The one to identify with

As part of a variety of workshops and team days I have regularly asked the question “what team are you in?” The answers are diverse and range from “team <individual’s name>” to their functional team to the particular country team or the entire organisation. It’s an interesting question and to me speaks to the individual’s perception of their role, maybe their motivation, their esteem in the organisation and what network they see themselves as part of.

Identity is one of those things that is present on all parts of our lives. Think back to the school yard – everyone was in gangs that were identified by a characteristic usually involving sport or social status (or is it technology now?). When you start working there are labels like the new starter, the graduate, the temp. As much as people seem to like labelling others (i.e. she’s an employee of X) it is more pertinent to the individual as to what label they choose to accept – how and what they identify with.

In his 2001 book Haslam describes organisational identity as akin to a psychological bond between the employer and the employee and Ashforth & Mael describe it as “the perception of oneness with or belonginess to the organization”. Haslam goes on to suggest that individuals who identify with their organisations see themselves as members and see the organisations values as aligned to their own either on a conscious cognitive level or a more emotional “pride” level. Employees who identify with their organisations will work longer for the greater good, often involving individual sacrifice and are more intrinsically motivated to deliver increased performance.

Different organisations treat this topic very differently. From recruitment and induction through to values workshops, employee surveys, town hall meetings etc etc etc, how organisations try to manage this and measure it is a topic much bigger than a) this post and b) my interest currently, but it does seem to me that at times we are skirting around the central tenant and looking at the superficial, do people actually feel like they belong to your organisation or is it just a transactional relationship?

I was having a conversation with a pal of mine at the weekend. She is an executive in a fairly large business and was talking about the commercial challenges they are facing at the moment. She went on to say that the senior team (of which she is part) have spent 9 months searching for the silver bullet and have finally realised it’s not one thing but a series of smaller things combined that will change their fortunes.

I am not suggesting for a moment that the topic of organisational identity is a) as straightforward as presented here or b) a silver bullet for organisations BUT it needs to be part of the discussion. The next time you have the opportunity ask some people which team they are in and why they think that, I’m not suggesting it will immediately change your fortunes but I would lay a sizeable bet it will be an interesting conversation.

P.S. What team are you in???



I wrote this post over the weekend and had done a little tweaking and nuancing (not nearly enough I’m sure) but then had a conversation with another friend who’s son has just started playing rugby at a local club (under 7s – VERY competitive) and the conversation strayed onto the World Cup. Having watched my team (Wales) but up a valiant but eventually unsuccessful performance against the reigning world champions, South Africa, I have the silver bullet (!!). All employees to wear rugby jerseys – not one of the 30 odd men appearing on that pitch yesterday were in any doubt as to their identity or what team they were in…



Ashforth, B., & Mael, F. (1989). Social identity theory and the organization. Academy of Management

Review, 14(1), 20–39.

Haslam, S. A. (2001). Psychology in organizations. The social identity approach. London: Sage



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3 responses to “The one to identify with

  1. Zoe

    Really like this Rob – totally chimes with my own experience. I really identified with my previous organisation – believed in what we were doing, been there for 10 years, knew everyone, was engages and worked hard – basically my work there was a huge part of my identity. And then I left due to redundancy and it has taken me a long time not to feel part of the ‘team’. I think this was particularly acute for me as I didn’t move to new team as was on maternity leave. I still occasionally slip up and refer to ‘our/my organisation’ in conversation even after a year!
    It was also clear that many people at the organisation had a sense of belonging to their particular department rather than the organisation as a whole, this really impeded collaboration and maintained the ‘silo mentality’. Thanks for the references – they may come in handy for me as I think I might follow up on this in my MSc/MBA project.

  2. Great reading Rob! Given our human propensity to classify with nomenclature I think it’s valuable to first ask who is in the same team as you before asking what that team is called.

    Also, reading this reminds of a piece in “A General Theory of Love” that talks briefly about emotional attachment to a corporate organisation. My recollection is that this is described as misplaced attachment – meaningful emotional attachments need to be with someone/thing who can respond with emotion.

    So when we are talking about identity & loyalty with teams, I wonder if that identity/loyalty is with a corporate organisation (which is in essence inanimate) or is it with the people we work with & relate to? Do we identify with something that is manifest or something that we perceive?

  3. A good read thanks Rob. I’ve always felt like I’m in lots of teams. Some teams pick me to play regularly, others less so and that’s great, else I’d be knackered otherwise 🙂

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