Motivating Individuals And Groups at Work Research Paper

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Classic theories of work motivation tend to focus on individual workers and on the way in which their needs, goals, and rewards affect work behavior. In contemporary work settings, however, more often than not, individuals have to work together with others in (virtual) teams and collaborative work groups. The contemporary world of work is as much (if not more) about “we” as it is about “I.” For this reason, management in the 21st century requires an understanding of the motivation and behavior of both individuals and groups at work.

This research-paper presents a theoretical framework that helps us understand how individual workers relate to each other and to the organizations they work in, and how this impacts their work motivation. Particular attention is paid to individual and group motivation in relation to leadership and group performance. How does leadership inspire us to do more than we otherwise might? And what leads individuals to exert themselves on behalf of a group rather than to loaf? As we will see, answers to these questions hinge on the processes whereby groups become part of our sense of self—our social identity—so that “doing it for self” becomes a question of “doing it for us.”

Theories of work motivation aim to understand (a) the conditions that encourage people to invest energy in their work (energize), (b) the activities that they focus their efforts on (direction), and (c) what makes them sustain these efforts over time (persistence). For instance, various models point to ways in which workers can be energized by appealing to particular needs that they are expected to have. Other models provide insight into the direction work-related efforts are likely to take by examining the particular behavioral choices that people make. Finally, theories derived from principles of psychological learning help us understand why certain behaviors are more likely to be sustained than others are.

Although the validity of these motivational processes and their relevance to work-related behavior has been demonstrated in a large body of empirical research, this work is typically used to understand processes underlying the behavior of individual workers as separate agents. As a result, 20th-century insights into work motivation tend to emphasize people’s individual needs, their own independent goals and expectations, and the personal outcomes they find rewarding. Yet at the same time, developments in the workplace have created a range of situations in which the function of individual needs, goals, expectations, or rewards is less clear. Not least, this is because individual workers have to function in concert and cannot always be seen as representing independent entities. As a result, workers are not necessarily driven by personal considerations alone. Instead, individual motivation is projected upon, informed by, and adapted to the needs, goals, expectations, or rewards of the team or organization in which people work.

In short, the world of work is not just a world of individuals; it is also a world of groups. Accordingly, we need to understand social, group-specific dynamics in order to understand people’s motivation within this world. We need to understand what drives “us,” not just what drives “me.”

Motivation In The 21st Century

Traditional theories of work motivation were developed at a time when workers were mostly concerned with the production of goods, often through physical labor. For example, they spoke to workers on factory production lines, where each individual had their own specified discrete task. In their overview of work motivation theory and research, Gary Latham and Craig Pinder (2005) concluded that there has been relatively little development in work motivation theory during the past decades. As a result, classic models based on individual needs, expectancies, and goals still dominate the literature on work motivation.

However, the working conditions of employees in the 21st century are generally quite different. An increasing proportion of workers are engaged in the exchange of (complex) knowledge or the provision of services, and work is organized in matrix structures, in which workers can fulfill different (and sometimes conflicting) roles. Successful collaboration among individual workers, joint responsibility for customers, and complex processes of communication and information exchange have all become crucial for modern organizations to function effectively. One important consequence of these developments is that it has become more difficult to define individual work performance or to assess individual productivity unambiguously. Where does the individual worker end and the work group begin?

Because this question is not always easy to answer (in functional terms, at least), it is not always clear how classic theories of work motivation—which focus on personal goal setting or individual rewards and reinforcement principles—might apply in these situations. In fact, nowadays, people are increasingly likely to work in (self-managed) teams, such as multidisciplinary project teams. This requires them to support each other in the process of realizing common goals instead of focusing only on the achievement of individual outcomes. At the same time, due to increased mobility and globalization, some of these teams are only virtual entities. That is, although people have to work together in a team or organization, they may do so from different locations around the world, sometimes without ever having met each other in person. As a result, individual reasons that people may have for collaborating in the achievement common goals, or for helping each other (e.g., because they personally like each other, or because others can monitor their efforts on behalf of the team) are not as relevant in contemporary work situations as they have been in the past. This, we suggest, is why additional theory is needed to understand the work motivation of individuals and groups in the 21st century. In a globalized world, we need a less individualized theory.

Of course, in principle, motivational processes might apply to the achievement of collective goals or outcomes in exactly the same way that they do to individual goals or outcomes. It is easy to see that this is the case when the achievement of individual goals (e.g., earning a sales bonus) is beneficial for the team or organization as a whole (e.g., increasing the sales volume). However, additional concerns come into play when personal goals or expectations (e.g., achieving individual performance targets) are incompatible with collective goals or expectations (e.g., helping new colleagues to “learn the ropes”). Furthermore, lifetime employment nowadays is exceptional and “flexible” working practices are very much in vogue. As a result, there is less reason for individual workers to invest in long-term organizational goals (e.g., working overtime to attract new business) as it is not obvious that they will still be part of the organization by the time these goals are achieved. Workers may therefore be particularly reluctant to exert themselves on behalf of the organization because it is unclear how such efforts might be of personal benefit to them.

