How an Employer-Employee Identity Discrepancy May be Exhausting Your People and Bleeding Your Profits

Key Points:

  1. Studies indicate that employees identify with organizations when there is an alignment in values, feelings of support, and they feel trust in the organization’s leaders to make the right decisions.
  2. The evidence suggests that organizational identification is malleable and can change with changes in the values of the organization or with changes in how the organization makes decisions and supports employees.
  3. While conceptually similar to organizational commitment, organizational identification is a separate construct with a robust volume of research supporting it.

In 2014, the tech start-up Airbnb faced a challenge. The company had grown rapidly since its founding in 2008, but it was struggling to maintain a strong sense of culture and identity as it expanded globally. To address this challenge, Airbnb’s leadership team decided to launch a company-wide initiative called “Belong Anywhere.”

The Belong Anywhere initiative was designed to promote a sense of community and belonging among Airbnb employees, hosts, and guests. It included a series of events, workshops, and training programs focused on building relationships, fostering empathy, and promoting cultural understanding.

The initiative had a tangible impact on Airbnb’s business outcomes. In 2015, the company’s revenue grew by 340%, and its valuation soared to $25 billion. This success was due in part to the strong sense of community and shared purpose that the Belong Anywhere initiative had created.

By building a culture of belonging and connection, Airbnb was able to inspire its employees, hosts, and guests to create value for the company and its stakeholders. The initiative also helped Airbnb to differentiate itself from its competitors by creating a unique and compelling brand identity that resonated with customers around the world. This example shows how building a sense of organizational identification can have a tangible impact on business outcomes. By fostering a culture of belonging and connection, organizations can inspire their employees, customers, and partners to create value and achieve great things together.

What does the Evidence Have to Tell Us About Organizational Identification?

Generally, it is assumed that employee engagement results in numerous positive outcomes for both and organization and the employees. Typically, employees who identify with their organization are assumed to be more engaged than employees who do not. Under this employee engagement lens then, it makes sense to believe employees who identify with their organization are more likely to be happier, healthier, and to perform better within the workplace than employees who do not identify with their organization. While these assumptions appear to be widely held, the question is whether they are they supported by scientific evidence. To investigate this question, Emilia Wietrak, Eric Barends, and Denise Rousseau conducted a rapid evidence assessment (REA) using 100 studies from several databases to identify what organizational identification is, how it can be measured, whether it is related to specific positive outcomes, and what factors contribute to it.

So, What is Organizational Identification, Specifically?

Organizational Identification dates back to the early 1900’s when Frederick Tayler identified a preferred scenario where workers identified with the values and goals of an organizations. Many researchers have contributed to the formalization of the construct, creating numerous definitions; however, commonality remains in the idea of there being alignment between an employee’s self-image and their perception of an organization. While similar to organizational commitment, organizational identification remains conceptually different as organizational identification is related to an employee’s perception of themselves in relation to the organization, whereas organizational commitment relates to the employee’s attitude towards the organization. More simply, organizational identification can be understood as an alignment of values between the employee and the organization that creates a sense of belonging.

How is Organizational Identification Accurately & Reliably Measured?

OI is primarily measured in science by two scales:

  • Mael and Tetrick’s 1992 Mael Scale (Organizational Identification Questionnaire – OIQ).
  • Van Dick et al.’s 2004 Organizational Identification Scale (OIS).

Ref: Wietrak, E., Barends, E., and Rousseau, D. (2021). Organisational identification: an evidence review. Scientific summary. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

How does organizational identification impact work-related outcomes?

Organizational identification influences various work-related outcomes:

• Performance: Studies show a positive link between organizational identification and performance, especially in roles with subjective performance assessments. Contextual performance, like teamwork and adaptability, has a stronger connection (r = 0.35 vs. r = 0.17). Organizational identification predicts better performance (p = 0.38).

• Turnover Intention: Organizational identification is negatively associated with employees’ intentions to leave (p = -0.48, r = -0.66). Those identifying with their organization are less likely to consider leaving.

• Job Satisfaction: Strong ties exist between organizational identification and job satisfaction (p = 0.54, r = 0.59). It’s unclear whether identification leads to satisfaction or vice versa due to shared influencing factors.

• Wellbeing: Organizational identification somewhat predicts employees’ physical and psychological wellbeing (r = 0.21), but excessive identification can increase workaholism (η² = 0.19).

• Attitudes: Several studies showed that organizational identification was a strong predictor of employee attitudes following a merger.

• Brand Congruent Behaviors: Identifying employees tend to act to support and strengthen their organization’s brand (β = 0.63).

• Change: Organizational identification leads to more positive attitudes towards organizational change (r = 0.20) and readiness for change (r = 0.49).

What You Can Do to Promote Organizational Identification With Your People?

• Build Prestige and a Positive Reputation: Employees identify more with prestigious organizations (r = 0.48). Positive perceptions of corporate social responsibility also matter (r = 0.34).

• Build Trust and Respect: Trust and respect for leaders fosters identification (β = 0.38).

• Try to Align for Stronger Person-Organization Fit: Alignment of personal values with the organization’s values influences identification (β = 0.42).

• Be a More Just Organization: Perceptions of fair, consistent, and unbiased decision-making processes (procedural justice) enhance identification (r = 0.33, r = 0.17, r = 0.21).

• Support Your Employees: Belief that the organization cares for employee wellbeing boosts identification (ρ = 0.41).

Takeaways for You and Your Practice?

Research indicates that organizational identification is related to several work-related outcomes; however, organizational identification can change, and may increase or decrease in relation to changes within an organization, either real or perceived. To build a greater sense of organizational identification among their people, organizations may take the follow steps:

  • Clearly outline and communicate the values of the organization to employees. While an alignment in values between an employee and the organization is based on the employee’s individual perceptions, employees who recognize their fit with the organization and its values are more likely to identify with the organization and engage in positive behaviours including improved performance and brand-congruent behaviours.
  • Create consistent processes and procedures and seek input on them from employees. Perceptions about fairness, consistency, accurateness, and unbiasedness when it comes to how decisions are made builds trust with employees.  Trust and support are regularly highlighted when employees communicate feelings of Organizational Identification and contribute to employees feeling part of a social group which cares for their wellbeing.
  • Mergers may be particularly difficult for employees with high levels of organizational identification. If the employees perceive that an upcoming merger will result in changes to the values of the organization, their organizational identification may be at risk of declining. Engaging with employees to identify how the important aspects of the organization can be maintained post-merger is of critical importance.  It may be a particularly good idea to actively work on building additional trust and providing additional support during challenging times like these.

Trustworthiness score:

We critically evaluated the trustworthiness of the rapid evidence assessment we used to inform this Evidence Summary. We found the result that organizational identification has a small to moderate effect on a range of work-related outcomes and the factors which lead to organizational identification be consistent across multiple meta-analyses and primary studies. Therefore, we can conclude the rapid evidence assessment of what is known in the scientific literature about organizational identification is highly trustworthy (>80%).

Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.

We aim to provide you only the best available scientific evidence to inform your decisions.

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Wietrak, E., Barends, E., and Rousseau, D. (2021). Organisational identification: an evidence review. Scientific summary. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

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