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date: 16 November 2019

Workplace Identity Construction: An Intersectional-Identity-Cultural Lens

Summary and Keywords

With the development of an integrated cross-disciplinary framework to study workplace identity construction, the current theoretical discussion on workplace identity construction is extended—first, by focusing on intersectionality as theoretical lens and methodology in our thinking about workplace identity, highlighting the significance of an individual’s intersections of social locations in the workplace embedded in socio-historical and political contexts, and second, by focusing on the influence of national culture and societal landscapes as important macro contextual factors, adding a super-group level and a cross-cultural perspective on how individuals navigate their identities at work.

Using an intersectional-identity-cultural conceptualization of workplace identity formation elucidates the personal, social identity, sub-group, group, and super group level of influences on identity formation. It focuses on the interplay between individual, relational, collective, and group identity, and emphasizes social identity as the bridge between personal identity and group identity. It highlights the multiplicity, simultaneity, cross cutting, intersecting, as well as differing prominence and power differences of social identities based on differing contexts. It illustrates the relatively stable yet fluid nature of individual (intra-personal and core) identity as it adapts to the environment, and the constant changing, co-constructed, negotiated, and re-negotiated nature of relational (inter-personal), collective identity (social identity) as it gets produced and re-produced, shaped and reshaped by both internal and external forces, embedded in socio-historical-political workplace contexts.

Understanding the interplay of the micro-level, individual (agency), relational, and collective identity levels (social construction), nested in the meso level structures of domination, and group dynamics in the workplace (control regulation/political) in its macro level societal landscape context (additional control regulation) will help us to understand the cognitive sense-making processes individuals engage in when constructing workplace identities. This understanding can help to create spaces where non-normative individuals can resist, disrupt, withdraw, or refuse to enact the limited accepted identities and can create alternative discourse or identity possibilities.

Keywords: identity construction, intersectionality, work identity, leader identity, cross cultural leadership, identity complexity, identity simultaneity, intersectional identity, social identity, relational identity


Identity has been a subject of study in sociology and psychology for more than a century (Ramarajan, 2014; Vignoles, Swartz, & Luyckx, 2011). Interest in work and professional identities has emerged during the past two decades in the field of organizational studies focusing on work identity (Miscenko & Day, 2015; Nkomo & Stewart, 2006; Sveningsson & Alvesson, 2003), navigating the self at work (Andersson, 2008; Roberts & Creary, 2013; Watson, 2008), how identity might influence leadership-followership relations, (Haslam, Reicher, & Platow, 2011; Hogg, van Knippenberg, & Rast, 2012), and relational identity, that integrates individual and collective identities (Ashforth, Schinoff, & Rogers, 2016; Sluss & Ashforth, 2007).

Miscenko and Day (2015, p. 2) defined work identity as “the collection of meanings attached to the self by the individual and others in a work domain.” In their overview of the different theoretical perspectives available to study work identity, they pointed out the fragmented nature of the independent streams of research on work identity. They opined that the existing reviews on work identity tend either to focus on only one or two theoretical lenses to study work identity, such as social identity and role identity, or to offer in-depth accounts of certain aspects of work identity, such as identity work.

In their extensive review on how individuals navigate the self in diverse organizational contexts Roberts and Creary (2013) reviewed the five most prominent theoretical perspectives, namely social identity, (role) identity, critical identity, narrative-as-identity, and identity work. In conclusion, they called upon scholars to continue to engage in cross-disciplinary, theoretical inclusive dialogue in navigating the self in diverse work contexts.

Little attention thus far has been paid to integrate intersectionality, a concept derived from critical feminist thought, (Crenshaw, 1991) into workplace identity research (Atewologun, Sealy, & Vinnicombe, 2016). Intersectionality is especially useful in cross-disciplinary scholarship and in conceptualizing work identity, because it “recognizes the simultaneity of the different social categories individuals belong to that inform their identities but also the ways they structure organizations and people’s experiences within them” (Carrim & Nkomo, 2016, p. 4).

Identity and identity work is also relatively new in cross-cultural research (Carroll, Ford, & Taylor, 2015; Hannum, McFeeters, & Booysen, 2010; Merriweather Woodson & Ollier-Malaterre, 2016), which tends to focus mainly on national culture or cross-cultural comparisons (Klarsfeld, Ng, Booysen, Christianson, & Kuvaas, 2016). Consequently, the importance of super-group level identity influences, such as national culture and societal contextual factors is also not sufficiently explored in workplace identity research.

While the field of identity studies in the workplace is still nascent and fragmented, it has matured in the sense that there are calls for integration of the divergent perspectives across field and paradigmatic divides, inclusion of the disparate voices, and a multi- and cross-disciplinary or meta-theoretical approach on work identity (Miscenko & Day, 2015; Ramarajan, 2014; Roberts & Creary, 2013).