The challenge for motivation theory in the 21st century, therefore, is to speak to these contemporary work situations by helping us understand (a) how people are energized to engage in behaviors that are significant primarily at a collective level, such as “service provision”; (b) how they direct their activities toward individual as well as collective goals, in particular, when these seem incompatible; and (c) how they sustain behavioral effort on behalf of the collective in the face of insecure job prospects.

Individuals And Groups At Work

There is consensus in the scientific literature that developments in motivation theory need to focus on its applicability to teams as well as to individuals. At the same time, relatively little is known about motivation in work groups. The traditional approach to this problem has been to focus on the interdependence between individual needs and collective outcomes. For example, managers are advised to create situations in which the achievement of individual goals (e.g., getting a pay raise) ultimately depends on the attainment of collective goals (e.g., increasing organizational profits). The assumption underlying this reasoning is that individual need fulfillment or goal achievement is the fundamental motivational building block. That is, researchers (and managers) assume that the only way to motivate workers to exert themselves on behalf of the collective is to make them see either (a) that they need other members of their team in order to achieve their personal goals, or (b) that the fulfillment of their personal needs depends on the success of the organization.

It is certainly true that the capacity of a work group or organization to provide rewards or other desired outcomes can constitute a powerful motivating force for individual workers. Material gain is often an attractive carrot. Nevertheless, a broader and richer understanding of the motivational processes that operate in work groups can be gained when we take account of the possibility that groups in and of themselves can represent internalized values and important concerns. After all, community responsibilities, a sense of belonging, and shared ideals are all acknowledged as powerful motivating factors in and of themselves.

In this respect, a core limitation of classic theories of work motivation that focus on the individual as the primary source of self-conception, is that all expectations, goals, and outcomes that relate to the work group or organization are considered to be extrinsic to the self. However, when we acknowledge that there are circumstances under which people come to adopt a primary definition of the self in collective terms, this opens up the possibility that group-based expectations, goals, or outcomes can also function as intrinsic sources of motivation. Here, self-conception in collective terms can (a) energize people to exert themselves on behalf of the group, (b) facilitate the direction of efforts toward collective (instead of individual) outcomes, and (c) help workers sustain their loyalty to the team or organization through times in which this is not individually rewarding.

What we start to see here, then, is that when the definition of self shifts from being personal (“I”) to collective (“we”) exactly the same motivational processes that apply to the individual self may come to apply to the collective self. Thus, whereas needs, goals, or expected outcomes are still likely to motivate the behavior of individual workers, when those workers conceive of themselves in collective terms, these are needs of the group, collective goals, and expected joint outcomes. For this reason, an analysis of the circumstances under which the self tends to be defined in collective rather than in individual terms is needed in order to predict in which situations the group serves as an intrinsic rather than an extrinsic source of motivation. When does “I” become “we,” so that your needs become ours?


In the 1970s and 1980s, Henri Tajfel and John Turner developed a theoretical perspective that has had an enormous impact on scientific thinking about group processes and intergroup relations: the social identity approach. This comprises two theories: social identity theory (SIT; the most cited source of which is by Tajfel & Turner [1979]) and self-categorization theory (SCT; described by Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, & Wetherell [1987]). Reprints of the original writings by Tajfel and Turner can be found in a re-cent volume (edited by Tom Postmes & Nyla Branscombe, in press) The point of departure for the social identity approach is an awareness that while, in some social situations, people think of themselves as independent individuals who interact with each other on the basis of personal characteristics or preferences (e.g., in friendship groups), there are many settings in which people primarily think of themselves and others in terms of particular group memberships (e.g., in terms of their professional roles). The implications of this for understanding the behavior of individuals in organizations were first addressed in 1989, in a widely cited Academy of Management Review article by Robert Ashforth and Fred Mael. Research inspired by Tajfel and Turner’s (1979) theoretical statements, and applications of this theoretical perspective to issues in work and organizational behavior, are also discussed in a number of recent books (see “References”). In this entry, we will focus on social identity and self-categorization processes that are most relevant to issues of group motivation.


In many situations, people organize social information by categorizing individuals into groups. This process of social categorization enables them to focus on collective dimensions of the situation at hand (e.g., managers’ interaction with staff) while neglecting the “noise” of other variations (e.g., individual differences in age). The inclination to think of people in terms of their category membership rather than as separate individuals is more pronounced when category memberships tend to remain constant over time, as is the case with gender groups, for example. When individuals can move easily from one group to another (e.g., in the case of work project teams), these categories tend to be less useful as an information organizing principle.

Likewise, when people are addressed and treated in terms of their individual features, they will tend to think of themselves as separate individuals and focus on their personal identities. For instance, if people operate within a career structure where they are only judged on the basis of individual merit, then this will encourage them to focus on defining who they are and what they want in terms of individualistic work motives (e.g., self-development, career progress). In contrast, if others consistently approach and deal with a person as a representative of a particular group, then this person is more likely to adopt a conception of self in group terms, focusing on his or her social identity. For instance, a work environment in which people are systematically excluded from certain rewards or opportunities on the basis of their category membership (e.g., age, gender, or ethnic background) induces them to think of themselves in terms of that categorization, and to focus on the characteristics, goals, and needs that are associated with that category membership. This process is referred to as self-categorization.

