is, in fact, no society. Through frameworks of similarity and difference, people can relate to each other in consistent and meaningful ways. Professor Jenkins argues that identity is both individual and collective and should therefore be considered within a unified analytic framework. [Social Identity, Second Edition, 2004] 

social group of happy people
Social media vs social identity 

Modern technology has significantly transformed our identity. Increased connectivity means it’s easy to update pictures or information and find each other through profiles on social media, whereas in the past, it took longer to learn about someone; information spread slowly and took longer to disseminate and update. The common way to acknowledge identity was by simply talking face to face.  

But today, with instant social media, human identity is being transformed. Social identities have become important in our daily interactions and social media platforms are where many people now ‘showcase’ their experiences and reflect their position in life. We know how social media can have both positive and negative effects on our identities.  

Us versus them 

“I think that people post to social media to help shape their public identity.”  
Eli Pariser (author, activist, entrepreneur) 

Social identity is at the root of how we as individuals experience the world. We all have vastly different experiences, assumptions, and values, and much of this is wrapped up in our social identities. It’s how we categorise ourselves and are categorised by others based on certain characteristics such as race, gender, class, or ability/disability status. 

Social Identity Theory proposes that individuals ‘derive a portion of their self-concept from their membership in social groups’, giving people a sense of belonging, purpose and self-worth.  To a certain extent, we form social identity groups naturally because we’re instinctively drawn to people who we think are like us, which isn’t necessarily bad or harmful unless the power balance between groups is disrupted. The resulting inequality of this kind of imbalance can be widespread and difficult to make right – hence the need for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) training! 

Social identity in the workplace 

In the workplace, understanding social identities is important because of their impact on how we interact with each other and how others evaluate our work. They have important implications for workplace learning. 

Research supports the conclusion that perceived social stigmas (bias based on a social characteristic) have a profound impact on the way individuals interact in the workplace. To avoid these stigmas, many individuals draw strict lines between their personal and professional lives. For some, the ability to work well within a diverse team is negatively impacted when individuals are quiet and withdrawn for fear of saying or doing something that will create a stigma. The negative impact of preventing exposure means a decrease in communication, as well as misleading the employer and colleagues. 

Making sense of experiences on the job is a form of continuous learning and is controlled by one’s identity, as well as the situational conditions of the experience:  

“Identity is a historical record of learning. One’s personal identity encapsulates individual beliefs, norms, and values one holds and one’s social identity accommodates the group’s beliefs, norms, and values to which the individual belongs. 

Billett and Somerville, 2004 

Here are a couple of examples of how we’ve used insights from behavioural science to influence change in the workforce: 

  • A global pharma client needed to narrow the gap between learning and behaviour for their compliance training. They were keen to make it less about delivering knowledge (which doesn’t make people to do things differently) and more about living their culture, caring for each other and acting responsibly. It was essential for their employees to both identify and relate to the risks they may come across at work and stop the attitude that “This doesn’t happen here” or “What’s that to do with my role?”. We addressed this with an emotive video story to bring scenarios to life, focussing on actions that employees can identify with and commit to. Using the theme of shared social identity, we reinforced a positive mindset by highlighting positive action, rather than the negative consequences of failure or inaction. Empathy and stronger emotions can motivate people to act and help them remember key content [Nisha et al., 2009]. 
  • Our major online retailer client needed DE&I training for staff at all levels of the business to address issues such as unconscious bias and accountability. We included credible peer messaging throughout to enable learners to see social norms and connect with others, using quotes and scenarios based on realistic experiences. With authentic stories that make people care, we also asked learners to identify their role models and showed them ‘what good looks like’ to encourage their commitment to change. People are heavily influenced by what other people do – especially by those they’re similar to or want to be like [Cialdini, 2007]. 
social group of people in the workplace
How do you feel?

At BAD, our behavioural insights team guides the design process to create the most impactful learning experiences, tailored to each audience.

Social psychologist Claude Steele believes our social identities are adaptations to the situations of our lives. If we didn’t have identities to help us cope with difficult circumstances, then our emotional tendencies, values, ambitions, and habits would gradually leak out from our psyches. He suggests that if we want to change the behaviour and outcomes associated with social identity, we should focus on “changing the contingencies to which all of that internal stuff is an adaptation”, rather than on changing the internal manifestations of the identity, such as values and attitudes. 
[Whistling Vivaldi: and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us, 2010] 

Put simply, you need to help your learners feel good about what you’re asking them to do by focussing on positive self-image. If you ask them to do (good) things in line with that image, they are more likely to follow through. At BAD, our behavioural insights team has developed a mantra to guide the design process to create the most impactful learning experiences, tailored to each audience. 

Categories: Best Practice