Diversity and inclusion still is a big challenge for the organisations and so is adaptability for the people from diverse backgrounds and identities. This article tries to investigate the various psychosocial elements which come into play when people from diverse backgrounds come together to work and how it affects them as they try to adapt and co-exist with the majority.
We humans have an inherent need to belong to a social group. A social group consists of two or more people who identity themselves based on some similarities and interact regularly within the group on basis of common expectations. Some groups we associate by choice like organisations, universities, political parties, and some we inherit based on similarities like race, gender, language, dialect, history, culture, and ethnicity. The sense of belonging to a group comes from having the attention, acceptance, and support from the members within the group.
According to Social identity theory, group memberships help people define who they are and determine how they relate to other people. E.g., Europeans, Asians, Democrats, Socialists etc However, to identify with a group we must fulfil a certain criterion which is socially constructed. Also, we form the ideas of similarity or difference with other people based on this criterion. According to John Searle in Philosophy of Society, we create, understand, and internalise the ideas of similarities and differences, as well as the status attached to these identities through language and our interactions with each other.
Social identity theory explains how individuals create and define their place in society by establishing and internalising social group categorises like gender, social class, culture, ideologies etc. These categories define us in terms of what we represent and how we want others to see us. Studies have shown that the mere act of categorizing individuals into groups even if this category doesn’t mean anything makes people think of themselves and others in terms of group membership. We compare ourselves with other groups and identify ourselves within the group. Identifying with a group we like, promotes our self-esteem and we feel good about ourselves comparing with the members of other groups.
According to social psychologists (Tajfel and his colleagues), people interpret their own position in different social contexts based on the groups they identify with. This interpretation affects their perception of others as well as affects their own behaviour. Our separation of groups and formation of a social identity leads to a preference of one group over another.
The Out-group homogeneity bias explains how people belonging to one group or in-group perceive that everyone belonging to another group or out-group are alike. We assume that all the members of the group other than ours think, behave, and act in the same way resulting in stereotyping and often we reject their way of doing things without any proper logic behind it. It is like the process of othering (not belonging) as we develop in-group favourable bias and develop an out-group negative bias based on perceived assumptions.
We create “us” and “others” all the time whether it is gender, country, religion, or a sports team supporter. Most social organisations or societies are composed of a majority group and some minority groups and within a group there are subgroups. For example, in an organisation if there are more white men in top leadership roles then women, coloured people, LGBT would be underrepresented. As people representing the majority are perceived to have more power and control over the norms of that social organisation, the real as well as perceived out-group bias creates problems for the minorities. Research has shown that we prefer in-group members and are more likely to withhold the resources or act against the needs of the outgroup.
Globalisation has exposed people in organisations to diverse cultures, values, beliefs, and perspectives. As cultural characteristics impact people’s behavioural and attitudinal preferences, various socio-psychological processes come into play when people from diverse backgrounds come together to work. Out-group bias and othering happens all the time in social organisations, although it is a real phenomenon, some of it is perceived as well as implied. People could be habitually operating within their cultural norms and belief system; however, their behaviour could be perceived as exclusive by people belonging to different cultural backgrounds. People representing minority groups could internalise this as feeling of otherness. Moreover, this negatively influences an individual’s thoughts, behaviour, and the choices they make. If being in-group promotes one’s self esteem, being seen as the other or out-group can be demotivating, limiting, and can cause lower self-confidence in individuals.
I work with the clients who are from diverse backgrounds, different gender identifications and are often underrepresented in their organisations or their teams. In my experience, their feeling of otherness comes from real, perceived, and implied experience of being seen as the other. This feeling of othering affects their ability to be authentic, their performance, causes loneliness, anxiety, resentment, and discomfort. It affects different people in different ways. Some make extra efforts to be like the majority to be accepted in-group, some limit their efforts and find psychological safety in-group, and some become very reactive and sensitive in their behaviour. All these behaviours affect their ability to be authentic, It also affects the choices they make when it comes to accepting responsibility, leadership positions, networking with colleagues. It affects a leader’s ability to lead as they are not comfortable being vulnerable and authentic.
Nobody escapes othering, we feel being othered and still we do it to others all the time. The out-group bias does put people in minority groups at a disadvantage and negatively impacts an individual’s behaviour, confidence, and authenticity. To escape this discomfort, we make choices that makes us feel psychologically safe which limits our capacity to excel. This feeling of otherness is mainly due to the years of experience of expressions that are systemically expressed and internalised on basis of group based identity. Yet some of the otherness is also perceived as well as implied.
The best way to mitigate the negative effects of othering is by becoming aware of the process, and the negative impact it has on us. The leaders need to establish systems and processes in their organisations which encourage a culture which is inclusive and open to diverse set of minds. For this it is very important for the leaders to develop a mindset which transcends the differences connecting us all as human beings.
Philosophy of Society- John Searle
Philosophy of Mind- John Searle
Inclusive leadership (Research & Practice)-Edited by Ferdman, Prime, and Riggio