In this way, the nature of the categorization (permanent vs. temporary), the way the situation is defined (distinguishing between groups or individuals), and the way people are treated by others (as a separate individuals or as representatives of particular groups) together contribute to the cognitive accessibility of particular social categories. This, in turn, will affect the likelihood that a person primarily thinks of him- or herself as a group member rather than as a unique individual.

Social Comparison

Once people start to think about themselves and others as members of the same category, it becomes important to define the meaning of these categories. How people are categorized, and which properties are seen as descriptive of each category or group, is established in part through social comparison with other groups. Depending on which other groups are present in a particular context and how one’s own group compares to these other groups, different characteristics may come to be seen as relevant group traits. For instance, salespeople may tend to see themselves as knowledgeable about the technical details of the product they sell when they compare themselves to their customers, but this is less likely to be the case when they compare themselves to the designers and production workers who actually developed the product. Thus, in order to understand the meaning that a group has for its members, one cannot simply seek to identify its objective properties. Instead, it is important to assess which features or behavioral norms help define the group as distinct in comparison to specific other groups in a particular context.

In principle, each individual can be categorized in a number of ways at the same time. As an example, one might be able to categorize a particular work colleague as female, as a member of the sales force, as a temporary employee, as a Christian, or as someone who was trained in a particular way. Which of these different possible group memberships will become salient is also determined through social comparison, as it depends on how useful it is to distinguish people from each other in a particular situation (category “fit”). For instance, when trying to improve the logistics of a production process, differences between production workers and sales representatives are likely to be relevant, because the individuals belonging to these two groups tend to encounter systematically different logistical problems. However, when these same individuals are concerned with the development of an affirmative action program, a categorization in terms of ethnic or gender identity will probably provide better “fit” with the situation. This is because ethnic or gender categories here will constitute a more appropriate and useful guide for defining one’s own position in relation to others than distinctions based on professional roles. Social comparison is crucial because what defines members of the group may differ from one situation to the next, depending on the issue at hand, and the ways in which group members compare to others in that context.

Social Identification

A final issue to consider is the process by which information about social groups is related to the self. The extent to which people identify with a group indicates the extent to which that group contributes to their sense of “who they are,” so that they both perceive themselves to represent the group and the group to represent them. Strength of identification determines the degree to which individuals consider characteristic group features to be self-defining, and predicts the likelihood that they adopt distinctive group norms as guides for their own behavior. While most of us simultaneously belong to multiple different groups, the relative degree to which each of these different identities is seen as self-defining in a particular situation or at a given point in time will determine the extent to which they affect motivated behavior in that context. As a result, the same person may propose to keep longer work hours to be able to meet team goals when in a team strategy meeting, but argue against reliance on overtime work when negotiating with top management as a union representative.

In general, people prefer to identify with groups that might contribute to a positive sense of self. Thus, other things being equal, people tend to identify more with groups that have power, status, and success than they identify with those that do not. However, additional concerns may moderate or even override such identity preferences. For instance, people may seek to belong to the avant-garde, or they may develop countercultures to distinguish themselves from the masses, even though this is likely to earn them contempt or ridicule from those belonging to the mainstream. As a result of the search for distinctive group features, people generally tend to identify more strongly with minority than they do with majority groups. Furthermore, people prove willing to identify with groups that compare unfavorably to other groups (e.g., low-status groups) to the extent that they believe the group has the potential to improve its plight, or if they perceive their group’s disadvantage to be unjust.

As a result, it is not always easy to predict whether a particular group affiliation will actually be seen as a valued source of identity, or to anticipate which of different potential group norms will be adopted as a behavioral guideline. The process of social identification implies that formal membership in a group is not decisive in itself. Instead, people can refuse to define themselves in terms of a particular category, even if they clearly meet the criteria for inclusion, or alternatively see themselves as representatives of a group they do not even belong to. This is why we need to establish that people identify with a group, before we can expect them to act on behalf of it. This also helps us understand that the mere fact that individual workers can be seen as interdependent with the organization they work in is not sufficient for them to subjectively value this group membership or to adopt the organization’s goals as their own.

Identification in Organizations

The cognitive tool of social categorization and the evaluative implications of social comparison processes can both promote a person’s emotional involvement in a particular social group: their sense of social identification. In this way, the social identity approach specifies the conditions under which individuals are likely to think of themselves as group members, and to work toward group goals. Furthermore, it helps us understand why particular group memberships tend to become more powerful determinants of behavior than others do.

Some of the mechanisms specified by the social identity approach converge with classic theories of work motivation. For instance, the desire of people to identify with groups that offer access to status, power, or other desirable outcomes corresponds to individual instrumentality and interdependence principles that are traditionally used to explain the psychological connection between individuals and the teams or organizations in which they work. Importantly, however, insights of the social identity approach extend these traditional views by also informing us about the circumstances under which people tend to identify with collectives in the absence of interdependence or individual instrumentality considerations.

