Human needs drive people’s actions, including how they engage in conflict. When our human needs are threatened, we are more likely to engage in conflict behaviours.
Identity is one of our fundamental needs as humans. It is essential to our sense of self and is at the core of what makes us, ‘us’. How we describe our identities reflects the view of how we see ourselves and how we want others to perceive us.
Identities are constructed from various traits and experiences, many of which are subject to interpretation. Which means, what is important to your identity may not be an important part of another person’s identity, or it may change over time.
For example, when I was a teenager and into my early 20’s, being an athlete was a very important part of my identity. As I worked towards playing hockey at the university level, and once I achieved that goal, many of the things I did in my day-to-day life was centered on this part of my identity. Now, 10 years later, that identity element is less important, but that experience, and the habits I developed (determination, hard work, teamwork) is still central to how I define myself. Comparatively, other people who participate in sport may not define themselves as an athlete I the same way.
Another example – In the last 2 years I became a mother to a hilarious, smart little girl. Prior to that, I would not have had ‘mother’ as part of my identity. But now, it is a very important, fundamental part of who I am and impacts the way I approach my day-to-day life.
As we can see, identity can change over time and elements that are important to our identity, may not be central to others’ identities.
Other parts of identity might include
Essentially, identity is our perception of how we ‘show up’ in the world.
Identity needs are those needs we all have to preserve a sense of who we are and our place in the world (our identity). Mayer (2012) identifies four elements of identity, including the needs for:
When someone undermines or challenges what is important to us about our identities, conflict may result. Comments that undermine our identities can impact how we react and the importance or severity we place on an interaction – it can quickly escalate a conflict situation. This also means that some conflicts can’t be effectively dealt with unless identity needs are fully addressed. In these instances, it can be very helpful to enlist the services of a third party, such as a mediator to help address these needs.
Identity can also lead to inter-group conflict. In these cases, opponents assign an identity to themselves and their adversaries, each side believing the fight is between ‘us’ and ‘them’. In workplaces, this may look like groups defined by job title, project or subject area, social preferences, age etc. Just like our non-work identities, a typical employee will be a part of a few groups during their career.
Awareness is Key!
Being aware of our identities and what is most important to us can help us begin to recognize our triggers. Once we’re aware of our triggers, the potential that our conflict engagement is more positive, goes up significantly.
For business owners and managers in the workplace, it’s important to become aware of the identities present for your staff. By increasing your awareness of how your staff define their identities, you can work to mitigate conflict and prevent the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality from developing.
Want to develop more awareness of your own identity and how it impacts how you show up in conflict? Try conflict coaching.
Think that workplace identities are impacting your team’s ability to get along and complete projects? Contact us today for an organizational consultation.
The Dynamics of Conflict – Bernard Mayer (Link)
Beyond Intractability – Website (Link)