I found an interesting article in the Journal of Management called, Identification in Organizations: An Examination of Four Fundamental Questions by Blake Ashforth, Spencer Harrison, and Kevin Corley. The authors reviewed dozens of studies on the topic of organizational identification and brought the findings together to make several interesting points.
They distinguished identification and commitment in a way that I think is helpful. Identification occurs when we define oneself in terms of ______ the group/organization/sub-group - we become ONE with that which we identify. "I am a biker chick." Commitment results from having a positive attitude toward toward something but the individual remains separate. "I admire and believe in my company's mission." As you might imagine, there are different circumstances that might encourage commitment and identity, and this is important to think about depending upon what your goal is (both?). I have seen how we adopt practices that we think are going to build more identity than the action has the potential to affect (most top-down communication meetings, for example, might reinforce identity, but will fail to build it if it does not already exist).
The authors also highlighted that too much identification (overidentification) might not be a good thing and can lead to group think, a reluctance to raise objections, resistance to change, and a lack of creativity. The most vivid personal example I have occurred when I worked with a cruise line. They had seven small ships and each ship had a crew of 30-100 people. On a few occasions the overidentification within a ship's crew (lead by their captain and officers) became dysfunctional in terms of the corporate identity - one eroded the other. I also recall a post I did about a TV story highlighting the culture at Zappos where the interviewer seemed to allude to the potential downsides of overidentification (not being able to solve problems if everyone is so happy all the time), although she had no credible information that the issue was an issue at Zappos.
As managers and OD pros, we want to build better cultures and organizations, and here is a third interesting point from the article we should ponder: As individuals, we identify with many groups (indeed, have several identities) at once. Web 2.0 has increased the availability of virtual identifications, but we have always held simultaneous identifications. Within the workplace an individual might have unique connections and have different identities with their team, lunch group, project team, function, union, gender, age group, and others. This is not rocket science, I know, but how do our managerial practices deal with this dynamic and how ought they? Would your organization and work group benefit from several strong and productive identifications occurring at once? You bet, and retention and collaboration would be higher.
So what might all of this mean for managers and leaders? I think it is helpful for us to be cognizant of how identification develops and build practices that hone in on the sweet spot of identification while acknowledging the complex and chaotic nature of how we build identities - functional and dysfunctional - within and outside the organization. We want to encourage identification to a point and not cultivate a cronyism that could derail group and individual success and alienate one group from another.