Papers by Nicky Hayes

Psychology and organisations

  • Psychological Dimensions of Organisational Cultures

  • Social identity and organisational consultancy
  • Psychological Dimensions of Organisational Cultures

    A visual image of the theory can be found here


    Theories of organisational culture identify two phenomena which may be more clearly understood using social psychological theories. The first of these concerns the shared values and beliefs which have been identified as underpinning organisational cultures; and the second concerns the importance of the long-term working group to organisational culture development and coherence. Social identity theory predicts that people will be more ready to accept as valid ideas from members of their own in-group; social representation theory is concerned with how fundamental beliefs are negotiated through conversation and interaction, and how they are used as shared explanations for social life. Consequently, it is argued that the two theories may clarify our understanding of how values and beliefs come to be shared within an organisation.

    Theories of organisational culture also identify subcultures and counter-cultures within the organisation, and it is argued that social identity theory may be useful in explaining how individuals, through membership of smaller groups, come to identify with, or distance themselves from, the larger culture.

    This paper was actually a very cut-down summary of my doctoral thesis. One of these days I'll get round to turning it into a book.

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    Social identity and organisational consultancy


    It is proposed that social identity theory offers an appropriate context within which human resource development in organisations may be viewed. A model of consultancy based on social identification theory is outlined. Two longitudinal case studies of small high-technology firms experiencing this form of consultancy are reported. Qualitative attributional analysis and attributional coding were applied to interview data from employees, and suggest that managerial practices may directly affect social identifications in the small company. The implications of social identity theory for developing effective working groups within both small and large organisations is discussed.

    The paper has five sections:

  • 1. Social identity and human resource development.
  • 2. A model for consultancy.
  • 3. Two longitudinal case studies.
  • 4. Management and social identity in the small company.
  • 5. The implications of social identity in organisations.
    Clicking on any highlighted subheading will bring you back to this list.

    Social identity and organisational consultancy

    1. Social identity and human resource development.
    The theory of social identification proposes that people do not simply relate to each other as individuals, on an independent one-to-one basis. Rather, it argues that the social group to which someone belongs at times determines both relationships and interactions between individuals. This happens as group membership becomes internalised, and forms a significant part of the self-concept.

    Deriving largely from the work of Henri Tajfel and John Turner (e.g. Tajfel, 1969; Tajfel and Turner, 1979), social identity theory draws on two fundamental aspects of human psychology. The first of these is the cognitive tendency to organise and classify experiences into categories. The second is the social tendency to seek positive sources of self-esteem. Together, these lead to social comparison, to the formation of strong in-group/ out-group distinctions, and to a strong motivation to identify with high-status social groups and to leave or distance oneself from inferior ones.

    So what has this got to do with organisations? Simply, that work forms one of the major sources of social identification in people's lives. The working environment involves long-term contact with people who may initially be strangers but become familiar, and it tends to be organised in terms of working groups, of varying size and influence. People at work belong to varying numbers of occupational categories,"nested" within one another. Professional affiliations, departmental or working groups, and hierarchical status within the organisation are aspects of organisational life which are deeply meaningful to employees, and occupational category is a major determinant of interpersonal interaction.

    All this implies that social identity theory could provide a useful framework within which working life may be understood. Social identity theory can throw light on a number of organisational phenomena, like why person-oriented managers who concentrate on effective team-building typically have more productive departments than task-oriented managers; or how interdepartmental competition and rivalry develops; or resistance to organisational change. High levels of staff turnover, commonly interpreted as a sign of problems within the organisation, may be seen as employees seeking to leave a social group which does not reflect positively on their self-esteem, with the converse also being true: that those who obtain positive self-esteem from belonging to their working group are less likely to seek to leave it. These are just a few examples: a full exploration of the potential of social identifical theory to explain human resource issues in the working context could fill several textbooks.

    2. A model for consultancy.
    It seems reasonable, therefore, to suggest that social identification may provide an appropriate basis for understanding human resource issues at work. It also seems reasonable to suggest that it may form a useful focus for human resource consultancy, and a framework for interpreting the outcomes of such consultancy. Accordingly, a model for human resource consultancy based on social identity theory was developed. This model takes three features of social identity theory and extracts their implications for staff management. These three features are classification, intragroup cohesion, and positive self-esteem.

    Social identity theory states that it is basic to human psychology for human beings to classify each other, and themselves, into in-groups and out-groups. Left to develop spontaneously, these groupings can take a number of forms: "we" may become "those of us who work over this side of the room", while "they" are “that lot who work over there”; or "we" may be the technical staff while "they" are the admin people; or, of course, it may come down to "us" vs "the bosses". Social categorisation also seems to accentuate intergroup differences, which suggests how different sectors or groups working within an organisation may come to focus more on competition or rivalry, and ignore what they have in common.

