Social Identity Theory and Leader Emergence

In the time that I’ve had to reflect since writing my longer post about social identity theory and its role at my organization, I’ve had time to observe the role that social identity theory has played in leader emergence at every level of the Alliance for Justice (AFJ). This post will highlight two of social identity theory’s most basic characteristics and explain how I have seen them play out in the workplace, as well as what they’ve meant for me.

The first of these characteristics is that social identity theory (SIT) is strongest when there are alternate identities that oppose your views. This fact makes American politics, which is dominated by a hyper-partisan two party system, the perfect laboratory for observing SIT, if not for fostering democracy. Because AFJ’s judicial advocacy arm exists in contrast to the current administration, there is a constant contrast between the Senate Judiciary Committee’s actions and the values held by my organization. This contrast then exacerbates a degree of group identity that has already been established by design, and it affects our perceptions of the people we identify as the “bad guys.” My colleagues have said that they would never be friends with, much less date, someone who didn’t share their views, and while I was initially alarmed by these comments, I have taken some time to further reflect on them. I’m proud to say that my office is extremely LBTQI friendly, and many of my coworkers are a part of that community. In the context of the Trump presidency, some of them feel directly threatened by the administration in a way that I don’t have to, and this influences the strength of our respective convictions, even if the beliefs we hold look the same on paper. I think this is important to consider, especially as far as SIT is concerned, because the in-group that I am a part of at work feels threatened in a very hurtful and significant way. What this means in practice is that my office is perfectly positioned to exhibit the second SIT trait that I have observed.

Social identity theory states that leader emergence and perceptions of leader effectiveness depend on how strongly group members identify with their group, and that very strong group identities are likely to produce prototypical group leaders. I have seen this with our president and CEO, Nan Aron, who founded AFJ in 1979 after establishing a pay equity scale at the ACLU, as well as with two of my fellow interns. Nan is loved by virtually everybody in the office, and is especially admired by the younger, more heavily left-leaning staff. She is uncompromisingly idealistic, and I count myself among those who look up to her and the work she has done. She is in many ways the physical embodiment of the organization, which is almost entirely female, so it is a small wonder that people see her as the right person to lead. At the intern level, I am the only man out of ten interns, most of whom are ideologically a bit further left than I am. Similarly, the two interns who have emerged as ideological leaders of our cohort advocate for abolishing the wage system, most of the Department of Homeland Security, and most of our police force. I readily admit that these systems and institutions are deeply flawed and in need of reform, but it’s hard for me to see the value in abrupt dissolution. 

The flip side of the emergent leader piece of SIT is that people who are not sufficiently prototypical are seen as ineffective. From what I have seen this has been true inside and outside the office. When Amy McGrath, who is running to unseat Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, slipped up and said she would have voted for Kavanaugh (she retracted the statement on the same day), most of my office condemned her outright and suggested she should be primaried, despite already having raised millions of dollars and enjoying more name recognition than any other KY democrat. While the slip up was significant, and I was also very disappointed that it happened, it didn’t feel to me like the death sentence some of the people around me identified it as. Within the office, one of the department leaders is a straight white man, and he is often criticized by younger staff for being problematically moderate. I think that some of these criticisms are probably warranted, and there seems to be a degree of preexisting baggage that I am not familiar with and don’t want to ask about, but I can’t help noticing a pattern here. Just the other day I was at a Democracy Initiative training for interns, and the person leading the training told us that we were “now going to talk about power: who has it, who doesn’t, and how we’re going to take it from those who do,” punctuated by a long look at me. I happened to me one of two white guys in a room of almost 40 people, so I couldn’t help but squirm a little. I had no intention of trying to emerge as an outspoken leader in the room, and it was clear to me that as someone who did not fit the mold of what we were looking for, it would not have been my place to do so. Here again I noticed the importance of prototypicality, and was acutely aware of the extent to which I did not match that description, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One thing I have found value in this summer has been gaining an inkling of understanding for what it must feel like, day to day, to be perceived as a conspicuous minority in class, at work, or on the metro. I think it’s a healthy thing to reckon with and try to understand, and I hope to continue to have the opportunity to do both of these things, because I have a lot of ground to cover. 

I ended my last post about social identity theory with a caveat/disclaimer about how I hoped the reflection was read, and in deference to the volatility of these issues I feel obligated to do so again here. Pieces of this post, taken out of context, might sound like pieces of a Ben Shapiro complaint about some idiocy like reverse racism. Reverse racism isn’t real, and in observing the dynamics of race, sexuality, and gender I do not in any way mean to give the impression that I feel unfairly treated. I have very much enjoyed the experiences and conversations I’ve discussed here and have considered them all to be good opportunities to broaden my perspective. Whether or not I completely agree with everything I hear at work or throughout the day, I agree with the vast majority of the objectives being discussed and the grievances being aired.

One thought on “Social Identity Theory and Leader Emergence

  • July 25, 2019 at 3:37 pm

    Thanks for the caveat/disclaimer, but please know – that is not how I interpreted your reflection. Really interesting insights and observations about in-groups/out-groups, prototypicality, and leader emergence. It sounds like being part of this organization this summer has provided you opportunities to be self-reflective as well as attuned to the dynamics of the organization, our nation’s politics and government, etc.

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