Social Identity and Toxic Conformity: The Hidden Conflicts that Cause Diversity Initiatives to Fail

Social Identity and how it impacts us is a topic I will hit on from time to time as it is pretty much the biggest tool in the toolbox for bringing groups of people together for good or bad intent. Social Identity stems from the human need to belong to a group. This is not a bad thing; it is an evolved trait. Rewind to when what would eventually be modern humans left what would eventually be South Africa a million or so years ago. Back then, being in a tribe was needed for survival. It is rather hard to not become giant predator chow in a world of megafauna running solo. Therefore, working and living in groups was a matter of survival so developing a group identity to enable participation and corporation was an evolved trait. “What happened to Bob?” “He got tired of us and decided to go be on his own, we found a giant bird wearing his head as a hat a few hours later.”

Fun fact: “Homo sapiens sapiens” literally translates into “wise wise man” pretty much makes it obvious how we jinxed ourselves on that one. Humans are many things and wise probably does not even make the top ten.

We all ascribe to a social identity whether we realize it or not. Go to a house of faith? In a hobby group? I see you D&D players, you know who you are. Or are you in a profession that requires strong unit cohesion, or one that you are proud to work at? Do you ascribe to a political party? These are all examples of social identity. Think back to the high school days “shudder at the thought”, there were groups ascribed such as preps, jocks, goth, nerds, etc., etc., seriously, if it could be divided, back then, it was. Here is the thing, that has never really changed, for the most part, it is still present, often just more hidden. The problem comes from when it is weaponized. I am planning an entire article on this topic as it is the root cause behind many of the issues from class warfare to political conflicts and many other things we see in the United States and elsewhere in the world today later on, but, for now, we are going to focus on organizational and institution social identity.

When an organization has a strong organizational culture (that’s great right? Please tell me it is good and not bad). Members often identify as being part of that organization as they rightfully should. Think back to the early days of Google when Larry Page was in charge and its mission statement of “Don’t Be Evil” was adhered to (not going to talk about Google today, just waiting for their red lightsabers to come out). Also, think about SpaceX, most anything that Richard Branson puts his hands on, New Belgium Brewing, with few exceptions, most of the employees there proudly identify as being part of those organizations and rightly so. This is not a bad thing, but where diversity is concerned attention should be paid to avoid a dominant group identity.

In a more negative light, and what I have spoken on at great length in the past, is when social identity is used as a Band-Aid for weak leadership, fixing low morale, and so forth. The problem is, it can work too well, it is a powerful tool. Just ask folks such as Oliver Cromwell, Adolf Hitler (literally wrote a how-to), even Donald Trump (who pulled ideas straight from the how-to guide that Hitler wrote), in regards to how well it works, and with a little research, I promise this list could literally be a couple of pages long. There is a quote I have seen but cannot find the author to attribute it, and that is

“It is easier to stir 1,000 men with hate, than one man with reason.”

This Band-Aid has permeated the ranks of the fire service, law enforcement, and many emergency services in general. That is a strong statement and before the hate starts, I am retired from emergency services with significant interagency experience. That being said, I have seen the emergency services at all levels (local, state, and federal) and had a great concern when I saw the ascension of the “thin red line”, “thin blue line”, really any line is dangerous over time; as well as the concept of “sheepdogs” to protect the “sheep” non-emergency responders and non-military. Lines delineate, draw a difference, psychologically it has the same effect between one group and another.

For those out there who these terms are new, the “thin line flags” are the black and white U.S. flags with a colored line through the middle representing that service’s barrier between the common person and chaos/death. These were the flags and concepts commandeered by the extreme alt-right movement. As for the sheepdog, the sheepdog (military/emergency response) protects the sheep (everyone else) from the wolf (the bad guy), and how the sheep fear the sheepdog because the sheepdog looks like the wolf. This is used to justify the paramilitary appearance and often aggressive response, especially in the law enforcement communities.

A sample of the “line” mentality. The link to the site’s shop can be found here.
Original can be found here.
Original can be found here.

It is this transition from having a strong professional social identity that has become toxic conformity within the ranks. Using the concept of toxic conformity in a business sense, think of the likes of Wells Fargo, telecom monopolies, and pretty much anything with aggressive stances on sales and profit margins in general. Speaking of telecom monopolies, Ryan Reynolds just released this great commercial for Mint the other day and can be found here. Really worth a watch, it makes for a good laugh.

When not properly applied or applied with malicious intent, individuals ascribing to a strong social identity will see anyone outside of their group as having a lower standing than members inside the group. “The Blue Wall of Silence”, is an example of it operating at a more extreme level. I have been stonewalled by internal affairs with a complaint on a patrol officer abusing authority which led to a yelling match with the traffic Sergeant and that is with me also having authority but not local jurisdiction and knowing my way around bureaucratic firewalls. I digress, however, as that is a topic for another article where I will apply this concept to the deep and very hostile political divides in the United States.

What the previous examples are for, are not to bash the emergency services, I have already thrashed leadership during previous engagements, but to draw some current examples into how social identity can be a negative or positive outcome. Diversity initiatives often fail because of organizational identity. I argue that it has less to do about ethnicity, gender, or faith (although those can definitely be factors) and more about an individual coming in and being seen as an outgroup member. Think of the “new guy”, “pro-bee”, or “rookie” terms that get thrown around. Bringing in a diverse element typically means that the diverse individual either must assimilate to be part of the organizational group or be excluded. This is not a good or bad thing, this is deeply rooted in human nature and should be expected. With the effects of social identity understood and expected means it can be compensated for and mitigated.

Generally, if your organization has to have diversity training (mandated and regulated training notwithstanding), then arguably, leadership has already failed in this respect. The definition of the social group should be expanded if this is the case and that will take time as people have to become accustomed to having their concept of their in-group containing individuals from different ethnic, cultural, gender, nationality, etc. as part of the group using the organizational identity as the parent identity for operations within the organization. Because there is such a focus with most diversity training on these more core level delineations, the point is missed. The definition and concept of the organizational group should be expanded to include other individuals rather than the group must accept individuals who would normally be excluded but retaining the existing group concept. A great example of this is the “observer effect” described by astronauts. Upon seeing the whole of the Earth in person, an individual’s concept of the social group expands greatly because, for the first time, the entire planet is seen as a single group.

While it may sound like I am splitting hairs and how I describe diversity inclusion is a matter of semantics; it is not. At a conceptual level, it is quite different. Instead of “training” a closed group to accept a different individual (10 to 1 odds they truly won't), focus on expanding the group's concept of what the “group” is, and diversity will be far easier to introduce and maintain. Lastly, do not, I repeat do not fall into the trap of using social identity methods to build morale in an environment of poor leadership. While it may work for some time, it will eventually reach a point of systemic failure due to either siloing of information/resources or viewing everyone outside of the group as inferior compared to the in-group and allowing for the blame of internal problems to be assigned to out-groups instead of addressing the actual root causes. There are better ways with better long-term outcomes.

As always, thank you for your time and attention my friends.

Neal

Futurist and Standup Philosopher