Psychology of social identity & power in relation to employee protection
By Kieran Duignan, Director of The Positive Measures Partnership
Cold and stark
Leave these dreams
To glitter in the dark
Time moves on
Flicker and fade away
Afterlife, Marcus Reeves
While Business Psychologists are less often faced in their professional lives with considerations of afterlife than songwriter Marcus Reeves, they may find awareness of the non-negotiable boundaries of human existence stimulates productive attention to boundaries of work design and control which are negotiable.
Haslam, flag bearer for applications of Social Identity Theory (SIT) in organisations, locates Social Identity Theory on the map of paradigms of psychology as Figure 1. illustrates. Historical perspective is an attractive feature of his discussion of how areas of leadership, motivation, communication, power, decision-making, work performance and productivity and dispute and negotiation management are addressed within each paradigm. He leverages his arguments by drawing deftly on classical organisational research.
For example, he emphasises how the overall design of his approach to organisational behaviour is shaped by the Michigan open systems model (Katz and Kahn, 1966). He reports experiments conducted to test the hypothesis that social identity salience (the quality by which it stands out relative to its neighbours) may induce subjects to report, as sources of satisfaction, items that Herzberg (1968) classified as hygiene factors. Hygiene factors that associated simply with dissatisfaction, when associated solely with personal identity salience. Thus, shifting the contextual salience changed meanings of experiences from those accounted for by Herzberg.
Figure 1. Paradigms of social psychology in organisations (Haslam, 2004)
Where SIT opens new possibilities in operational as well as strategic management is in its emphasis on using language to raise the salience of social identity of individuals and groups. The proverbial rubber hits the road in relation to uses of power in diverse forms of operational and strategic communications about working safely. Figure 2. sketches the continuum of self-categorical communications between high-power and low-power parties taking part in designing and developing communications about the domain of working safely.
Figure 2. Power expressed in patterns of communication at work (Haslam, op.cit.)
In practice, applications of an abstract model of the kind sketched in Figure 2. range widely. On the one hand one may observe non-shared self-categorisation. This may be expressed through a mix of impersonal grandiose proclamations of values and literally physically impossible safety aspirations (e.g. eliminating all hazards) with haphazard attention to costs. On the other, one may observe shared categorisation. This may be in the form of rolling programmes assessing sources of hazards, with diverse methods for managing risks arising. This may be accompanied by benefit-cost analyses, structured joint consultation and safety savviness as a dimension of leadership assessment and development. Tyler (2003) indicates how procedural justice contributes to the identity of sustainable leadership. As a consequence, reparation of trust (Dirks and de Cremer, 2013) and priming managers towards awareness of their implicit theories about power (Coleman 2009) are areas of skill which, as business psychologists, we might usefully cultivate with clients, wherever an employer may lie on the continuum.
As an organisation matures in its valuation of people at all levels so as to actively safeguard them, work-related protection emerges as a robust domain. Here reconceptualisation of power, as an arena for recategorisation of self and of social identity, improves. Ultimately joined-up activities become elements of the protection-health-wellbeing continuum of support for individual engagement and organisational resilience.
While cumulative traumas from musculoskeletal injuries involve me in ergonomic work in factories, laboratories, warehouses, offices and surgeries, I am also asked at times to counsel employees in the event of posttraumatic stress or in the aftermath of a workplace or work-travel fatality. Some one-offs also surface such as being asked to exercise responsibility for safety during a town carnival and procession, assess foreseeable risks associated pedestrian access to a school, or in an out-patients’ consulting room where a hospital registrar was held at knifepoint for ninety minutes.
Feelings associated with liability for safety episodes can dislocate self-categorisations used by the managers and professionals along the continuum in Figure 2. while feelings of anger may do likewise with employees in acute pain. A non-trivial consideration for business psychologists conducting a safety intervention is that whatever they write about the design of a work situation may be used as a court document in a dispute about liability for injury. If they enter the role of expert witness, their self-construal has to be sufficiently disciplined to avoid abrogating in any way the self-categorisation of the court in determining liability.
Once I figured out how to tiptoe through legalese, I began to realise how much SIT can support judicious use of all available sources of evidence in assessments of dynamic risks and in designing options for practical solutions.
This enabled me to gradually apply SIT to formulate hypotheses about the style of ‘prototypicality’ (Haslam and others 2011) that leaders exercise, or fail to exercise, and to test them with circumspection.
- Coleman, P T. A tale of two theories. Implicit theories of power and power-sharing in organisations. In Tjosvold, D and Wisse, B. (eds.) Power and Interdependence in Organizations, Cambridge University Press 2009
- Dirks K T and De Cremer, D. The Repair of Trust: Insights from Organizational Behavior and Social Psychology. In D De Cremer, R van Dick and J K Murnighan, (eds.) Social Psychology in Organizations. Routledge 2013
- Haslam, S.A. Psychology in Organizations. A Social Identity Approach. Sage. 2nd edition 2004
- Haslam, S.A., Reicher, S.D. and Platow, M.J. The New Psychology of Leadership. Identity, Influence and Power. Psychology Press 2011
- Herzberg, F. Work and the Nature of Man. Staples Press 1968
- Katz, D. and Kahn, The Social Psychology of Organisations. John Wiley 1966.
- Tyler, T. Justice, Identity and Leadership. In D van Knippenberg and M A Hogg, (eds.) Leadership and Power. Identity Processes in Groups and Organizations. Sage 2003
About the Author
Kieran Duignan is a Principal and Founder member of the ABP, an Associate Fellow of the BPS, a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD and a Chartered Member of the IOSH.
He is qualified in psychology, safety engineering, ergonomics, economics, management consultancy, and career guidance and counselling.
Kieran is a Principal of The Positive Measures Partnership and can be contacted at email@example.com.