By way of illustration, the notion that people tend to focus on categories that furnish them with a distinct identity implies that people are less likely to identify as groups become larger and more inclusive. This is supported by the empirical observation that people tend to resist organizational changes (e.g., mergers, or moves toward privatization in the public sector) to the extent that these seem to undermine the distinctiveness of their professional identities. Indeed, it has been shown that acceptance of such change is enhanced when workers can in some way maintain their distinct identity within the new structure.

Additionally, the social identity approach not only focuses on features that define a particular group in the present, but also emphasizes the importance of future prospects for improvement. So even if a team or organization is unsuccessful at present, people’s identification can still be maintained through a conviction that its outcomes or achievements might improve. Thus, current (lack of) success of the team or organization is not the sole determinant of people’s willingness to identify with it. In addition, the perceived stability and legitimacy of current outcomes determines the perceived value of the group, and hence, the degree of group identification.

Identification And Work Motivation

Now that some of the basic psychological mechanisms that characterize the social identity approach have been introduced, the remainder of this research-paper will examine how these theoretical insights can contribute to the understanding of work motivation. Here, specific attention is given to issues of work commitment, leadership, and group performance in order to illustrate the way in which social identity and self-categorization processes relate to the motivation of individuals and groups at work.


The literature on organizational behavior has recognized organizational commitment as an important construct in work motivation, arguing that feelings of commitment can motivate individual workers to behave in accordance with organizational goals. Accordingly, a large body of research (summarized in a meta-analysis carried out by Meyer, Stanley, Herscovitch, & Topolnytsky, 2002) has established that high levels of commitment are associated with low levels of individual “withdrawal” behavior, as is indicated by statistics on absenteeism, tardiness, and organizational turnover. Commitment also predicts a general willingness to engage in discretionary work-related effort such as helping one’s colleagues at work, or “going the extra mile” (otherwise referred to as “organizational citizenship behavior”).

In the literature on organizational commitment, a distinction is made between commitment based on perceived interdependence between the individual and the organization—”continuance commitment”—and a form of commitment that refers to the affective ties between the individual and the organization: “affective commitment.” These different forms of commitment, together with their antecedents and consequences, are discussed at length by Nathalie Allen and John Meyer (1997) in their book Commitment in the Workplace. Research in this tradition consistently shows that individuals’ affective involvement with the group emerges as the strongest predictor of their group-oriented efforts. These efforts are displayed, among other things, in attendance, performance, and organizational citizenship behavior. Perceived interdependence (continuance commitment) may effectively tie individuals to the organization, so that those who feel they have much to lose by leaving the organization are less likely to do so. However, this interdependence-based form of commitment fails to induce optimal work behavior.

Work on organizational commitment thus converges with research carried out within the social identity tradition in so far as both establish the limited value of individually instrumental considerations (reflecting perceived interdependence between individual outcomes and collective outcomes) as a way of inducing group-focused efforts. Both perspectives indicate that it is the affective sense of emotional involvement of the self with the group (referred to either as “group identification” or “affective commitment”) that motivates individuals to direct their efforts toward group goals.

Yet while this consistency is encouraging, it also raises the question of how these two theoretical perspectives and research traditions relate to each other. For this reason, it is important to consider whether thinking about organizational commitment as a form of social identification adds any value to our understanding of work commitment. A first reason why we contend that it does is that this conceptualization helps us understand the conditions that foster a concern with collective, rather than individual, conceptions of self. Indeed, the social identity perspective deepens our understanding of the psychological processes that either elevate or depress feelings of commitment, and helps predict which of various possible sources of collective self-definition will have primacy in any given situation.

In this regard, previous research into organizational commitment has indicated that a sense of involvement can be derived from different organizational constituencies (e.g., customers, top management) and can have multiple foci (e.g., one’s work team, one’s profession, one’s department). But when will one focus of commitment be more relevant than another? And what are likely to be the motivational consequences of commitment? The social identity approach provides a basis for answering such questions, as it posits that people are likely to consider themselves and others in terms of group memberships that help them distinguish in meaningful ways between social stimuli (i.e., people and things associated with them) that are salient in the situation at hand. For instance, in work situations that involve interactions with representatives of other organizations or with external customers, employees should be more inclined to perceive their own organization as a single entity, as this representation provides the most fitting perceptual and behavioral guide in relation to the task at hand. However, when these same individuals interact with coworkers within the organization (e.g., in a strategy meeting), a conception of the self and others as organizational members is less informative, as this is the identity they all share. Here, then, employees are more likely to focus on a categorization that distinguishes between different coworkers—so that, for example, their work team or department becomes the relevant focus of self-definition and commitment.

