Identity Group Culture and Workplace Diversity


There are six levels of culture at play in any working environment – national/societal, identity group, organizational, functional, team, and individual. Many organizational leaders seeking to create synergies and increase collaboration among their employees and partners only focus on the national level. However, when it comes to creating a workplace culture in which employees feel valued, and in which diversity is celebrated and leveraged, organizational leaders must focus on the identity group level of culture.

In the context of the workplace, particularly with Diversity & Inclusion initiatives, leaders can use the concept of identity groups to illuminate employees’ different experiences and frames of reference. This helps drive the core D&I goals of understanding differences, improving inter- and intra-group relationships, and ensuring equal opportunities. The identity groups most taken into account in the workplace are gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, ability and generation. In many organizations, employees create formal or informal networks around these identity groups to voice and explore their collective experience.

However, identity groups often change – for example, a person could primarily view themselves as a young college graduate when they first start at a company, but a few years later, they would consider themselves an office veteran who is in a position to help guide and onboard new hires. In addition, some identity groups are assigned to us – with our without our permission. For instance, a person could be known around the office as “the southern lady” or “the IT guy” even though those are not necessarily the identity groups they themselves most relate to.

How can we encourage a meaningful exploration of our social identity that reconciles both aspects and enables a relevant understanding of our experience in interactions with others? TMC has found some interesting answers to this question in our work with many global organizations in pursuit of their D&I goals. We have learned that since each identity group exists within a specific social context, it is useful to deconstruct that context. For example, gender has specific expressions when it comes to different workplace behaviors. This leads to perceptions of, for instance, how assertive a person should be depending on their gender, according to perceived norms around when being assertive is appropriate, and when being assertive is viewed as being aggressive instead. Understanding social identity groups from a cultural perspective assists in this deconstruction. After all, expectations, assumptions, behaviors and practices are largely learned, while differences with a biological component, such as gender, are frequently mediated by culture.

Engaging in a sophisticated exploration of differences in the workplace requires the willingness to engage in nonjudgmental dialogue. Such dialogue needs to go well beyond validating the existence of claimed or ascribed social identity groups; it needs to further the mutual understanding of the different frames of reference and lead to the mutual adaptation of assumptions, behaviors and practices.

TMC’s Cultural Orientations Approach is configured to be an essential catalyst to apply these lessons in the diversifying workplaces of our globalized business world.