Over recent years people have become increasingly interested in how psychology effects what people do in their everyday lives. Behavioural Economics, has helped governments and businesses to understand why people don’t behave in the way economists expect, popularised in xxx book Nudge. XXX’s book on persuasion made the psychological science behind social influence accessible and marketing has never been the same since. XXX brought us insights into how Mindfulness can help us to handle the stresses of modern life. The list goes on and is long. As the famous social psychologist Kurt Lewin said there is nothing as practical as a good theory and we would agree with that.

So let me introduce you to some psychological theory about how people behave in groups that is beginning to change our understanding of how teams and organisations work.

Without a theory to guide an approach all you are doing is responding to opinions and your own psychological biases. For instance one of the commonest biases is called the fundamental attribution error and it reveals that people systematically make the mistake of attributing good things that happen to them to something inside themselves, an inherent characteristic, whilst attributing bad things to luck

The social identity approach was developed by psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner in the early 70’s. It is now considered by most psychologist to be the main theory for understanding group behaviour.

When I categorise myself as belonging to a group, for instance, a sports team, a political party, or a work team, I internalise my understanding of the group and it becomes integrated into my sense of who I am – part of my identity, my social identity. This social identity has a powerful impact on how I think, feel and behave when my membership of the group is relevant. When I think of myself “as a group member” I begin to “think like a group member”. I change my behaviour to fit with my stereotyped view of what group members do; I emphasise our similarities and exaggerate the differences between us and other groups. Most importantly, identification creates an emotional tie between me and the group because it has become a part of who I am, such that when its status goes up, so does my own status and self-esteem – I feel good!

Hundreds of research studies have shown that if teams can harness a strong team identity, members will become happier, healthier, more collaborative and perform to their potential. Teams that have a strong identity are more agile and dynamic, see a reduction in turnover intentions and ultimately an increase in profitability. Research has found that a strong identity causes:



  • Stress[vi]
  • Cliques and in-fighting[vii]
  • Selfish behaviour[viii]
  • Turnover intentions[ix]
  • Sickness absence10


In short, identity is the beating heart of all great teams.

[i] Van Der Vegt, G. S., & Bunderson, J. S. (2005). Learning and performance in multidisciplinary teams: The importance of collective team identification. Academy of Management Journal, 48, 532–547.

[ii] Haslam, S. A., Jetten, J., Postmes, T., & Haslam, C. (2009). Social identity, health and wellbeing: an emerging agenda for applied psychology. Applied Psychology58, 1-23. doi:10.1111/j.1464-0597.2008.00379.x

[iii] Morgan, P. B., Fletcher, D., & Sarkar, M. (2013). Defining and characterizing team resilience in elite sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 14, 549–559. doi:10.1016/j.psychsport.2013.01.004

[iv] Hirst, G., Van Dick, R., & Van Knippenberg, D. (2009). A social identity perspective on leadership and employee creativity. Journal of Organizational Behavior30(7), 963-982.

[v] Haslam, S. A., van Knippenberg, D., Platow, M. J., & Ellemers, N. (2004). Social identity at work: Developing theory for organizational practice. Psychology Press.

[vi] Haslam, S. A., O’brien, A., Jetten, J., Vormedal, K., & Penna, S. (2005). Taking the strain: Social identity, social support, and the experience of stress. British Journal of Social Psychology44(3), 355-370.

[vii] Van Vugt, M., & Hart, C. M. (2004). Social identity as social glue: the origins of group loyalty. Journal of personality and social psychology86(4), 585.

[viii] Fowler, J. H., & Kam, C. D. (2007). Beyond the self: Social identity, altruism, and political participation. Journal of Politics69(3), 813-827.

[ix] Van Dick, R., Christ, O., Stellmacher, J., Wagner, U., Ahlswede, O., Grubba, C., … & Tissington, P. A. (2004). Should I stay or should I go? Explaining turnover intentions with organizational identification and job satisfaction. British Journal of Management15(4), 351-360.