Exploring Workplace Identity From a Micro, Meso, and Macro-Level Perspective

This article honors the call for an integrated cross-disciplinary framework to study work identity. Rather than another review of the current dominant theoretical frameworks and research in this field, the article presents an integrated discussion of the complex nature of work identity, with specific reference to leadership identity. Workplace identity is explored—how it is constructed and produced, from micro, meso, and macro-level perspectives.

The current theoretical discussion on work identity is also extended in two ways. First, the focus is on intersectionality as theoretical lens and methodology in our thinking about workplace identity, to highlight the significance of an individual’s intersections of social locations in the workplace embedded in socio-historical and political contexts. Second, the focus is on the influence of national culture and societal landscapes as important macro contextual factors, adding a super-group level and a cross-cultural leadership perspective on how individuals navigate their identities at work.

This integrated discussion of workplace identity highlights its socially co-constructed and intersecting nature, its multiplicity and simultaneity. It highlights the inextricably intertwined nature of social categories and relations (micro level), contextual internal influences in and around our workplaces (meso level), and external societal level and super-group influences (macro level) in how identities are produced, re-produced, shaped, and reshaped by both internal and external forces, embedded in socio-historical-political contexts. The article concludes with an integrated framework of leader identity formation, as a specific workplace identity, based on identity theories, intersectionality, and cross-cultural leadership theories and research.

Theoretical Perspectives on Work Identity Construction

What Is Identity?

In the Handbook of Identity Theory, Vignoles et al. (2011) attempted to clarify our understanding by discussing identity in an integrative view. They pointed out that existing identity approaches “encompass a range of diverse but related contents and processes” (p. 39), focusing on “one or more of three different ‘levels of inclusion’ at which identity may be defined: individual, relational, and collective” (p. 40). Most identity theories focus on both the content of identity—components or nature of identity—and the corresponding processes of identity formation or change—identity construction.

Regarding identity construction two general tensions can be identified in the different theoretical perspectives: (a) whether identity construction is based on personal construction (agency) and/or social construction and control (regulation), and (b) whether identity is understood as a singular unitary identity, largely stable, fixed, and self-constructed, or as multiple identities, largely unstable, in constant flux, and socially constructed (Vignoles et al., 2011). Different views exist on the nature of identity, whether it is singular, multiple, fluid, or stable (Sluss & Ashforth, 2007).

Identity can be viewed as a constant interplay between three levels of inclusiveness, individual identity, relational identity, and collective identity; (a) both agency and social regulations are involved in identity construction; and (b) identity is relatively stable at its core once developed, yet constantly under construction and re-construction.1 Identity is multifaceted and multiple, consisting of fixed, fluid, shifting and temporary; independent and interdependent, enhancing and conflicting; complementary and contradictory identities, differing in prominence and salience based on contextual fluctuations and regulation.

Identity Contents: Levels of Inclusion of Identity

Identity, or the question “Who am I?” includes not only “who I think I am,” and “what I think others think I am” (individual and collective identity), but also “how I act and who I become as a being” (relational identity). Identity can be viewed as a constant interplay between these three levels of inclusiveness, individual identity, relational identity, and collective identity in a symbolic interactive way (Vignoles et al., 2011; Watson, 2008).

Individual, personal, or intra-personal identity refer to aspects of self-definition and individual level contents of identity, such as beliefs, values, goals, self-esteem and self-evaluation, and behavioral manifestations of such. This level often emphasizes the uniqueness and agency of individuals to discover, construct, shape, and re-shape their identities, and can loosely be equated to “the self” or individual personality (Brewer, 2012).

Relational or interpersonal identity—integrates person and social role-based identities. It refers to the relation between the individual and significant others, or role-relationships. This level often emphasizes the co-construction of identities defined and located within interpersonal spaces, based on individual agency (identity claiming) in tandem with other expectations and recognition (identity granting) processes (Roberts & Creary, 2013). Identity is seen as discovered, constructed, shaped, and re-shaped through symbolic interaction in interdependent relationships.

Collective identity, or social identity—refers to aspects of social group or category identification to which individuals belong. It is an individual’s sense of who they are, based on their group membership(s), prototypicality, and constructed in inter-group context. It is concerned with both the psychological and sociological aspects of group behavior, and explains the psychological basis of group behavior, group association and belonging, and intergroup discrimination, in-group favoritism and out-group derogation, stereotyping, and social identity conflict (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). Vignoles et al. (2011) argued that identity contains not only social entities, beyond the personal, like relational and social identity, but also material artifacts, like geographical space, and treasured material possessions, that constitute a material identity. In my opinion material identity can be conflated with collective identity, because it speaks to social (economic) status groups and contexts and should not be seen as a separate level of identity content. Collective (social) identity also speaks to super-group and societal level belonging and changes embedded in socio-political-historical and national cultural contexts and acts as a bridge between individual and relational identities and group identities (Booysen, 2007, 2016).