Being able to understand and anticipate such shifts in people’s use of social categories in turn provides a basis for predicting the behavioral consequences of resulting feelings of commitment. This is not trivial because it is not always clear how different foci of commitment relate to each other, nor is it self-evident that the goals of each organizational constituency reflect a common or converging purpose. In principle, commitment to the organization or to the work team should motivate people to pursue collective goals instead of focusing on their individual outcomes. However, it is important to note that team goals are not necessarily aligned with broader organizational goals. For instance, it has been established that when workers primarily identify as team members, they are less likely to share information with other work teams, even though the exchange of this information would contribute to the success of the organization as a whole.

In this way, the application of a social identity approach enables us to consider identification as a dynamic outcome of situational features, rather than as a property that emerges consistently in particular individuals or cultures (e.g., those that are collectivist rather than individualist). On one hand, this implies that the tendency to identify with a collective should be seen not as a generic inclination but as a group-specific one. This means that where people can be seen as belonging to multiple groups, in any one situation they will tend to define themselves in terms of particular categories (e.g., their work team) rather than others (e.g., the organization as a whole). On the other hand, it means that when focusing on a particular group, an individual’s willingness or reluctance to identify with that group should not be regarded as a stable predisposition but as context dependent. So while a female doctor may try to avoid being seen as a member of her gender group when at work, in the community where she lives, she may be perfectly happy to act as a representative of women in a discussion of recreational facilities.

Thus, the added value of the social identity approach is that it helps us understand issues of collective motivation in complex situations where multiple (and possibly conflicting) group memberships operate simultaneously. It does this by providing conceptual tools that specify the psychological processes that operate in such situations and delineating the factors that determine the relative salience of one identity over other alternative identities in any given situation. Such an analysis in terms of social identities has provided important new insights, for example, in the study of organizational mergers. This research has revealed that retaining some of the original structures or characteristics of the constituent organizations can help employees transfer their sense of common identity to the merged organization. This is the case because employees’ sense of commitment to the newly merged organization depends on their identification with the premerger organization as well as their ability to recognize that premerger organization in the new one. Similar conclusions emerge from studies of organizational acquisitions and restructures. In all such re-search, a central theme is that the patterning of (changing) social identifications proves to be the key underpinning to people’s (changing) motivational orientation. Only where there is identification there is effort.


In 2007, American Psychologist devoted a special issue to the topic of leadership because of a conviction that international political developments, as well as the successes and failures of public and private organizations, depend on the quality of the leadership that guides them. At the same

time, there is general consensus that in recent years, psychological research and theory has made limited progress in helping us understand what makes for good leadership, and it is argued that new developments in psychological theories on leadership should benefit from a focus on the perspective of followers. Thus, the relationship between leaders, followers, and the common goals they want to achieve is seen as central to understanding what makes for good leadership. Importantly, a group-based approach to motivation of the form provided by the social identity perspective helps us to understand the dynamic interplay between these elements, and thereby to clarify some key features of the leadership process.

Traditionally, approaches to leadership focus on the individual character of the leader. Whether someone is likely to emerge as a leader, or is effective as a leader, is seen to result from their specific behavioral styles or talents (“charisma”), or attributed to the special interpersonal relationships they develop with their followers (“leader member exchange” [LMX]). Taking a rather different position on these issues, advocates of the social identity perspective define effective leadership as the ability of a leader to be seen to embody a social identity that he or she shares with followers, and hence, to exert influence over those followers in a way that allows them to contribute to the achievement of collective goals.

Here, the operation of self-categorization and social identity processes suggests that the acceptance of any leader depends on situational features, as these determine the likelihood that followers either focus on the identity they share with the leader, or consider ways in which the leader is distinct from them. This approach helps understand who is most likely to be accepted as a motivating force by others, and under which conditions they will be most successful in motivating their followers. The central argument here is that it is the potential of leaders or managers to create, sustain, and communicate a sense of shared identity that determines the success of their attempts to energize, direct, and sustain particular work-related behaviors in their followers.

For a range of practical reasons, leaders cannot always behave in ways that are individually rewarding for their followers, not least because their role requires that they supervise and, on occasion, criticize and correct the work carried out by those for whom they are responsible. However, when these leaders are viewed as sharing a common identity with their followers (i.e., as in-group members), this has a range of positive perceptual and behavioral consequences. Here, negative leadership behaviors tend to be “explained away” as products of external pressures, and they are seen as less informative of the true nature and intentions of the leader than they are when the leader is perceived as having a different identity (i.e., is seen as an out-group member). As a result, research has established that leaders who are perceived as sharing a common identity with followers are more effective in motivating them to remain loyal and cooperative, even after displays of leadership behavior that challenges workers’ personal identities (say, in the way that criticism does). However, if leaders are seen as out-group members, similar leadership behavior tends to result in negative leader evaluations, loss of motivation, and lack of cooperative behavior.

These findings imply that the extent to which followers perceive their leaders as sharing (or not sharing) the same identity has important consequences for the motivating mechanisms that can be used effectively by the leader. More specifically, loyalty to an in-group leader emerges relatively unconditionally (in part as a product of identity-based trust), but motivation to cooperate with a leader who is seen to be an out-group member proves to be dependent on his or her capacity to provide rewards for the subordinate.

