Identity group at work.

Many think of culture as a singular phenomenon that varies only across geographical barriers. However, we acknowledge that culture exists on six distinct levels, and that taking these levels into account can help individuals adjust to different cultural surroundings as they encounter them at work, at home and abroad. The six levels of culture are: national/societal, identity group, organizational, functional, team, and individual. Here we will be discussing the identity group level of culture.

When we are asked to describe who we are, we often simply list the attributes that we believe define us as individuals, our identity. Some of the attributes people may list when asked about themselves could be:

• Introvert
• Serious
• Parent
• Immigrant
• Science lover
• Patient
• Funny
• Millennial
• College graduate
• Bilingual

While some of those labels, like “introvert” or “funny,” refer to personality traits, many have to do with the person’s belonging to a specific identity group, such as “college graduate” or “Millennial.”

In the context of the workplace, particularly with Diversity & Inclusion initiatives, leaders can use the concept of identity groups to illuminate employees’ different experiences and frames of reference. This helps drive the core D&I goals of understanding differences, improving inter- and intra-group relationships, and ensuring equal opportunities. The identity groups most taken into account in the workplace are gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, ability and generation. In many organizations, employees create formal or informal networks around these identity groups to voice and explore their collective experience.

However, while these groupings are meaningful at first glance, such categorization could be simplistic and insufficient to attain the core D&I objectives listed above. After all, in a rapidly diversifying and globalizing context, social identities shift, becoming more fluid and revealing nuances. For example, a person who joins a company straight out of college could view him or herself as the newcomer who has a lot to learn. However, a few years later, this person can become an office veteran and a member of the seasoned employee identity group, whom the new hires go to for advice upon entering the company.

Another distinction of identity groups is that others frequently ascribe specific identities to us – some we may be entirely unaware of – based on our real or perceived affiliation with a specific group of people. For example, someone could be known around an office as “the IT guy” or “the southern lady” even though they themselves don’t relate to those categories.

How can we encourage a meaningful exploration of our social identity that reconciles both aspects and enables a relevant understanding of our experience in interactions with others? We have found some interesting answers to this question in our work with many global organizations in pursuit of their D&I goals. We have learned that since each identity group exists within a specific social context, it is useful to deconstruct that context. For example, gender has specific expressions when it comes to different workplace behaviors. This leads to perceptions of, for instance, how assertive a person should be depending on their gender, according to perceived norms around when being assertive is appropriate, and when being assertive is viewed as being aggressive instead. Understanding social identity groups from a cultural perspective assists in this deconstruction. After all, expectations, assumptions, behaviors and practices are largely learned, while differences with a biological component, such as gender, are frequently mediated by culture.

Engaging in a sophisticated exploration of differences in the workplace requires the willingness to engage in nonjudgmental dialogue. Such dialogue needs to go well beyond validating the existence of claimed or ascribed social identity groups; it needs to further the mutual understanding of the different frames of reference, and lead to the mutual adaptation of assumptions, behaviors and practices.

The Cultural Orientations Approach is configured to be an essential catalyst to apply these lessons in the diversifying workplaces of our globalized business world.

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