People like us
Guest post by Susie Ballantyne
Why is change so difficult? In our modern society, we have a multitude of apps, groups, and accountability to keep us on track. Yet, experience tells us that our change is unlikely to be maintained past the first flush of enthusiasm.
Over the past three years, as part of my doctoral research, I’ve been researching the impact of social identity on change. Working with refugees for whom change is non-negotiable, it’s apparent how much we overlook the importance of social identity when trying to get to grips with change.
For those forced to migrate, much of their everyday wellbeing depends on how they manage their old identities and acquire new ones. Resilience during times of change isn’t just a matter of ‘strength of character’ but how, through the loss of old relationships and discovery of new ones, refugees can maintain a steady and familiar sense of self that enables them to cope with everyday life.
Part of this is the tendency, both as individuals and as a culture, to look almost exclusively at ourselves from within. We do this in terms of changing some overplayed personality trait such as “this year I’m going to rein in my temper and be kinder to my colleagues”. Or to change some character weakness like: “no more weekday drinking, and I’ll cut out sugar while I’m at it”.
While the intention may be good, the change is often only approached from the inside, out.
What if we start from the outside, and work in? What if we begin to look at what’s going on in the world around us, identify what influences us and THEN identify what we might begin to change. Here’s where social identity can help you make that change so it sticks.
Research shows us that social identity is where change happens.
Who am I?
If we start writing a list that begins: “who am I?” we begin to see how much of who we are relates to how we categorise ourselves with other people, such as gender, nationality, ethnicity, education, profession, skills, parenting roles, sporting preferences.
We also do this throughout the day, moving between different categories as we go about our daily life: parent, partner, commuter, team-member, café-customer, friend, volunteer.
Each of these categories come with their own socially-constructed ‘guidebooks’, if you like, that give us some extremely important reference points: what makes us different from others. It tells us what to expect from ourselves and other people who are like us; what behaviours are and aren’t acceptable.
Without these, we wouldn’t have a clue about how to make sense of things around us or how to behave as we move through our day. Our social identity gives us the handholds that we grasp for direction and reassurance as we navigate everyday life.
People like us
When we want to change something, to metally commit at being a better version of ourselves, we lose ground the moment we focus overly on the “I”.
Instead, we should ask ourselves: “what are people like ‘us’, like?”
The ‘us’ can be anything: ‘eco-minded citizen’; ‘politically engaged community member’; ‘calm parent’; ‘team leader’. As we list the characteristics of the groups we belong to, we begin to see the ‘guidebook’ that shapes our behaviour.
Some may be positive such as, ‘people like us [leaders] are visionary, good communicators, empathetic’. Or some may be less positive such as people like us [leaders] are dogmatic, ego-centric, brash.
Use our guidebooks
When we want to think about changing how we work or manage our relationships, these social identities ‘guidebooks’ are a good place to begin.
Look through the list you’ve generated about ‘people like us’ and then you can draw a line from these to your own behaviours. Ask yourself: do I do these things? Does it help me achieve what I want when I’m in this role? Are there things here I can aspire towards?
It’s also worth asking yourself whether membership of other groups, different identities, inhibits you from achieving the goals you’ve set for yourself elsewhere in your life.
By looking at change from this angle, the outside in, we can see just how much of what we think and do is directed by the identities that we conform to. When we stop looking for individual faults and differences, we see how we live in an incredible web of social influence that directs our footsteps. It is then we find we have a road map for making change happen.
With this perspective, we soon recognise a world full of social identities, each with their own guidebooks that we both help write and take direction from. And as we act, so we either reinforce this guidance or begin to shift it.
If you’re not happy with something, start with social identity, for a change.
Susie Ballentyne is a doctoral researcher in psychology at the University of Sussex. As a social psychologist, she consults on identity for Making Change Happen and is a co-Director of Leading 4 Life. Through her research, Susie is also developing and practising a new approach to psychological coaching based on social Identity change: Identity Based Coaching (IBC).
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