    The implication, then, is that the development of "them-and-us" groups within the organisation is not only likely to happen, but inevitable. The important task for the human resource consultant is to ensure that such groups develop in a way that is congruent with positive human resource management: that energies are directed towards dealing with real competition, and not towards internal politics. The consultant aims to ensure that the boundaries between groups are located in appropriate places, so that people will identify positively not just with their immediate working group, but also with their department and their company.

    Group cohesion
    The second feature of social identity theory involved in this model is that of group cohesion. Setting boundaries is only part of establishing a group. People also need to feel themselves to be part of the group - to see clearly how they fit in with the whole. In the early formulations of social identity theory, it was largely assumed that the similarity of group members could account for the cohesiveness of the social group. But more recent research implies that similarity of group members in itself does not provide an adequate explanation for intragroup behaviour. For example, it has been suggested that people tend to accentuate similarities between outgroup members more than they do members of their own group - "they" are all the same, whereas "we" are individuals and all different. People may also tolerate quite deviant behaviour from a "black sheep" within the group, while rejecting less deviant behaviour from out-group members (Marques and Yzerbyt, 1988).

    The question, then is how cohesion can be established or maintained within the working group, so as to maintain a strong sense of belonging to the same group. One possibility here is the promotion of social events: the organisational literature shows how these provide opportunities for the emergence of shared histories and anecdotes, which help to bring people together and to give them a sense of belonging to a group.

    Perhaps the most important issue here, though, lies in internal communication: promoting the idea of membership of the group, through an understanding of the group as a whole. This is not a new principle: one of the early Hawthorne studies featured a particularly effective informal leader who took new members around the factory so they could see where their own work fitted into the making of the final product. Effective internal communication aids the development of a sense of being part of a team and acknowledging the diversity of different members contributions. Inadequate internal communication may result in failure to appreciate the contributions of others, and result in internal and counter-productive "us / them" distinctions which mitigate against teamwork. The task for the organisational consultant, then, is to establish and promote good communication within the group, so that all the group members can develop their understanding of how each plays a part in contributing to the whole.

    Positive self-esteem
    The third feature of social identity theory in this model concerns the need for people to derive positive self-esteem from their group membership. Without this, they will seek to leave the group, or to distance themselves from it. In the organisational context, we can construe this in terms of rates of staff turnover, as people leave a group which fails to reflect positively on their self-esteem; or as a key to understanding the development of counter-cultural groups within an organisation, as people distance themselves from the main culture.

    Leaving some groups, of course, may sometimes represent a desirable course of action. Within an organisation, working groups differ systematiclly in terms of relative status and prestige, and options for leaving the immediate group may include the availability of promotion and increased status within the same organisation. In organisations which offer realistic scope for such progress, such as is found in some large multinationals, the individual does not have to leave the organisation in order to join a higher-status group; and it may be that identification with the larger body would therefore be stronger. Such a mechanism would also tend to strengthen perceptions of a common culture permeating the organisation as a whole. This is an issue which requires further investigation in the field.

    But in any case, the implication of the link between social identification and self-esteem suggests that a key task for the organisational consultant is to foster situations or circumstances in which belonging to their group will enable people to feel good about themselves. Employees need to be able to feel proud of working for their group, organisation, or company.

    There are a number of ways that this can be achieved. One of these may be through promoting the company's achievements internally as well as externally, so that employees can see the role their company plays in the wider market-place, and how their own efforts contribute to the whole, thus giving them something concrete of which they can be proud.

    Another option is enhancing professionalisation: developing internal and external training so that people are able to take a pride in their work, and the way they go about it. Such professionalisation tells employees that their management has sufficient belief in them to feel that such efforts are worthwhile, which is also likely to foster positive self-esteem from group membership. Other known human resource strategies, like quality control circles or "employee of the month" schemes may also have this type of effect.

    The consultancy model
    In summary, then, the consultancy model derived from social identity theory focusses on three features of the theory: classification, intragroup cohesion, and positive self-esteem. These three features have been operationalised for the organisational context in terms of firstly, the setting of group boundaries, or "them and us" distinctions, at appropriate rather than inappropriate points; secondly, establishing good communication both on a formal and an informal level; and thirdly, providing opportunities for employees to experience pride in their company and their working group.

    Many of the practical recommendations which emerge from this model will sound familiar to human resource consultants. What happens when we begin to apply social identity theory to the understanding of organisational behaviour, is that we produce a number of recommendations which are already known to be good, sound organisational practice. What social identity theory can tell us, is why they are good. When organisational psychologists recommend managers to adopt these practices, they are not simply acting on intuitive common sense: they are establishing the conditions for positive social identification within the working group. The outcome of such positive social identification is likely to be enhanced company loyalty, lower staff turnover, employee activities which are congruent with the goals of the company, and a high sense of job satisfaction for staff. Quite an incentive.

