‘Open your eyes to collective dimensions’

Alex Haslam is Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology and Australian Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland. He studies group and identity processes in organisations, societies and the clinical context. Ingrid Covington asks the questions.

Are you looking forward to EAWOP?
I’m really excited about the conference. It’s a community of fellow scholars that I identify with very highly. I think we’ve all been missing the opportunities that conference life affords. Just being at a conference can renew and invigorate our valued social identities.

How did you get interested in the topic of your keynote?
Initially I did my PhD in social psychology, and I didn’t particularly have any interest in organisational psychology. But when I got my first job [at the Australian National University], there were a lot of social psychologists in my department but no organisational psychologists, and someone needed to teach it. I was handed a set of old notes from someone who had been giving this course… I looked at them and thought they were missing things that I would expect to be in there, and a lot of what was there didn’t fit with my understanding of social psychology. So I started creating new materials, and developed my own take through that teaching and through engagement with interested students.

It’s great to hear that your passion is fuelled and reinforced through your engagement with students. Perhaps they give you fresh insights, new questions, so your ideas are continuously evolving. Why do you think group and identity processes are timely now?
There’s lots of great work in organisational science and organisational psychology. But if it’s had one failing it’s that the unit of analysis is pretty much always – either explicitly or implicitly – the individual as an individual. There’s very little focus on individuals as group members. But world events in recent years, including but not limited to the pandemic, have shown the importance of group memberships as drivers of key behaviour. Whether it’s compliance with rules or guidelines around social distancing or vaccination rates, you see that group memberships are a key factor in shaping how people think, the emotions they have, and ultimately what they do.

I think that’s starting to come through in psychology as a whole… a refocus onto the collective aspects of organisational life and the forms of collective mind which underpin group-based behaviour. Over the last 20 or 30 years there has been a groundswell of research that explores those issues and demonstrates distinct value in reaching and explaining parts of organisational life that traditional approaches haven’t done desperately well at dealing with – everything from group-decision making to leadership.

Do you feel confident that the whole discipline is starting to catch up?
There’s still a lot to be done… the social identity approach is far from being a dominant one. It hasn’t taken hold at the core of the discipline. Social identity is still a bit of a fringe issue, though much less so in Europe than in the US, I think. In Europe it’s close to being a mainstream approach, but in the US – notwithstanding the fact that some of the very best social identity research has been done there – due to ideological leanings, and also just training and exposure, it’s seen as a framework of specialised interest. In my view, it should be absolutely part of the ballast of the discipline.

On social identity, the theme is interventions that work… integrated insights and practice… can you give an example of how your work does that?
I’ve got over 200 colleagues working in this space around the world, we give a lot of talks, and a pretty standard experience is that someone will come up and say ‘That makes perfect sense to me, but now I’ve got to go back to my organisation… what am I meant to do?’ Most other approaches were associated with a suite of packages or tools that people could use in their practitioner-focused work. So in recent years we’ve done a lot more on that. Work on identity management and organisations, and how you manage multiple identities, morphed into a practical program that we’ve developed now and tested fairly extensively with colleagues in Belgium and the UK. Here in Australia that’s called 5R, and that’s starting to get quite a lot of leverage. We’ve delivered it to a range of organisations here in Australia and into the House of Commons in UK. We’re keen to close the loop so that we get data from that intervention work that speaks to the processes and the efficacy of the approach… rather than something which effectively stops at the front door of practice and doesn’t knock and go in, if you like.

We’ve got some big trials, a lot of people involved in the process of data collection… they are some of the most exciting projects that I’ve been involved in precisely because they bring on board people who maybe hanker to be part of those large-scale research projects but have lacked the support and the opportunity.

Do you have any unusual evidence-based advice for people applying your work to their personal or professional lives?
The core theoretical point is when it comes to organisational psychology, don’t always bring it back to the individual. So when you’re talking about self-esteem or self-actualisation or self-determination or self-care, thinking at a collective level opens up possibilities that people routinely neglect.

Just to take one example, people tend to think about self-determination as whether I have autonomy, mastery and so on. But think about that on a group level. And self-care – what does collective self-care mean? Is my group looking after itself, am I looking after my group, is my group looking after me. That leads to all sorts of productive possibilities, because lots of problems around resilience and mental health become pretty intractable if you only look at them at the individual level. Open your eyes to collective dimensions of these phenomena and you’ll be surprised what you find.

The most effective organisational psychologists I know are doing just that, and that’s where they get leverage – picking up bits of the picture that other approaches aren’t reaching. That should just be part of our standard arsenal for tackling these theoretical and empirical issues. This is still a very vibrant and generative stream of research and there’s a lot more mining to be done.

If you think of the conferences themselves, they’re a critical way in which we become a collective without really trying…
And that’s a critical point we make in our work on leadership… it’s not about ‘talking the talk’ or having a particular mindset, it’s about creating structures that allow people to live out and celebrate those identities. Conferences are a first-class example of that. They are places where people rehearse their ideas, share them, build, embed their ideas. For that reason they’re a hugely important part of the intellectual landscape. They’re also critical in generating and driving an impetus for change, and walking through that change so people get a feel for what it might look like and are able to engage on an intellectual and practical level. For the vibrancy and vitality of academic life, conferences have this huge identity function. There’s hard work, but you also make connections and forge links and bonds – particularly for young researchers you can end up carrying them with you throughout your career. I think of the energy I get from conferences as a kind of rocket fuel.

For many of us, this would be the first conference in person since the pandemic. How do you feel about attending and presenting?
Those of us who appreciate what conferences can do have to get back out there… in the thick of it, the hurly burly and circus of academic life. I think people will be relieved and happy and maybe a little bit anxious. Being there will be partly about answering those questions on why we need conferences, and how we can work together to create a new normal that is going to work for everybody. Collectively refuelling, but also collectively regrouping and reorienting.

- Find much more from EAWOP, and information on attending.

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