Six steps to landscape social identity

 In Change management, Culture, Leadership

In lockdown we came together to clap for N.H.S. and front line workers, supporters of our whole community. We saw pictures of vastly diverse groups of people, those who were clapping and those who received the claps. Both groups took action for the benefit of their communities rather than for themselves. In each group diversity reached for inclusion; inclusion thrived on diversity. How can we carry that positive sense of individuals  acting in a truly  collaborative way into our changing working world?

In the workplace now we have an opportunity to make significant changes, to implement a new operating system, a system which is inclusive, progressive, and highly effective. Diversity awareness training is a starting point but in order to make these changes stick, and to incorporate a range of behaviours, our teams need more in-depth psychological work. 

New ways of operating need consistent work that takes place over time. Leaders need to be able to measure where their team is on the  journey so they know where to focus their efforts.  

We will look at how to approach this later in the article. For now, let’s examine how we can use this strange, shifting year to start creating the collective identity we want for our teams. It begins with how you approach your team as that collective whole, and how we form the collective identity from outside-in.


Look at your team like a beehive.

A successful workplace operates like a hive. It’s all about the workstreams and wider team cooperation.  To understand how a bee colony works, you have to look at the groups within the hive. You won’t get any wiser from looking at each bee. This is a lesson we can use for behavioural change. 

As it is for the groups within the beehive, social groups in the workplace provide the guidebook for employees on how to behave. In organisations, people quickly know what is and isn’t acceptable; they adopt those group norms over their individual preferences. People want to fit in and be part of the group, [including the Clapping group]. It’s the behaviour guidebooks leaders need to work on, to create new behaviours and ways of working. 

For work teams relationships are key.  Thus it’s important to use a wide lens when examining behaviour change. Although individual psychometrics and personality profiles are useful to get a team to work well together, for team level behavioural change and for creating new norms, it’s the group identity that is a more powerful force.


Working from the outside – in

To get team identity to embrace diversity we need to look at the whole group, not particular individuals. This approach will achieve sustainable change.  

As Social Psychologist and Making Change Happen collective member, Susie Ballantyne explains: 

“We have a 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 start to change? Here’s where social identity can help you make that change, so it sticks.” 


How to change your team identity

Here at Making Change Happen, we like to think of changing a team’s identity as creating a new operating system. We base our operating system on an agreed set of values, academic knowledge and what we know already about the team. 

To make the changes sustainable, you need to understand where your team is right now. Every team will have a different start point within the learning journey.  You need to be empathetic, show respect and design the path from where your teams are right now.

Let’s look at cycling as an example. Here in the UK, we identify ourselves as being a cyclist or not being a cyclist. We even have the funny acronym, MAMIL (middle-aged man in lycra), to describe some of our cyclists.  Yet, if you lived in Holland, you are very unlikely to describe yourself as a cyclist. Most people there simply cycle as part of everyday life, and so have no need to identify as one or the other. 

If we were to create a new operating system based on travel choices, to cycle or not, the starting point for someone in the UK would be different from that of a person who grew up in Holland. 

The same is true for establishing a new operating system or set of values within our teams. 

Here are the six steps you need to take in order to create a new group identity within your team. 


1. Willing to listen

Your team members need to be willing to find out about new ways of thinking and working. At the same time, you, as a leader, need to be ready to listen and empathise with how your team members are currently thinking. 

At this stage, it’s about introducing the language and building awareness of new ways of thinking. Help people get familiar with the topic and get used to it; encourage them to progress to a willingness to find out more. If we’re using our cycling example, we would need to learn about road etiquette from other cyclists. We’d also need to understand the terminology of the bike so we can ask for help if  things go wrong. 

2. Simplify the landscape

Think of identity as a landscape. It has its peaks and troughs, challenging climbs and easy-to-cross flats. Every team has a different identity landscape, and they all use different maps to navigate it. The map is the set of rules or guidebook we use to negotiate our way through daily life. 

This guidebook can be the dress code, or whether you get a round of tea for your table or only for yourself. It is also your behaviours within the team, the language you use, and how you respond. 

To change team identity, we need to simplify what is unknown, so there are fewer challenges for people to negotiate. Making the target outcome more familiar and less distant can be done by increasing access to the topic. We want to make it easy for our teams to understand and ultimately adopt new values and ways of working. 

If we use our cycling analogy again, you may understand how to ride a bike but getting up a big winding hill can be scary as you don’t know what’s around the next corner. So it’s about making that journey more and more familiar, helping people understand the terrain by giving more information about it. It makes getting up the hill a lot easier. 

3. Have conversations

Getting your team to talk about new behaviours in conversations together achieves much more change than we imagine.

When we put things into words, our brains can start processing it, ready for the next step of putting it into action, applying what we have learnt. We make sense of it in words before we start using it. Being able to give your team members a safe space to have the conversations they need will allow them to internalise and automate their newly learnt behaviours.

4. Small experiments

Giving your team space to experiment with a small set of new behaviours  will help them find those crucial new ways of working. This is the point at which the group starts to nurture a new operating system. 

If we look at our cyclists, they might start riding differently having seen the roads from a new perspective, thereby gaining new confidence in their skills. They develop new values for sharing public spaces. 

5. Apply more widely

Once your team feels confident and sees that their ideas are valued and working, they will start to apply them more widely. Choices will become automatically geared towards the new set of values and behaviours they now value. As a leader, you need to find more opportunities for your team to experiment and try the new behaviours.

When they reach this point, your team will use the new values, or operating system, as part of their decision-making within the organisation. The new behaviours become embedded in their habits, routines and practices. 

When our new cyclists value their new identity, they may start to look for routes to travel by bike before they pick up the car keys. 

6. Integration

The final destination in changing group identity is its integration into group norms. This happens when your team is demonstrating their new values seamlessly as part of their everyday character. This is when you’ll see the sustained changes. 

New values are ingrained in their identity as much as when people from Holland see cycling as a part of their daily lives. It becomes completely natural.

Along the way, you may face conflict from within the group, especially if they are fixed in their mindset. You need to know how to navigate these fixed positions, and where individuals are in the learning journey. 


How we help

At Making Change Happen, we have an approach that changes team behaviours using academic knowledge and organisational psychology. Our identity landscaping lets people see the norms that shape their work culture. It gives teams the clarity they need to reset themselves for a different world of work.

It increases empathy in your teams, enabling them to embrace inclusivity and set workplace norms to those of collaboration. 

Find out here how we can help you establish an inclusive workplace where teams thrive. 

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