Social Identity Conflict

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Organizational responses to the increasingly varied composition of the workplace — including women; racial, ethnic or religious minorities; gays and lesbians — have engendered a complex mix of reactions. While the best of these initiatives address the entire human resources system —recruitment, promotion, compensation, training and support groups — tensions in the society at large can spill over and escalate, even in the most well-intentioned workplace. They can trigger critical economic and social repercussions as well as value-based conflicts among some employees and customers. In 1997, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), in its annual convention in Dallas, implemented a boycott of the Walt Disney Co. The boycott accused Disney of “increasingly promoting immoral ideologies.” Included in these offenses was Disney’s policy of offering insurance benefits to partners of gay and lesbian employees.

Recent developments in social identity theory help explain how social identity conflict manifests itself in and affects the workplace. In the June 2003 issue of Social Psychology Quarterly, Kay Deaux and Daniela Martin argue that individuals who are not content with the status of their identity network may work either to raise the status of that group or seek alternatives with higher status. The authors suggest that individuals seeking alternative networks or social identities may be distressed by organizational efforts such as affirmative action, which place emphasis on bolstering the very categories that the individuals are attempting to replace. Therefore, in an attempt to address the needs of a group of people, organizations may overlook the fact that individuals differ widely in how much they identify with a given race, ethnic background or gender. For every woman or Hispanic or African-American employee who might be delighted by a new leadership program designed specifically for his or her group, another employee of the same group might be offended.

Another stream of research on social identity conflict grapples with the multiple identities that individuals can hold —and the context in which one identity takes precedence over another. In the March 2003 issue of Group and Organizational Management, Karen L. Proudford and Kenwyn K. Smith analyze two business cases of social identity conflict in a large financial institution. The cases illustrate that, in any given organizational interaction, each player will represent multiple identities (relating, for example, to their function, position in the hierarchy, gender or ethnicity). A change in the composition of players within a group will shift the salience of a given identity as well as the locus of the tension or potential conflict. For example, tension between a male supervisor and a female employee may be interpreted by each of them as a disagreement between management and labor over how the job is to be done. However, if the supervisor’s male boss enters the fray, gender may gain precedence, and the female employee may interpret the issue as sex-ism. The unaware supervisor may be facing a discrimination issue instead of a performance issue. Additionally, as the perceived cause of the disagreement shifts, the female may reach out to other women inside and outside the organization to support her case. The dynamics and implications of such scenarios are described in the work of researchers Bernd Simon and Bert Klandermans in the April 2001 issue of American Psychologist.

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The various streams of research on social identity conflict in the workplace have some clear implications for managers. Specifically, they must begin to explore how changes in the organizational environment may threaten employees’ sense of identity and how that, in turn, can be ameliorated. The context in which the conflict occurs becomes crucial. Changes in organizational roles can reduce or increase the salience of group membership. For example, cross-cutting, the practice of distributing employees with different social and demographic characteristics across organizational roles, may dilute the salience of a particular demographic identity characteristic. That is, if Hispanics, African-Americans or women are found at all levels of the organization and in all types of job functions, it is less likely that a flare-up between people of different social identities will be attributed to their social identities.

Well-meaning managers who fail to understand that the degree of group identification varies from individual to individual may see their best efforts have unintended negative effects. For example, practices such as affirmative action, special training programs and support groups may be appreciated by some, but resented by others who feel such initiatives demean their skills and knowledge or undermine their ability to reach beyond subgroup boundaries. Conversely, managers must ensure that practices designed to reduce conflict by mitigating group identification do not result in threatening group identity. The challenge is to strike the right balance between recognizing and encouraging group affiliation and encouraging linkages between groups. As research in this area is in its nascent stages, future research — possibly based upon field studies that test more complex models of social identity — could be very helpful in guiding managers in that endeavor.


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