How Great Leaders Leverage Identity

Updated: Jan 5



I work with leaders across the globe. I've coached countless numbers of them to leverage a technique that enables them to understand and explain behaviour that others just can't wrap their heads around.


Leaders I have worked with consistently provide me feedback that this technique has been one of the most useful contributions to their success in achieving desired outcomes and overcoming resistance to change.


In this post I am going to share that technique with you. It's pragmatic and immediately actionable. You'll be able to put it into practice as soon as you have completed reading it.


Leveraging it will make you a more effective leader. You will be able to see what others can't see and achieve results that evade most.


ROLE OF IDENTITY


An appreciation for the identities of individuals and groups is essential to effective leadership.


Why is identity relevant?


It's relevant because you are going to find yourself in situations where behaviour you are witnessing seems unexplainable. You are going to see people doing things that just makes no sense at all and ask yourself: "Why are they behaving this way?" It will puzzle you and, on the surface, seem to have no logic that accounts for it. You might even characterize it as crazy!


When faced with this situation many leaders respond with the best of intentions by introducing change that they believe will catalyze new behaviour that "makes sense" and will displace all the inexplicable and undesirable behaviour they see around them. Their hope is that with these new changes in place they will start to see behaviour that is in alignment with the outcomes they are trying to achieve.


That doesn't seem like such an unreasonable approach does it? So why does it fail so often?


Well, the problem is that this approach will rarely produce sustained results if individual and/or group identities have not been carefully understood and considered.


Why?

Individuals and groups will ALWAYS experience and evaluate change through the lens of their individual or group identity. If the change is perceived as a threat to that identity, then they are going to reject it!

Sometimes the rejection is active (you will detect it and struggle to overcome it) and sometimes it will be passive (you won't detect it and think everything is fine until you discover it much later).


It is paramount that to successfully understand, explain, and influence behaviour you must have a keen awareness of the identities at play.


So what do I mean by individual and group identity?


INDIVIDUAL IDENTITY


As I have already alluded to, there are two aspects to identity. Let's tackle the first one which is the psychological identity of individuals.


This aspect of identity can be understood through the question: "Who are you as an individual?"


As human beings we answer that question from both an internal and external perspective. It's how we perceive ourselves to be (internal) and how we project ourselves to others (external). Both components are instrumental in forming our self-image, self-esteem, and self-worth.


As leaders who want to understand and influence individuals, we must be attentive to

who people are. We need to look for clues and take the time to discover the identities of individuals.


It is much more informative to ask: "Who are you?" instead of "Why are you

behaving this way?" The answer to the latter is to be found in the former, but many people fail to ever realize that.


So how do I know who you are?


People project their identities to us in a number of ways that we need to be on the lookout for:

  • How they introduce themselves

  • Business Cards

  • Social Media Profiles

  • Attire

  • Job Titles

  • Badges

  • Certifications

  • Credentials

  • etc....

Sound's easy right? Well, not so quick.


People often have a private hidden identity that is much more difficult to detect but is usually much more relevant to a more nuanced and accurate assessment of who they really are!


Example:


Public Identity: I'm the Head of Product Management. I manage projects and project managers. I do my best to make sure projects are delivered on-time, within budget, with the utmost quality, and to the delight of our customers. I am PMP certified and it's important to me that I uphold this standard and that it reflects in the work that I do.





Private (hidden) Identity: I'm the Queen of Fire-fighting. When there is an emergency (and we have lots of them around here) I am the one to put out the fire. If heroics are required to get this project across the line, then please give me the ball. You know you can count on me to do whatever it takes, and I want to be the first one you call and trust to deal with urgent matters.



I have to say, this particular example is quite common. Perhaps you can relate? You can see from this brief example that there can be some significant contrast between a public and private identity. As leaders it's important to recognize that often times both exist, both are valid, and understanding both are critical.


Once you have attuned yourself to an individual's identity you need to use it as a filter in your efforts to understand, explain, and influence their behaviour.


Having done that, what was previously puzzling all of a sudden makes sense and

what was previously inexplicable now seems easily understood.


Equipped with an understanding of individual identity you can be more effective as a leader in achieving your desired outcomes and helping those that you lead achieve the things that are important to them. Most importantly you do this in a manner that is not an assault on someone's self-image, self-esteem, or self-worth.


GROUP IDENTITY


The second aspect of identity I would like to cover is that of sociological group identity. It turns out that groups also have an identity!


When considering the notion of identity, we can also ask the question: "What group(s) are you part of?"


Similar to individual identity, the groups that individuals belong to are foundational in how people value themselves and those around them. An understanding of group identity is another key in unlocking the mystery behind behaviour and what motivates people.


