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Chapter 8 Organizational Identity and Diversity

Who Are “We”?

It’s a weeknight, you’ve worked late, and you don’t feel like making dinner when you get home. So you decide to grab a bite on the way. Having opted for fast food, you consider the choices. There’s the leading national burger chain; if you go there, then you know exactly what you’ll get no matter which location you visit. One rival burger chain, however, works hard at promoting a reputation for higher-quality meat, while another advertises higher-quality sandwiches. Then there are the alternatives to hamburgers: a national chain that proffers a home-style menu; another that promotes chicken as a kind of anti-burger; yet another that specializes in Mexican-themed foods. Among all these different chains, their corporate identities have been respectively conveyed through the symbols of a clown, a king, a redhead, a colonel, a cow, and a dog.

This scenario highlights some basic issues of organizational identity. Each of the organizations referenced above is trying to foster a unique identity in a world already saturated with competing messages. George Cheney and Lars Christensen likened this challenge to that of a shipwrecked castaway who, after putting a message in a bottle, goes to throw it in the ocean but “cannot see the water [because] it is covered with messages in bottles.”Cheney, G., & Christensen, L. T. (2001). Organizational identity: Linkages between internal and external communication. In F. M. Jablin & L. L. Putnam (Eds.), The nmew handbook of organizational communication (pp. 231–269). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage; pg. 240. To convey its identity to the world, however, the organization must first establish its own firm sense of who “we” are. And because “we” means everyone, then organizational identity is not just a corporate matter to be decided by management. To carry off its corporate image, individual organization members—from executives to employees—must buy into and identify with the organization.

Then, too, if organizational identity starts with members and is then projected to others, the traditional distinction between “external” and “internal” communication becomes blurred. Communication activities—including advertising, marketing, and public relations—that convey an organization’s identity to external audiences are, in fact, the flip side of internal communication activities by which members make sense of who “we” are. The concept of identity casts organizational communication as a dialectic: organization members negotiate who “we” are; that identity is negotiated with the organization’s environment; and then the organization adjusts its identity in response to how it is perceived. To return to our opening scenario, the external activities by which each fast food chain communicates its identity to consumers cannot be divorced from the internal communications by which that same identity is fostered among members of each organization. Thus, the basic issues of organizational identity can be expressed by a series of questions:

  • How do communications between members of an organization develop a sense of who “we” are?
  • As this sense is developed, how is organizational identity maintained and transmitted to new members?
  • How is this identity conveyed to persons who are, at least in a formal sense, outside the organization?

The first question is of greater interest to managers of new organizations, while the second and third are concerns for managers of established organizations. Indeed, organizational identification is a prime corporate objective as management strives to cultivate employees who feel strongly attached and loyal to the organization and its values. At the same time, leaders engage in impression management to engender positive feelings among the various publics—from customers, to shareholders, to the media—on whose goodwill the organization depends. Nevertheless, the managerial drive to maintain a stable corporate identity and foster strong organizational identification among employees has certain risks. Too much homogeneity can cause an organization to be set in its ways and respond too slowly to changes in the marketplace; for example, IBM ruled the computer world through the 1980s but its organizational identity as a maker of “business machines” may have caused it to miss the personal-computer revolution. Moreover, too much homogeneity in a workforce can lead to groupthink and deny organizations the diverse mix of employees and viewpoints that boosts creativity and leads to better decisions.

In this chapter, then, we have paired identity and diversity as two aspects of organizational life that exist in a tension which must be successfully balanced. This is true for leaders who must manage public impressions about the organization and, simultaneously, who must manage employees so that they identity sufficiently with the organization to support the desired corporate identity. But this need to manage the tension between identity and diversity is also true for individual organization members.

Since the Industrial Revolution and then with accelerating force in the twentieth century, organizations have become major sources of personal identity for many people. In traditional societies, the bonds of local community and local authority supplied stable roles for people. In modern societies, however, people derive a major part of their identities from the organizations with which they affiliate. Perhaps you know people who identify so completely with an organization that its values form their personal sense of moral duty. Perhaps you have experienced this feeling yourself about a sports team on which you played, a church or mosque to which you belong, a club that you joined, or even the college you now attend. For individuals, the tension between organizational identity and diversity is sometimes called the work-life conflict. At work you want to be a valued “team player” who helps to achieve organizational goals, and yet you also want to retain your own identity. First, you desire to give your employer the advantage of your own unique perspectives; second, you understand the personal need to “get a life.”

Then, too, the social contract between employers and employees has changed over the past two generations in response to globalization (see Chapter 6 "Organizational Communication Climate, Culture, and Globalization"). Until the 1970s people generally believed that employees who strongly and loyally identified with their organizations would be rewarded with job security and a reasonable expectation of a lifelong career. Today, employees realize they have no such guarantees and do not expect to spend their entire adult lives working for a single company. Under this new social contract you must balance the level of organizational identification needed to do your work effectively and gain satisfaction from your employment, with the knowledge that you must build a personal “brand” that is separate from your current organization. Why? Chances are that you will be working for another company someday.