New Study Shows How Leaders Can Reduce Intergroup Conflict

Summary of:

Kershaw, C., Rast III, D., Hogg, M., and van Knippenberg, D. “Divided groups need leadership: A study of the effectiveness of collective identity, dual identity, and intergroup relational identity rhetoric” (2020). Journal of Applied Psychology, 1–10.

Background & Theory:

Leading groups with different social identities can be a challenge, especially when a clash in identities brings about intergroup conflict. In the workplace, leaders have the power to attach a social identity to different groups working together. Studies have argued that leaders use one of three different strategies for bringing groups together: promoting an intergroup relational identity, promoting a collective identity, and promoting a dual identity.

An intergroup relational identity focuses on promoting group identity differences as mutually beneficial and interdependent. Promoting a collective identity involves recategorizing all group members into a single larger group. A dual group identity consists of retaining individual group identities while imposing a common group everyone is a part of.

The current study focuses on the role of identity distinctiveness threat as a moderator between these group identity strategies and leader evaluation. Based on the idea that people are motivated to belong to different groups, identity distinctiveness threat is what people feel when their belonging to a certain group loses its distinctiveness.

Question(s):

Research was conducted by Christine Kershaw et al. to answer the following questions:

    1. With identity distinctiveness threat as the moderator, how does a leader’s promotion of a collective identity impact their evaluation?
    2. With identity distinctiveness threat as the moderator, how does a leader’s promotion of a dual identity impact their evaluation?
    3. With identity distinctiveness threat as the moderator, how does a leader’s promotion of an intergroup relational identity impact their evaluation?

Methods:

Data were collected from 184 undergraduate students at a Canadian university, who received partial course credit for participating. The study was presented as a leadership study and included two predictor variables and one dependent variable. The two predictor variables were identity distinctiveness threat and leader rhetoric. Leader rhetoric was manipulated to include three levels: promotion of intergroup relational identity, collective identity, or dual identity. Overall, leader evaluation was the main dependent variable, consisting of four sub-sections: leader evaluation, leader trust, leader support, and leader effectiveness.

In terms of procedure, participants filled out demographic information and responded to statements which measured how strongly they identified with the university psychology department. After this, researchers explained to the participants that they would partake in a personality test and would read about a new student leader. The personality test data were not retained as they were collected as part of this study’s cover story. The vignette about the new student leader was used to measure leader rhetoric, with participants receiving one of three vignettes focused on the promotion of intergroup relational identity, collective identity, or dual identity.

After having read the vignette, identity distinctiveness threat was measured via a 5-item survey, where participants rated statements on a scale of 1 to 9 based on their agreement with the statements. Participants then completed similar surveys measuring their evaluation of the leader from the vignette.

Results:

Past studies have indicated that leaders promoting an intergroup relational identity over a collective identity receive more favorable evaluations when identity distinctiveness threat is in play. This study replicated these results by finding that when identity distinctiveness threat was low, participants favored the promotion of a collective group identity over an intergroup relational identity. Promoting dual group identities was moderately supported, falling between the two. However, when identity distinctiveness threat was high, participants wanted leaders to utilize an intergroup relational identity. Collective identity messaging was the least preferred method with dual identity messaging falling in between the two yet again.

In other words, the greater the presence of identity distinctiveness threat, the greater the preference was for leaders to promote an intergroup relational identity. On the flip side, when there is low identity distinctiveness threat, a collective group identity is more preferred. In both of these circumstances, leader evaluation, effectiveness, and support were all rated favorably. However, no significant effects were found on leader trust.

What We Can Learn:

Looking over this research, we can take away the following key insight:

  • Under identity distinctiveness threat, people prefer leaders who promote an intergroup relational identity instead of a collective or dual identity. This suggests that groups may at times need to retain their own individual identities, finding strength in their differences when working together.

Final Takeaways

For Consultants: When groups with strong identities collaborate in the workplace, leaders should be cognizant of the role of identity in helping the groups work together. Catering to different group identities could be helpful in reducing intergroup conflict.

For Everyone: Bringing up a study like this to leadership may be helpful if you recognize a lot of intergroup conflict at work.