Human beings are social animals. We thrive in groups. In fact, it's critical to our survival. There are an endless number of groups that people belong to: sports teams, professional organizations, political parties, corporate organizations, charities, and so on.


We use groups as a mode of comparison against other people. It defines who we are and who we are not. If I am liberal, I am not a conservative. If I am a Manchester United F.C. supporter, I am not a Liverpool F.C. supporter! You get the point.


As a leader you are probably responsible for leading groups. Those groups have an identity. In addition, the people within those groups belong to other groups that also each have their own identity. It's groups and identities all the way down! There is no getting away from it.


Like individuals, you are going to encounter groups that have characteristics and behaviours that are a reflection of the identity of those groups. If you want to accurately understand, explain, and successfully influence groups, you need to attend to the group identity.


Detecting what groups people belong to is usually pretty straightforward (and similar to detecting individual identity) so I don't want to say much about that.


What I would like to focus on here are three components of group identity that are essential for effective leadership, introducing change, and dealing with resistance.


1 - What is it that lies at the core of your group that makes it who it is?


Groups will have a core to their identity. It will be this core that is the driving force behind the behaviour that you see. A failure to understand this core will result in a failure to understand and affect the group behaviour.


It might seem obvious upon reading it, but I can't tell you how many times I have seen leaders attempt to implement changes that fly directly in the face of the core identity of a group.


You have no chance of being effective without an acute understanding of this motivating factor of groups.


Example: A large bank, conservative, hierarchical, and bureaucratic to its core, decides to spin-off some smaller organization - let's call it a digital lab/factory.


They setup shop in some trendy neighbourhood downtown, leather couches, open office space, fancy coffee machines, pool tables, and all the latest craft beers on-tap!


They are doing this in an effort to attract young talent that have tastes and expectations that are moving in this direction when looking for their next career move. They want flex hours, a fast-paced environment, quick decision making, and lots of autonomy.


Sure enough, that young talented crowd shows up. Mission accomplished right? Not really. It doesn't take long for the new hires to discover that in fact the way business is done around here is not hip at all. Despite all the frills and what is being projected, at its core this organization is large, slow-moving, very top-down, and requires sign-off to get anything done.


It doesn't matter how charismatic, brilliant, or powerful of a leader you are. If you don't carefully consider what lies at the heart of a group's identity you are going to struggle immensely.


Core identity will always win!


2 - What represents who you are as a group?


Groups will often have some sacred artifact that you had better not mess with. Change anything, but don't dare do anything that could threaten this cherished "thing"!


Now what might that "thing" be? It could be a technology, a physical office space, intellectual property, a name, a product, a mascot, a slogan, a certain individual, etc... All groups have them.


The point is that groups will often have such an artifact that represents who they are and something that they are willing to defend at all costs. If you are leader trying to introduce change or understand behaviour and you don't have an intimate understanding of what artifact(s) represents a group's identity - well let's just say you are in for a rough ride.


Find out what "thing(s)" a group is unwilling to lose and navigate your away around it.


3 - Groups may lose their identity.


There are occasions where the identity of a group can be lost. I've heard this referred to as a "zombie group". While in this state the group wonders around not too sure who they are. They are confused, disillusioned, and disoriented.


Surprisingly this can be difficult to detect if you are not on the lookout for it. However, using the suggestions you have read about so far in this post will go a long way to helping you discover if you have a zombie group on your hands.


Example: I am old enough to remember when Yahoo's group identity was that of a web-based portal used to organize and categorize content on the internet.


But then Google happened! A fit-for-purpose search engine that could find anything on the internet for you immediately with the input of a word or two.


This offering shattered the identity of Yahoo. They lost their group identity. Nobody needed portals anymore. They didn't know who they were anymore. Their core artifact that represented who they were was wiped out.


We now know that Yahoo responded by developing a new group identity - a media company.


When groups lose their identity, they lose their sense of who they are. If you are a leader and you find yourself in this situation you are going to begin the process of helping them develop a new one. Without a strong sense of who they are a group is going to be ineffective.


The groups won't always be as large as a company the size of Yahoo, it might just be a team that has lost their way and they are unsure what they represent. Your job is to detect this and help them begin the process of discovery and development of a new one.


KEY TAKEAWAY


Hopefully you now have an appreciation of why so many leaders struggle to understand, explain, and influence behaviour.


Despite their most sincere efforts, a failure to take individual and group identity into account, is often the overlooked component.


The technique and key takeaway for you as a leader when looking to explain and influence behaviour is as follows: Look for identity related explanations to behaviour you want to understand or change.

Let me know if this has helped at all. If it has, please consider sharing it so it can help someone else.


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