    But this is more than just proving the obvious. Understanding the underlying psychological mechanisms also allows us to see why different strategies may have similar effects. By deriving practice from theory, we have much greater latitude in tailoring recommendations to the immediate need of the working group or organisation. There are many ways of establishing good communication, and many forms that such communication can take. Any consultant rapidly discovers that practices which work well in one organisation fall flat in another. But some other, alternative system may be ideal. The important thing is to recognise what the practice is doing: if we know the psychological mechanisms underpinning the effectiveness of the practice, we are in a position to generate new approaches as well as explain the effectiveness of older ones. And that can only enhance our professional effectiveness.

    3. Two longitudinal case studies.
    It's one thing developing a theoretical model, but the next task is to ensure that the model can be usefully applied in the real world. For reasons of simplicity, it was decided to try applying the model in two small high-technology companies. Each of the companies had been formed by a group of techologically-oriented people, initialy on the basis of software servicing contracts; and each had grown to the point where it had become apparent that some attention to managerial issues was necessary. Since the directors had no background in management or psychology, the consultancy programme aimed to introduce them to some of the basic issues in promoting positive social identification, and to allow them to develop their own ways of implementing these concepts.

    The consultancy involved a first visit in which employees were interviewed, and recommendations were based around the three themes of setting boundaries, establishing good communication, and promoting company pride. The two companies were each revisited twice, at seven month intervals, and the employees were again interviewed and invited to talk about the company, and any changes which had taken place. The interviews were very loosely structured: employees were encouraged to talk freely about the organisation, and to see the interviews as an opportunity to transmit their views anonymously to the management of the company. These views were fed back to the management of the company through a written report and a meeting.

    Since the emphasis of the consultancy was on promoting positive social identification within the companies, there was a need for the development of a method of analysis which would enable such changes to be identified, on a small group basis. The approach which was eventually adopted also rests on a theoretical link with the emergence and negotiation of social representations through conversation and everyday interaction, as described by Moscovici (1984), which has been explored elsewhere (Hayes, 1991). It emphasises the analysis of attributions emerging from discourse, on the basis that the reasons people give for why things happen are likely to be useful indicators of what they believe to be important in their social situations.

    It was decided to adopt two analytical techniques: a thematic qualitative analysis of the causal attributions which had been made during the course of the interviews; and an aggregated coding of the same attributional statements according to the five attributional dimensions: global, stable, internal, personal, and controllable. Since these were relatively novel approaches, the outcomes were indicative rather than conclusive, but did suggest that some systematic changes were apparent over time in the two companies.

    4. Management and social identity in the small company.
    In one company, the management were very receptive to the idea of the consultancy, seeing it as congruent with their own aims of developing good managerial practice. The company had, and still has, an extremely low rate of staff turnover, and a reasonably high rate of growth. As a result of the consultancy, they implemented systems of staff training and other "professionalising" strategies. Attributions from staff in this company tended to describe a belief in the competence of the directors, and a view of the company as a very special place to work. These remained reasonably consistent throughout the period of the consultancy, despite pressures of growth, some managerial errors, and diversification.

    The directors of the second company were more ambivalent about the idea of devoting time and effort to staff management, seeing themselves primarily as technical specialists, and assuming that people would be largely self-motivated. Although well-meaning, they had a high rate of staff turnover, and initial interviews revealed that morale was low and staff were unhappy. Initial changes as a result of the first consultancy visit produced a boost in morale, apparent on the second visit, as staff felt that the directors were making an effort to improve things; but by the third visit morale was very low again, personality clashes between one of the directors and staff had produced internal tension, and many of the staff were talking about leaving. Attributions revealed a generally low view of the company, and a pessimism about the likelihood of improvement.

    The aggregated attributional coding did not produce significant differences, but did reveal changes in the ways that the dimensions intercorrelated over time. However, it is not practical to draw definite conclusions from this for several reasons. The two most imortant of these are (a) the small number of data sets, and (b) that the coding system itself requires considerable refinement before it can ube deemed reliable and useful in this context. The coding provided just enough information to suggest that it may be worth working on, but little more.

    5. The implications of social identity in organisations.
    In conclusion, then, it does appear that social identify theory provides a useful framework for understanding several significant features of working life, and that it can provide a useful basis for human resource consultancy. Judging from both the feedback obtained from the staff interviews, and the qualitative attributional analysis, it does appear that positive managerial practices may be construed in terms of promoting positive social identifications within the company.

    An examination of the various recommendations in the managerial literature shows that many of the practices known to be effective in human resource terms may be construed as providing opportunities for involvement and identification with the working group and the wider company. Recognition of the underlying mechanisms of social identification, and the ways that "them-and-us" groups develop can provide a social psychological awareness which will enhance our understanding of both good management and of motivation at work.

    What we also need, though, in order to take this further, are efficient techniques for assessing social identification at the small group level and large group level. That will need some work: there are indications that some techiques, like attributional coding, have some potential, but these are as yet far from developed. We need to work on developing such techniques, as part of the process of applying social identity theory to our understanding of organisations.

    I delivered this paper at the XXV International Congress of Psychology, Brussels 1992

    © Nicky Hayes, 1992.
    You are welcome to use any or all of this material, as long as credit is given to its source.

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