The social identity perspective can also help answer the question of whose guidelines are most likely to be accepted by others as a motivational force in cases of naturally emerging leadership. A crucial concern here is the extent to which a (prospective) leader is seen to represent the group’s distinct identity—that is, the extent to which the leader is perceived as embodying those traits, behaviors, or attitudes that are characteristic or prototypical for the group. Importantly, the social identity approach maintains that this prototypicality is context-dependent. This means that different properties may come to be seen as characteristic for the group depending both on the other groups present in the situation and on the ways in which the in-group is seen to be distinct from those particular out-groups.

The novel contribution of this way of thinking is that it enables us to predict how—in an intergroup context— people’s willingness to follow particular leaders rather than others depends on characteristics or features that help distinguish the in-group from other groups. Indeed, in some cases, it would be quite difficult, if not impossible, to understand the relevance of these characteristics for leadership acceptance on the basis of a more traditional individualistic analysis. Some examples help illustrate this reasoning. A program of research by Alex Haslam, John Turner, Michael Platow and their colleagues (which is reviewed in Haslam, Van Knippenberg, Platow, & Ellemers, 2003), demonstrated how the selection of a group leader depended on the perceived characteristics of those against which the group had to compete. When the rival group was thought to have a leader who excelled in terms of intelligence, the interesting consequence was that the majority of group members voted for an in-group leader who was unintelligent (but considerate). This was because, in this particular intergroup context, these were the characteristics that helped distinguish the in-group from the out-group in a meaningful way. In a similar vein, a leader who favored in-group members who opposed the out-group generally received more support and was better able to mobilize individual efforts than a leader who treated all in-group members equally (i.e., one who was more fair). Again, this is consistent with the notion that it is not the desirability of the leader’s behavior (intelligence or fairness), per se, that determines acceptance by his or her followers, but the extent to which the behavior of the leader helps followers appreciate the distinct meaning of their shared identity compared to other groups in that situation.

In sum, theory and research indicate that leaders are able to engender greater loyalty and cooperativeness to the extent that followers perceive them as in-group members, while a failure to establish a sense of shared social identity will mean that leadership effectiveness depends on the leader having the instrumental means to facilitate and reward the achievement of individual goals. For this reason, there is much to be gained by a leader who is able to create and marshal a sense of social identity that they share with their followers. Indeed, work by Steve Reicher and Nicholas Hopkins (2003) has shown that it is possible to conceptualize leaders as “entrepreneurs of identity” who engender followership by creating a shared sense of “us.” In this sense, then, “charisma” or “transformational leadership” is perhaps best seen as the ability or talent to instill such an experience of common identity among one’s followers, rather than as a specific personality profile that leaders may or may not have.

History and politics provide many examples of this process in action. One way in which this is often achieved is by drawing attention to—and encouraging conflict with—a “common enemy” (e.g., a competing organization). Where this strategy is successful, the sense of shared identity it creates proves capable of motivating workers to make personal sacrifices (e.g., working overtime, accepting lower raises) that benefit the organization as a whole, turning otherwise reluctant conscripts into willing soldiers. However, when these same organizational members are induced (e.g., by reward structures) to categorize themselves and others at a different level of inclusiveness (e.g., as members of competing work teams), similar attempts to induce organizational citizenship behavior may be much less effective (or even counterproductive), as people here are more likely to turn to the leader who embodies team goals that are not necessarily compatible with those of the broader organization.

In a similar vein, anything that sets the leader apart from the group can serve to lower a sense of common identity and hence undermine leadership effectiveness. This has some less-than-obvious consequences that are hard to explain on the basis of traditional models of leadership effectiveness. For instance, pointing out that a leader possesses exceptional skills may seem beneficial, as it might help legitimize his or her position. However, the downside of such a focus on distinctive individual qualities is that it may also set the leader apart from the rest of the group. Accordingly, experimental research has demonstrated that, in certain circumstances, a leader who was randomly selected from the group was more successful in motivating group members to work together on a joint task than a leader who stood out from the group in terms of his or her individual competence.

A similar mechanism can come into play when reward structures clearly differentiate between leaders and team members. In organizations, it is common practice for leaders to receive greater rewards, as they are expected to have greater responsibilities, meet stricter standards, or work harder than their subordinates work. However, when such differences in rewards become too large, or when an appeal to workers to curb their requests for salary raises occurs at the same time that management receives huge bonuses, the adverse consequence may be that it undermines any sense that leaders and followers share a common identity. This possibility was confirmed in research indicating that while a differentiated reward structure served to motivate leaders, group members working under such a regime actually reported less enthusiasm and displayed less effort on a collective task than they did under conditions where leaders and followers received equal rewards. The key role of identification in leadership effectiveness is also supported by recent research showing that when followers can identify with the leader, the followers show cooperative behavior even when they have a poor interpersonal relationship with that leader. Additionally, identification with the leader has been shown to compensate for motivation losses arising from suboptimal job design or previous group failure.

