5 initiatives that promote identity and belonging in your company

About the study

While much of the previous research has focused on external factors, a PhD study by Bovim (2010) made an important contribution to the research by underlining the importance of work content. The study indicates that work practices, competences and work product or deliveries are three particularly important factors when it comes to identity development in units.

The study was performed in Statoil, which has one of the highest turnover rates in the Nordic region. The study focused on three cases: an oil platform, a unit for subsea production technology and an R&D unit, and is based on solid a qualitative data analysis of 160 qualitative interviews.

New knowledge about identity

Research has shown that identity and belonging play a crucial role in a number of organizational aspects. Among others, identity and sense of belonging affects:

  • employee job satisfaction
  • cooperation and participation in activities
  • work group and team performance
  • the organization's ability to retain employees
  • strategic choices

While many companies and executives are aware of the central importance of identity and belonging, what remain less widely known are the instruments which are used and how organizations can manage identity development. This study provides important input into how resources can be utilized effectively. The recommendations to companies and managers can be summarized in five points.

1. Spend resources on the high and the low level of the company

Larger companies typically have a number of hierarchical levels and several layers of middle managers. While hierarchical units play a key role in coordinating the work and responsibilities, leaders in such units also focus on building belonging and identity. Efforts toward identity development are not only important at the organizational level, but also at the unit and team levels. The study shows, however, that the number of units or groups a person can identify with is limited. Foremost, it is the organizational and group levels that are central to our sense of identity and sense of belonging. Thus, when it comes to designing and developing identity, the study indicates that resources should be directed to the high and low levels of the organization.

2. Focus on the content of work to facilitate identity development

To develop identity in teams, units, projects and organizations, leaders can utilize a number of different instruments. Popular and widely used tools for creating identity include team meetings, workshops, consulting events, lectures, sports, games, slogans, vision and value statements, design of logos, T-shirts, as well as beer, wine and cookie gatherings. While such actions may have some effect, the study highlights work content as the main factor in the construction of identity and belonging at lower organizational levels. What employees are actually doing in their work, the skills involved and the product that is delivered all play a key role for the experience of identity and belonging. The study shows that the work content not only has economic significance, but carries symbolic value. Thus, rather than using all of the resources on the identity building initiatives mentioned above, which are costly and time consuming, leaders should focus more on the work content. Creation of identity must be based on the type of work that are performed and what is central in the work: work practices, competences and the work product. For instance, if employees are engaged in knowledge work, it is essential to formulate clear technological or competency-based goals and keep a strong focus on technical aspects in meetings and during the exercise of leadership. Defining clear competences is of great importance in such organizational environments.

3. Adapt organizational structure to the work content

The work content is not the only factor affecting employees' construction of identity and belonging. The study shows that the organization of work also plays a major role. While the formal organizational structure can, on the one hand, help create identity and belonging among employees, the study indicates that the organizational structure may also, in some cases, prevent identity construction. For example, if the work content mainly consists of development and management of competences, and the organization is structured according to work practice or work product, this structuring may hamper identity development and experiences of belonging. The same applies if employees are not grouped in units of appropriate size for collective identity development at low levels in the organization.

4. Support informal groups and networks within the organization

Fourth, the survey indicates that informal groups and networks within the organization are not just important for knowledge sharing and friendships, but can also be important arenas for identity development and belonging. The study’s results suggest that such informal groups may represent an important complement to the formal organizational structure and can help fill the gaps where the organizational structure is flawed or is being reorganized. While managers sometimes tend to be skeptical towards informal structures, looking at them as competitors to the formal structure, the study highlights how these structures can be work-related, supporting the formal structure and contributing positively to employees' perception of identity and belonging. To facilitate such structures, companies can, for example, initiate temporary interdepartmental projects, encourage the rotation of personnel, and give employees opportunities to socialize within the internal networks of the organization.

5. Welcoming newcomers

Finally, the study shows the importance of providing proper training and introduction to newcomers, as well as facilitating their relational bounds with other employees in the team, project, unit and organization. The results from the study suggest that identity development in these different groups are also affected by the individual's level of identification or belonging. The more people there are who feel belonging, the clearer and stronger the shared identity will be. If new employees are poorly socialized into a group or organization, the collective identity will diminish and lose importance in the long term.

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