Vignoles and colleagues offered an integrated operational definition of identity based on the above levels of inclusiveness:

identity consists of the confluence of the person’s self-chosen or ascribed commitments, personal characteristics, and beliefs about herself; roles and positions in relations to significant others; and her membership in social groups and categories (including both her status within the group and the group’s status within the larger context); as well as her identification with treasured material possessions and her sense of where she belongs in geographical space.

(Vignoles et al., p. 44)

From this passage it is clear that, irrespective of levels of inclusiveness, individual, relational, and collective processes define any given aspect of identity “as the subjective understanding or experience of individuals, as an interpersonal construction, and as a sociocultural product (Vignoles et al., 2011, p. 60).

Identity Processes: Identity Construction

The processes by which identities are produced, formed, maintained, shaped, reshaped, and changed over time are also inescapably personal and social. Vignoles et al. (2011) suggested there should not be a tension between personal construction (agency) and social construction and control (regulation) in identity construction because identity construction involves interplay of both. Understanding this interplay clarifies the conditions under which individuals will more likely internalize socially constructed identities, or oppose and challenge them. These processes of internalization, opposition, challenge, and emancipation refer to processes of meaning making and sense giving (cognitive) that individuals engage in and that form part of the identity formation processes, or identity work (Roberts & Creary, 2013; Weick, 1995). Moreover identity formation does not happen in a vacuum, it happens in relation to context and space and place. It is co-constructed and embedded within specific socio-historic contexts (political), and is subject to shaping and reshaping in different contexts and over time (Alvesson, 2010). Watson (2008) argued that identity construction “incorporates a clear analytical distinction between internal personal “‘self-identities’ and external discursive ‘social-identities,’ with social identities being seen as the link or bridge between socially available discourses and self-identities” (p. 121).

Identity construction can thus be defined as a confluence of the interplay of individual, relational, and collective level identities, negotiated in interactive dynamics, and meaning making and the sense giving processes embedded in socio-historical-political contexts. Clearly agency or subjective construction, social construction, social control, and political regulation are all at play in the meaning making and sense giving processes in identity construction. Last, identity formation is a continuous process, and identity is subjectively and socially shaped and reshaped over time and contexts and within place.

Identity Complexity, Multiplicity, Simultaneity, and Salience

Individuals have multiple cross-cutting and intersecting identities (nationality, ethnicity, gender, language, profession, etc.) that they belong to simultaneously (Booysen, 2007, 2016; Roccas & Brewer, 2002). Identity is a combination of three broad components, given identity, chosen identity, and core identity, which function simultaneously on the individual, relational, and collective levels (Hannum et al., 2010). The categories, attributes, or conditions that individuals have no choice in are their given identity. These may be characteristics they were born with, or that were given to them in childhood or later in life, for instance birthplace, age, gender, birth order, race, generation, physical characteristics, and certain family roles. Given identities can be fixed, for instance ethnicity and geographical location of birth, or transitioning like age, temporary like stages, or changing from able-bodied to being disabled. Chosen identities are the characteristics that individuals choose, such as occupation, hobbies, political affiliation, place of residence, and religion. Some chosen identities are fixed, like parenthood, some can change for instance marital status, from being married to being divorced. Some chosen identities can fuse with given identities, for instance when a person emigrates from one country to another, the given and chosen country identities fuse. Core identities are those attributes that are used as self-descriptors that make individuals unique. Some self-descriptors will change over the course of individuals’ lifetime; others may remain constant. Elements of an individual’s core identity may include traits, behaviors, beliefs, values, and skills. Identities can also become more or less salient or prominent in different contexts, and in different social identity relativities, based on its relevance. For example the shifting salience of a male ballet dancer’s maleness in a group of female dancers, where his male identity becomes the foreground, as opposed to the salience of his maleness in a group of male rugby players, where his identity as ballet dancer becomes more salient. In this instance the different social identity relativities influenced the salience of the identity. Another example is the prominence and relevance of a doctor’s identity as a surgeon in the operating room, and the fading of that prominence and relevance when the doctor is hosting a family dinner. Last, the influence of context on identity is clearly illustrated by the salience of political affiliation, and specific group belonging during election times. Identities can also be more or less prototypical, or distinctive of the group or category it represents. Moreover, identities can seemingly conflict, like being homosexual and (dogmaticly) religious, which can cause identity conflict; or they can compete, for instance being a mother and a career woman, which might cause dual career challenges; or they can be temporary, like being pregnant. Identities can be independent—female and doctor; or interdependent—female and mother; or complementary—psychologist and leadership coach; —or (seemingly) contradictory, male and feminist. Furthermore, each of our identities is positioned within a specific matrix of socio-historic power dynamics and carries a socially constructed high (dominant) or low power (subordinate) signature. For instance, for a disabled, lesbian, female of color, identity signatures for each category are subordinate to that of an able-bodied, heterosexual, white male whose identity categories are dominant (Booysen, 2015; Hannum et al., 2010).

