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Is Shared Identity a Missing Link to Psychological Safety and Maximizing Potential?

Have you ever hesitated to share a suggestion or challenge the status quo at work? Yeah, you are not alone. A memorable crucible experience of mine was early in my career when I needed to give some critical feedback to a division president. But I didn’t, and the company missed an opportunity to improve. Silence is expensive. But a natural tendency is to play defense when times get tough. In a rapidly changing digital workplace, the benefits of cultivating a climate of psychological safety are well established. Overcoming the fear of failure and blame is necessary for companies to adapt and innovate. A recent Pew Research Center survey of US employees found that 89% believe it is the responsibility of business leaders to create a safe and respectful workplace. We all share a need to belong. Shared identity is a fundamental aspect of effective communication and belonging. Here are the four leadership dimensions and practical ideas for creating a shared identity at work.

Why a shared identity matters

Social Identity Theory suggests that we share identity with individuals with whom we associate. And as a result, we are more likely to trust and influence those individuals compared to individuals and groups with which we do not associate.

Academic research suggests that the benefits of shared identity include:

  • Productive conflict

  • Wellbeing

  • Inclusion and belonging

  • Improved performance

  • Enhanced knowledge management

In conversations, we tend to find communication more comfortable and productive with those we consider “us” versus “them.” According to social identity theory, as individuals, we are more motivated to be receptive and mentally able to process more fully communications with those we identify.

Numerous studies have revealed that shared social identity improves team communication. Perceived similarity increases communication quality, and perceived differences lower communication quality. Shared identity leads to shared understanding resulting in effective communication. When it comes to communication and social identity, perception is reality.

4 Stages of psychological safety and the leadership challenge

Psychological safety is the degree to that you feel included and able to learn, contribute, and provide critical feedback without fear of being embarrassed, excluded, or penalized. Psychological safety is different than trust. Trust is if you will give others the benefit of the doubt, and psychological safety is the environment influencing if others will give you the benefit of the doubt. Psychological safety helps you and others work better together.

The leadership challenge is to increase intellectual friction while decreasing social friction. There are four defined sequential stages of psychological safety:

Stage 1: Inclusion Safety

We are constantly dividing the world between them and us. Inclusion safety is creating a shared identity so others are viewed as being in the same group.

Stage 2: Learner Safety

This is feeling safe enough to experiment, ask questions, and fail as a part of the learning process.

Stage 3: Contributor Safety

Is participating as an active full-fledged member of the team supported by autonomy and encouragement.

Stage 4: Challenger Safety

This is the last stage when others can provide constructive criticism and engage in productive conflict without fear of exclusion or retaliation. This is the stage where teams and individuals can adapt and innovate.

It is extremely dangerous in a competitive marketplace not to have a culture of psychological safety. Psychological safety is a tool for leaders to help care for followers. Also, when it is emotionally expensive in the workplace to share what you think and feel, it triggers a self-censoring instinct that shuts down and blocks collaboration and innovation.

“The presence of fear in an organization is the first sign of weak leadership.” Timothy Clark

In a defensive and virtual climate, how can leaders best create a shared identity?

In a complex and crisis-driven marketplace, leaders need employees that take risks. Identity leadership research has identified the following four dimensions of leadership that moderate shared identity:

1. Being one of us. Exemplifying the unique qualities and what it means to be a member of the team and distinct from other groups.

  • Are you a model member of the team?

2. Doing it for us. Standing up for and championing the interests of the group rather than the leader’s interests. Acting in ways that overcome challenges and prevent team failure.

  • Are you acting as a champion of the team?

3. Crafting a sense of us. Making a diverse team feel that they are part of the same group and increasing cohesion and inclusion. Clarifying what the team stands for and what it does not by defining core values.

  • Are you creating team cohesion?

4. Making us matter. Designing and clarifying team roles and responsibilities in ways that maximize coordination and value visible to the team and organization.

  • How well have you defined team roles in ways that are helpful to the team and business?

Where you begin and how you approach creating a shared identity makes a difference. Studies have revealed that creating a shared identity is best introduced at a grassroots level versus a top-down approach. It is more effective to begin developing a shared identity within your team versus the organization. Also, evidence suggests team participation in the development of shared identity makes it better.

“A change imposed is a change opposed.” Spencer Johnson

Creating a shared identity begins with a conversation. Try asking the following questions in your next team or one-to-one meeting:

  • Why is this team important to you?

  • What is the value this team brings to the business?

If you want to take it up a level, using an assessment can be a powerful tool for starting a good conversation and providing additional insights into a shared identity. The DISC temperament inventory or the Clifton StrengthsFinder are two low-cost proven tools that enhance clarity, commitment, and contribution within a team.

What is the real shared identity challenge for you and your team?


Ashforth, B., & Mael, F. (1989). Social Identity Theory and the Organization. Academy of Management Review, Vol. 14, 20–39.

Eckel, C. , & Gorssman, P. (2005). Managing diversity by creating team identity” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization Vol. 58. 371–392.

Clark, S. M., Gioia, D. A., Ketchen, D. J., & Thomas, J. B. (2010). Transitional identity as a facilitator of organizational identity change during a merger. Administrative Science Quarterly, 55(3), 397-438.

Dick, R., Ciampa, V., & Liang, S. (2018). Shared identity in organizational stress and change. Current Opinion in Psychology, 23, 20-25.

Greenaway, K. H., Wright, R. G., Willingham, J., Reynolds, K. J., & Haslam, S. A. (2015). Shared Identity Is Key to Effective Communication. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(2), 171–182.

Krug, H., Haslam, A., Otto, K., & Steffens, N. (2021). Identity leadership, social identity continuity, and well-being at work during COVID-19. Frontiers in Psychology.

Nagle, J., & Clancy, M. (2012). Constructing a shared public identity in ethno nationally divided societies: Comparing consociational and transformationist perspectives: Constructing a shared public identity in ethno nationally divided societies. Nations and Nationalism, 18(1), 78-97.

Parker, K. (2018). Many Americans say women are better than men at creating safe, respectful workplaces. Pew Research Center.

Rink, F., & Ellemers, N. (2007). Diversity as a basis for shared organizational identity: The norm congruity principle. British Journal of Management, 18(s1), S17-S27. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8551.2007.00523.xvan

Steffens, N., Haslam A., Reicher S., Platow, M., Fransen, K., Yang, J., Ryan, M., Jetten, J., Peters, K., & Boen, F. (2014). Leadership as social identity management: Introducing the Identity Leadership Inventory (ILI) to assess and validate a four-dimensional model.

The Leadership Quarterly, 25(5). 1001-1024.

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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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