The power of identity

The question of identity lies at the heart of recent political convulsions.  It is a critical and often misunderstood or neglected factor in the success and health of societies and organisations and it is vital that it is respected, nurtured and given appropriate expression.

The last few months has seen us all surprised (Shocked? Flabbergasted? Appalled?) by the results of the two big polls, on either side of the Atlantic. The British people voted for Brexit and the American people for Donald Trump.  In both cases the result defied most expectations and overturned conventional thinking – such as that which holds that there are some things a candidate cannot say or do and still be a credible challenger for public office.

I consider these to be deeply worrying events demonstrating neither sense nor reason.  But that is not what this blog is about. Here I want to talk about what I think is an important part of the picture and suggest some applications of what emerges for organisations.

The press and social media have been full of attempts to explain what has been going on in Britain and America and most have suggested common factors.  Many believe that both results have been created by a backlash from those who have been the losers from 20 years or more of neo-liberal economic orthodoxy and globalisation – in particular, poor, white, men.  The disadvantaged feel they have little to lose and are ready to choose the most anti-establishment option, however irrational the choice seems to others or however likely to damage the interests of the voters themselves.  I am attracted to this narrative as far as it goes but I think it misses something.  Plenty of people who are not poor, white or men voted for both Trump and Brexit.  Then I came across this remark in a Guardian piece by Owen Jones: “US political linguist George Lakoff said voters were motivated above all else by “moral identity and values”, even if that meant voting against economic self-interest”, and it rang true.

I take it to mean that people voted for the person or option that felt most in tune with who they understand themselves to be.  The two elections make it clear how many people see neither Hillary Clinton, nor the EU as representing them, but as alien to the people they believe themselves to be and to the communities they are part of.  In fact, Clinton and the EU represent the threat that many feel, the fear of being overwhelmed and pushed aside by other groups or identities.  This is what lies behind the cries to “take back control”, or “make the country great again”.  No doubt there are those who believe (and can explain how) leaving the EU is the right choice for good government and material prosperity (though they have been hard, if not impossible, to find, in my experience).  But for most the decision to vote to leave the EU or for Trump has little to do with political principle or calculations about self-interest and a lot to do with the desire to feel at home again in one’s own country.

Identity is a difficult concept to understand or describe. I take it to be an emergent set of beliefs and characteristics, based on the interaction of given factors, context, events and personal and group choices and expressed and nurtured through shared cultural activities.  It is found in both individuals and groups in complex inter-relationship.  It is a powerful driver, the great motivator – often greater than reward or sanction.  It is the key to group cohesion, to peaceable and purposeful co-existence.  But it can be dangerous and destructive as well.

Over time identity can become distorted. A group adopts habits of thought and practice that reflect and express identity.  After a while these customs become confused with the essential identity itself with the result that people hang on to ideas and practices however overtaken they become by changes in the world.  Thus, groups become stuck in the past and resistant to change, sometimes to the point that the essential commitments underlying any given identity become obscured by the accumulated habits. In the USA for example, I take the core identity to be America as a place of refuge and opportunity for the displaced, a place where anyone and everyone can work hard and prosper.  But custom and habit has placed white American culture at the centre of the American dream.  When that is threatened, core American ideals are ignored or even violated by those who can only think of having the world back the way they knew it. I suspect that attitudes to immigration, for example, reflect anxiety about identity as much or more than they do about attitudes to other ethnic groups per se.  This is why appeals to charity and decency, on their own, tend to be ineffective.

To avoid situations like this identity has to be positively valued and nurtured, rather than ignored or left to chance.  A country’s identity is rather too big a matter for most of us but many of us can influence organisations and other social groups where all the same principles apply.  In organisations, healthy and confident identity is essential to maintain cohesion, loyalty and positive motivation.  Most of the people who read this blog (thanks if you’ve got this far!) will be in leadership of one form or another.  What kind of leadership do you provide?  Issues of identity offer temptations to demagogues and the unscrupulous. Identity can be exploited.  Those who are feeling threatened can be manipulated by those who know which buttons to press and groups can be persuaded to make choices that are against their real interest.  But there are many warnings from history on this point.  Such situations rarely end well for those who exploit them and are rarely sustainable for very long. Or will you respect and nurture the identity of the group you lead for good, in a way that allows the best of what is shared to be expressed and flourish?

Identity has to be guarded, even at short term financial cost.  And if you want to respond appropriately to change in the world it is far better and much easier to do it on the basis of a clear (and authentic) demonstration of how changing to meet new conditions can be done whilst retaining the essential identity – better that is, than to drag people somewhere, kicking and screaming because of what they believe they have lost.  Those who believe that their identity is threatened mount resistance campaigns which may persist however irrational and damaging to the interests of the campaigners they may be. This means having clarity about what the organisation stands for and putting that at the centre of decision-making. It’s tough, of course, not always appreciated, but it bears rather better fruit and makes long term shared success a real possibility.  There is not nearly enough of it about.

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2 thoughts on “The power of identity

  1. There’s a few conflicting comments in here. The EU has been in place since 1973. So we can’t talk about being resistant to change when it’s been there 40 odd years. Anyway something not touched on is the endless pursuit for ‘growth” … growth that can’t be and isn’t equal across the ‘community’ . Drawing young adults out of one corner to another corner of Europe isn’t healthy for the country that has been left; leaving a deeply devastated demographic of the country abandoned. I know many many people who prayed about the outcome of recent elections etc, and I trust all will be well and all manner of things will be well. (J of Norwich)

    • Thanks for your comment Rachel. You have evidently heard one or two better arguments for leaving the EU than I have! But the piece isn’t really about the intrinsic wisdom of either electing Trump or of choosing Brexit, but about the way identity decides the matter (perhaps) for many. It’s even more about the challenge to positively nurture identity to bring out the best in people. There may be some value there even if you want to take issue with my interpretation of the events which got me thinking about it.

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