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Who are we made to think we are? Contextual variation in organizational, workgroup and career foci of identification


  • Sadly, in the process of revising this manuscript for publication, Lynne Millward was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. Her health declined rapidly and she died on March 6th 2012 at the age of 49. Lynne was renowned for her passionate and tireless teaching, her meticulous and consummate scholarship, and her unstinting commitment to people and causes she held dear \x97 one of which was Occupational and Organizational Psychology. She will be very sadly missed, but her legacy will endure.

Correspondence should be addressed to S. Alexander Haslam, School of Psychology, University of Queensland, St Lucia 4083, Queensland, Australia (e-mail:


An online survey-based study (N = 314) combining experimental and quasi-experimental elements was conducted to examine variation in employees' group identification in organizational contexts. The study measured three foci of identification (organization, workgroup, career) under three conditions of identity fit (organizational, workgroup, career) in two healthcare organizations (one public sector, one private sector) that had distinct organizational cultures (collectivist, individualist, respectively). Whilst workgroup identification was generally higher than organizational identification, this difference was moderated both by sector and by the interaction between sector and identity fit. This meant (1) that when the fit manipulation made workgroup identity salient, workgroup identification was only higher than organizational and career identification in the public-sector organization and (2) that when the fit manipulation made career identity salient, career identification was only higher than organizational and workgroup identification in the private-sector organization. These findings are consistent with hypotheses derived from self-categorization theory, which suggests that the salience of organizational identities defined at different levels of abstraction varies as a function of their accessibility and fit and hence is determined by their localized meaning. They are also inconsistent with assumptions that workgroup identity will always be preferred to more inclusive categorizations. Implications for theory and practice are discussed.

Practitioner Points

  • employees' organizational, workgroup and career identities are determined both by organizational cultural values (which affect identity accessibility) and by the way that these identities are locally framed (which affects identity fit).
  • The fact that employee identification is affected by organizational culture and context suggests that this can be shaped through processes of leadership.
  • Organizational researchers need to be aware of the language they use in research rubric when seeking to understand employee perceptions and reactions and be sensitive to ways in which this can affect the salience of different identities.