The Challenge of Leading on Unstable Ground: Triggers that Activate Social Identity Faultlines

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Department or Administrative Unit


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Today’s leaders face unprecedented challenges in attempting to manage interactions between social identity group members with a history of tension in society at large. Research on faultlines suggests that social identity groups often polarize in response to events that make social identity salient, resulting in negative work outcomes. The current research extends the faultlines literature by examining precipitating events (triggers) that activate a faultline. Qualitative interview data were collected from two samples of employees working in multiple countries to identify events that had resulted in social identity conflicts. In the first study (35 events), an exploratory approach yielded a typology of five types of triggers: differential treatment, different values, assimilation, insult or humiliating action, and simple contact. A second qualitative study (99 events) involved a more geographically varied sample. Research findings are discussed in terms of implications for the faultlines literature and for practicing leaders.


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Human Relations


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