To avoid stress and anxiety, people who have multiple social identities (e.g. lawyer, father, environmentalist, southerner, etc.) must manage conflicting behaviour, norms and values that arise from their disparate identities.
All of us belong to certain social groups in society. Our ‘social identities’ are based on these groups, which can involve gender, nationality, profession, heritage, political affiliation, hobby or family roles, to name a few. Thus, a person might identify herself as an Italian-American female lawyer, devoted wife and mother, committed Republican and runner.
There are certain behavioral norms and expected actions for each of our social identities. Lawyers are expected to act and interact in a certain way. Being a mother calls for different norms of behaviour.
Not every social identity carries the same weight or ‘salience.’ For some individuals, their roles as mothers or fathers are the most important facets of their life. For others, it might be their professions — being a policeman might be the dominant social identity for somebody.
Because people have a number of different social identities, they can find themselves in situations where the behavioural norms of one of their social identities conflict with the behavioural norms of another. One of the most well-known of these conflicting identities involve women executives, who face the pressure of what is sometimes perceived as the conflicting behavioural norms of women and of business executives.
The conflict between social identities has consequences. Research consistently shows how conflicting social identities lead to greater stress, poorer health, reduced emotional well-being and decreases in performance.
One team of researchers developed a mechanistic model that describes how social identity conflict leads to stress and anxiety.
This model shows that the conflict of social identities activates a brain network known as the Behavioural Inhibition System, or BIS. Activation of the BIS leads to stress, anxiety and inhibition or uncertainty
When the BIS is activated, the brain responds with three primary mechanisms aimed at reducing the BIS-generated stress and inhibition. The first mechanism is the famous Fight, Flight or Freeze response. The second mechanism is to direct attentional resources toward the situation. In other words, the individual becomes more highly aware of the situation. The third mechanism for responding to the activation of the BIS is the activation of the BAS, the Behavioural Approach System, which is a deliberate focus on positive goals.
These mechanisms point the way to different strategies for dealing with conflicting social identities. One strategy, built on Fight, Flight or Freeze, is to suppress the salience (importance) of one of the conflicting identities. A second strategy, based on the BAS, is to do the opposite: increase the salience of a social identity. These first two strategies may sound identical, but there is a significant difference. Strategy one reduces the value of an identity. Strategy two increases the value of an identity; no identities lose their value to the individual.
A third strategy is a segregation strategy. Social identities are rigorously kept completely separate. This strategy might work to some extent — separating one’s home identity from one’s work identity — but there are destined to be situations when social identities cannot be segregated.
The fourth strategy is the opposite of the third; instead of keeping the identities separate, there is a deliberate attempt to integrate the social identities. This is not easy, but the most effective of responses. The key is to modify or reinterpret the behavioural norms so that there is not a conflict. Bicultural individuals are often successful at integrating distinct social identities, taking the best from both cultures. Thus, to employ some stereotypical behaviour, a Franco-American might enjoy long mid-day meals while interacting more easily and openly with strangers.
The result of an integrative strategy is not the subordination of any single social identity, but rather the creation of a blended identity — as in the creation of a Franco-American identity that is neither exclusively French or American, to use the previous example.
Each of these four strategies can reduce some of the stress and inhibition that results from conflicting social identities. However, the fourth strategy seems to be the strategy that leads to the most positive and sustainable outcome.
One of a leader’s key skills is the ability to manage conflict. Traditionally, such conflict management is framed in terms of interpersonal conflict — conflict between two or more people. Social identity conflicts are intrapersonal — within the individual. Because intrapersonal conflict can also cause significant stress or anxiety, as well as undermining performance and attitudes, leaders must be as skilled in helping to resolve these intrapersonal conflicts as they are in resolving the more traditional interpersonal conflicts.
Leaders who have been able to integrate their own social identity conflicts will best be able to help others. In addition, the ability to integrate diverse social and cultural identities can be applied at the organizational level. Thus, leaders experienced in dealing with social identity conflicts can not only help with intrapersonal conflict, but interpersonal conflict as well — especially if those conflicts deal with diverse roles or cultural issues.
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