In summary, the application of insights from the social identity approach to the emergence and effectiveness of leaders indicates that the secret of successful leadership lies in the capacity of the leader to induce followers to perceive him or her as the embodiment of a positive social identity that they have in common, and that distinguishes them from others. Metaphorically speaking, successful leaders are those who create a sense that they and their followers are “in the same boat.” To the extent that they make this boat (appear) superior to others, not only are those who are in it more likely to row hard and in concert, they are also much more likely to show the stomach for choppy water.

Group Performance

As we noted at the start of this research-paper, over the past decades, the proportion of people who work in groups or (self-managing) teams has steadily increased. The benefits of this relate to popular beliefs about the “synergy” that can emerge when working in groups, but also appear to be confirmed by scientific evidence gleaned from organizational settings. Among other things, this work suggests that work teams offer opportunities for job enrichment, give workers a sense of autonomy, decrease the workload of supervisors, and enhance performance on tasks that are too complicated for individuals alone. However, because teams are used for a wide variety of reasons and because they have to work in a wide range of contexts, it is difficult to draw general conclusions about the effects of teamwork. Thus, a pertinent question is whether we can predict the conditions under which teams are likely to perform successfully and understand why this is the case.

Indeed, alongside demonstrated advantages of teamwork, research also points to its potential drawbacks. In particular, the well-known phenomenon of “social loafing” means that people often expend less effort when they perform a task collectively than when working on the same task individually. This invites a rather negative view of teamwork, suggesting that people are generally less willing to exert themselves in group settings than when working alone. However, research has revealed that such motivation loss is less likely to occur in groups of close friends or teammates than it is in groups comprised of strangers or mere acquaintances, due to the higher levels of commitment that are observed in the friendship groups. This again suggests that social identification has an important role to play when explaining why the performance of the group can be either enhanced or impaired relative to the performance of its individual members. More specifically, it appears that when workers identify with a particular group, they are likely to be energized to act in the interests of that group (thereby working to achieve superior group performance) rather than purely in their personal interests (which might involve conserving energy or doing something more in line with their personal goals).

The role of identification in-group performance is all the more important in view of 21st-century work conditions. Work globalization and technological progress imply that the collaboration in work teams is often virtual, with team interactions mainly occurring via the exchange of written information through computer networks. According to traditional approaches to group performance, one would predict that this should result in a loss of commitment and suboptimal performance, due to the comparative anonymity of team members and the greater difficulty of developing interpersonal interactions or friendships under these circumstances. However, a social identity perspective is less pessimistic. This maintains that identification as a group member does not depend simply on the formation of interpersonal ties between group members, but will also be facilitated by situational factors that enhance the salience of the relevant social categorization. Indeed, consistent with this analysis, research has shown that in virtual teams, the fact that communication takes place via computer interactions discourages team members from attending to individual differences, and helps them focus on the group membership of the people they communicate with. Paradoxically, then (at least from the standpoint of traditional theorizing), anonymity and personal distance can enhance commitment rather than reduce it.

In this way, we can see that perceptions of a common identity and resulting feelings of identification with the work group constitute an important factor that motivates group members to work toward collective goals. However, whether the resulting behavior actually enhances or diminishes the group’s performance depends on the relevant comparative context and its implications for the group’s distinct identity. Thus, it is important to note that adopting behavioral norms that characterize the group as distinct from other groups will not necessarily result in greater group productivity. Indeed, systematic underperformance can eventuate if workers direct their behavior toward specific group norms that are perceived to be undesirable from a managerial point of view. A counterintuitive consequence of this process is that enhanced group identification can even increase the amount of effort directed at the achievement of individual goals when distinctive group norms prescribe individualistic behavior (e.g., as happens if an organization’s culture emphasizes individual competitiveness). Indeed, a review of recent research (Ellemers & Rink, 2005) shows that the emergence of collective identification only directs workers’ efforts toward the enhancement of their joint performance when this helps achieve or maintain a distinct collective identity.

When aiming to establish the circumstances under which group members will sustain their efforts on behalf of the group, it is also important to consider whether group members consider a change in their collective performance— that can imply either improvement or deterioration—to be a realistic prospect. In line with the social identity approach, research has shown that this depends on how the current performance of the group compares to that of other groups. Knowledge that the group consistently outperforms relevant other groups can elicit satisfaction with the group’s achievements resulting in a sense of complacency and lack of effort. In contrast, when the group is currently performing worse than relevant comparison groups are performing, awareness that other groups have achieved higher performance levels can make a performance improvement of the group seem feasible, and this can help group members actually achieve a superior group performance themselves. In a similar vein, awareness that the group is losing its competitive edge (e.g., because other groups are improving their relative performance) can help sustain a high level of collective effort. In other words, individuals will sustain their efforts on behalf of a group when they consider collective performance improvement to be a realistic prospect, or when they are concerned with the possibility of losing an advantageous collective position.

In sum, applications of social identity theorizing enable us to explain how group performance can be optimized even when individual contributions cannot be monitored, or when contributions to collective performance clearly are not individually rewarding. At the same time, we have also established that providing groups with a sense of collective identity is only a first step toward the achievement of optimal group performance. In addition to energizing individuals to work for collective goals, group norms also need to direct members’ efforts toward the achievement of superior group performance. Moreover, these efforts will only be sustained when collective performance improvement seems feasible.

