Social Psychology - Motive One 'Belonging' - Part Two - ‘Conformity’ and ‘Social Identity'

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Social Psychology - Motive One 'Belonging' - Part Two - ‘Conformity’ and ‘Social Identity'

N Cubed Group
Published by Laurence Nicholson in Change · Thursday 02 Nov 2023
The Core Social Psychology Motives in Change Management Series
Core Social Motive One – Belonging

By Laurence Nicholson

Part Two - ‘Conformity’ and ‘Social Identity’

(For the audio podcast, click HERE)

Welcome to part 2 of this discussion around the first core social motive: Belonging.
This time, we are taking a look at ‘conformity’ and ‘social identity’, but before we start, I wanted to mention a conversation had recently, where a perfect example was highlighted of how the formation of ‘social cohesion’ (see part one of this discussion series) can be a negative element, as is the case within this particularly poorly managed organisational change programme following an acquisition, and has led to confusion, anger, frustration and  unnecessary complexity, all of which are contributing to increased time, cost and loss of many of the top performing individuals.
A large IT consultancy is undertaking an assimilation of two small businesses it acquired, but has no suitably trained change specialists with social psychology knowledge, and this is clearly evident in the lack of transparency in many elements of the ‘balancing’ of old contracted packages and benefits to those that will operate in the ‘new world’. This has led to inequities, unjust handling of transferals and the formation of bitter feelings of favouritism, discrimination and unfairness. This has then further led, predictably, to highly damaging effects to the organisation, the persons (individual) involved and the change programme, including:
•             Creation of a divide between management and staff
•             Aggression as a default emotion in the staff towards any proposals and statements
•             A complete mistrust in both the process and the management
More significantly, though, is the creation of a sense of belonging of the persons (individuals) to a new group, with a strong social cohesion all built on their new common enemy of the management and the change process. A perfect example of the very foundational elements of a core social motive but in the negative, and thus working against the change. This is the very reason change specialists with a good working knowledge of social psychology are essential to every change programme, especially organisational ones.

So, on to this part, part two, and we shall start by looking at ‘conformity’.

Allen (1965) defined conformity as the convergence of individuals’ thoughts, feelings or behaviour toward a social or group norm. There have been some seminal research studies carried out over the past 90 years, which have shown (and proven what we all see in everyday life) that persons (individuals) are influenced by and regularly adopt the opinion(s) of other persons in the group, typically as part of forming a consensus (see Asch (1951, 1955) and Sherif (1936)).

There is a fallibility in us when it comes to forming consensus as part of a group, and it is driven by the fact that we form a false expectation that others see the world in the same way we do. This overestimated belief also reacts to the importance of the connection to the group, by increasing in line with ever greater import.

Remember that this (conformity through consensus) is a sub-element of belonging, and we know that persons (individuals) strive to relate and belong to a group, and we all, at some level, make both conscious and unconscious shifts to align with a group’s consensus in order to ‘fit in’ with that group, so consensus is pivotal in this.

It is easy to see, especially in this day and age of global media and the almost limitless amounts of ‘opinion’ blasted at us online, that where persons (individual) or persons (group) have disagreement or ‘dissensus’, uncertainty and discomfort follows, and persons (individual AND group) become more vulnerable to social influence. Just think about the high running emotions relating to topics such as climate change, racism, gender dysphoria, etc., and how ‘factions’ have emerged through the coalescing of individuals ‘choosing a side’, even though they may not have particularly strong convictions or knowledge of the topic, just in order to satisfy a need to belong. This is the same psychological approach used in all forms of extremism.

So, with consensus vital to group social cohesion and belonging, and conformity being a foundational pillar for consensus, it should be easy to see why clearly defined and communicated corporate visions and missions, a shared sense of urgency, or a core set of corporate values are instrumental in the development of group consensuses or agreements.

There is a caution here though, with the need to consider the difference between norms of critical thinking and consensus norms, as anything that impedes or prevents critical thinking, such as an over-conformity based on consensus norms, will negatively impact the quality of decisions and can lead to increases of ‘groupthink’ as well as undermine the likelihood of success of the change. In addition, intra-group peer pressure can erode productivity of those critical thinkers who have a strong need to belong or remain within the group, as they can become disillusioned and minimise effort in order to ‘not rock the boat’.

Having considered conformity, now let us look at 'social identity'.

Tajfel (1978) described social identity as “that part of an individual’s self-concept which derives from his knowledge of his membership in a social group (or groups) together with the value or emotional significance attached to that membership”. In plain English, this can be simplified as ‘the way we identify ourselves through our group membership.

The theory of social identity rose from trying to understand the psychological basis of inter-group discrimination, and looking for the minimal conditions under which a group’s members discriminate against another group and for their own, and it implies that classification of self and others is according to typical characteristics of members of that group, such as religion, gender, age or simply organisational membership. Such classification is also relational and comparative, so is only done in comparison to others, so young in relation to old, male in relation to female, in an organisation in relation to being not.

From an organisational perspective, a person’s (individual) identity is positively aligned with satisfaction in their role and their perception of the ‘correctness’ of behaviour expected of members of that organisation (citizenship behaviour). What is important to understand is that persons (individuals) go through a stage of ‘self and others’ categorisation in order to determine what they see as the environmental model. They then adopt the identity of the group they most closely align to, and then set about comparing themselves and their group against others and their groups. All this gives satisfies the psychological need to belong, with the associated sense of belonging to a defined part of the social world.

In 1992 Conner called out that a strong and shared social identity may be the heart of a strong organisational culture, and it follows that persons (individual) identify more strongly with organisations sharing their self-defined attributes, and will be far more supportive and engaged, but also follows that their concept of self can be confused when the underlying attributes change such as when a company re-brands, is assimilated or merges with another. In such conditions, highly identified group members have been found to emphasise the  process of change, more than the outcomes, which are emphasised by less identified group members, meaning that the former may even agree to significant change processes if they are viewed as being fairly managed (Drzensky & Van Dick, 2013, p279).

The research over the years has borne out that social identity has a positive effect on job performance, satisfaction, and the behaviour of the organisation’s citizens. This also indicates in the case of acquisitions and merging organisations that extra attention and focus needs to be placed on the ‘smaller’ organisations because of a higher susceptibility to the negative effects of a perceived threat to their identity in the face of larger established groups in the larger parties.

Off the back of such a long history of research, there are guidelines that help develop or improve social identity from an organisational context before, during and after change. These are numerous and complex, and covered in my formal coaching and education sessions, here in NCG:Corporate, should you be interested in learning more.

So, we have this time looked at ‘conformity’ and ‘social identity’ and its importance in change management. In the next part, we look a bit more at ‘self-categorisation’ and also at ‘pro social behaviour’, as other sub elements of ‘Belonging’.

As always, leave me comments, good bad or indifferent, by email or against the article (on the ‘blog’ page if you are listening to the podcast), and watch out for the next topic in a few weeks.

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