Future Directions

The social identity approach points to the fact that the same individuals may perceive themselves (and behave) quite differently from one situation to the next. Sometimes they act as separate individuals but at other times, they behave as team members, or they perceive themselves to be interchangeable with other members of their organization. As a result, there is no one best way to motivate people at work, and there are no generic, off-the-peg solutions for problems of group motivation. Because “who we are” changes, so too do our motivations, and so too must the strategies designed to harness, direct, and maintain those motivations.

When the aim is to examine why a broad range of people are leaving an organization, or what is motivating them to stay, the organization represents an appropriate level of inclusiveness at which identification (or lack of it) should be assessed. However, when the intention is to promote people’s efforts toward a particular team performance, one should focus on the extent to which they identify with that team, and examine how displaying the desired performance might enhance the team’s distinct identity. At the same time, the common practice of treating workers as separate individuals in the hope that their efforts to fulfill their individual ambitions will be of benefit to the organization as a whole, seems less worthwhile from this point of view.

Nevertheless, once it has been established which motivational problem needs to be addressed and how this relates to the way in which workers in the organization think of themselves and others, measures can be taken to enhance the appropriate identity. Future work should further specify how this might be done, and should evaluate the identity and performance effects of different interventions. To be effective, such measures should not be restricted to formal features of the work situation, such as the nature of the reward structure. Instead, they should also encompass more informal aspects of the organizational culture as well as its enactment by management. Indeed, the effectiveness of any measure intended to motivate people to engage with collective goals is likely to be undermined when the broader organizational structure and culture continue to foster a consideration of the self as a separate individual. This is the case, for instance, when team collaboration and mutual helping are said to be encouraged, while rewards and bonuses continue to be awarded on the basis of individual output instead of team performance.

On one hand, from a managerial point of view, this implies that there is scope to encourage the operation of collective motives by adapting salient features of the work situation, such as the reward system (e.g., by introducing team bonuses) or career opportunities (e.g., by promoting those who show superior collaborative skills). On the other hand, however, to the extent that organizational practices resist such change (e.g., because they are legally anchored), management should be aware that this is likely to limit the effectiveness of their attempts to influence the focus of their workers’ motivation and effort. Both types of effects should be taken into account when considering the potential effectiveness of concrete interventions.

The aim of this research-paper was to show that social identity processes can have consequences that seem difficult to predict or understand from a more individualistic perspective on work motivation. This should not be taken to imply that individual needs, goals, outcome comparisons, or reinforcement mechanisms are unimportant. However, one should note that these same principles of motivation may have fundamentally different implications when applied at a collective level. In doing this, the tendency to define the self primarily in individual or collective terms (or more in terms of one particular group membership than another) should be seen as an adaptive response to the situation at hand. This deviates from more traditional approaches that conceive of the willingness to invest in collective goals or work to increase joint outcomes as a stable personality characteristic, or as depending on cultural norms. At the same time, it offers scope to develop practices that may actively encourage and to foster the sense of common identity that is likely to direct individual efforts toward the achievement of collective goals. In doing this, it is important to establish how different organizational features are likely to affect social identification processes. Marshalling individual employees to work toward team or organizational goals, requires that evaluation and reward structures reinforce a self-definition in collective—rather than individual—terms, that relevant work goals apply to groups instead of individuals, and that equity is achieved at a group level as well as an individual level.


This research-paper proposes that our understanding of individual and group motivation in the workplace can be enriched through awareness that the self can be defined in different ways and at different levels of abstraction. Classic approaches to work motivation focus on individual considerations as the main determinant of motivated behavior, assuming that people work toward the achievement of individual goals and rewards, or try to avoid individual sanctions. However, because work in the 21st century is characterized by collective service provision, teamwork, and a flexible workforce, it is important to see motivation as more than personal. In particular, we need to consider when people may be motivated to behave in ways that express or support an identity that is shared with others in the work situation. We need to see motivation as grounded in people’s sense of themselves as “us” not just “me.”

The primary strength of the social identity approach is that it addresses this issue by considering—and demonstrating the power of—shared identities as relevant sources of motivation. It posits that no single identity is inherently more important or more valid than another, but specifies the conditions under which a particular identity is likely to exert an influence on a give person’s motivational system. Evidence indicates that when the situation fosters a definition of the self in individual terms, individually instrumental considerations are crucial determinants of work motivation. If, however, the situation induces workers to identify as parts of a collective, they are more likely to be concerned with the enhancement of that collective identity—pursuing shared goals or behaving in ways that are normative for that identity.

In the 21st century, it strikes us that there are two massive challenges ahead for work motivation theory and practice. The first is to establish how we may harness the power of the collective by encouraging identifications that meaningfully relate to shared motivation. The second is to create social identities whose content motivates us to work toward goals that help rather than hinder collective wellbeing and joint outcomes. For ultimately, it is the social identities we create that will determine the world in which we work and live.


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