Identity can also be categorized into primary identities that have an ongoing impact on our lives, like race, or secondary identities that are changeable. Our primary, core, and fixed given identities tend to be relatively stable, yet still fluid, whereas our chosen, non-fixed, and secondary identities are constantly in flux. Our identities are relatively stable yet fluid products of agency and social control and regulation, and they are continually produced, regulated, and adapting to direct and symbolic interaction in the process of meaning making of ourselves. Consequently, many of our actions are driven by the struggle to defend, maintain, enhance, and produce congruence in our identities (Carroll et al., 2015).

Work Identity Research

Work identity research focuses on the process of how we construct ourselves (the relatively stable fluid identity) in the work place or as a leader (identity construction), and on how our work place and leadership identities are shaped and disciplined (identity regulation) by our contexts (Carroll et al., 2015).

In his review article on key images of identity in organizations Alvesson (2010) identified, similar to Vignoles et al. (2011), two main themes in current conceptualizations of work identity research: first the tension between “the degree of insecurity, fluidity, and ambiguity versus the degree of coherence, robustness, and integration of the self-identity” (p. 211); second, the tension between agency and regulation in self-identity construction.

Workplace Identity Construction

Workplace identity construction is similar to identity formation and includes an additional level of influences—specific workplace organizational dynamics. Workplace identity construction can be defined as (a) a confluence of the interplay of individual, relational, and collective level identities; (b) in specific workplaces that include internal organizational contexts, expectations, and aspirations, nested in specific structures of domination and power dynamics negotiated in interactive dynamics, and meaning making and the sense giving processes; and (c) embedded in external socio-historical-political contexts (Alvesson, 2010; Vignoles et al., 2011; Watson, 2008).

Workplace identity formation happens in the constant ongoing navigation of, and negotiation, reflection, and action on the personal-relational-social identity experiences, within the organizational context, juxtaposed against past, current, and expected future contexts, embedded in internal organizational culture and external societal regulation (Sluss & Ashforth, 2007).

In an endeavor toward integration of the fragmented and independent streams of research on work identity, Miscenko and Day (2015) first made a distinction between identity and identification. Identity is seen as more internally oriented, the internalized part of the self-concept based on the meaning derived from a specific, group, role, or category.

Identification is more externally oriented and based on the attachment (cognitive, psychological, emotional) of an individual to a specific, group, role, or category etcetera. Miscenko and Day organized the literature into two dimensions: (a) level of identity inclusiveness (individual, relational, and collective) similar to Vignoles et al. (2011) and (b) static/dynamic approaches to identity change or identity stability versus identity fluidity, similar to Vignoles et al. (2011) and to Alvesson (2010).

In their review of the five most prominent theoretical perspectives on how individuals navigate the self in diverse organizational contexts, Roberts and Creary (2013) established:

Social identity theorists call attention to intergroup dynamics, critical theorists examine the role of discursive resistance, role identity theorists study the effects of segmented versus integrated identity structures, narrative theorists reveal sense-making processes that yield coherence, and identity work theorists investigate behavioral practices of claiming and influencing the significance and meaning of identities in diverse work contexts. (p. 14)

They also urged more conceptual integration of and investigation into the interplay between the resource-based and the agency views on navigating the self.

Roberts and Creary draw from critical theory and remind scholars to be sensitive to how our own scholarship might create possibilities and constraints for how individuals navigate their own identities. Although there are different foci on how the five prominent theoretical perspectives define identity, approach how individuals navigate the self, perceive motives of individuals, or recognize specific tasks in navigating identities in the workplace, there are also some common themes Roberts and Creary (2013) identified:

  • Identities are a set of self-imposed and externally imposed meanings that situate an entity within a social world through the construction of defining characteristics and relationships with other entities.

  • Identities are multifaceted, with meanings that evolve from group categories and memberships . . ., social roles . . ., self-narratives . . ., reflected appraisals and interpersonal encounters . . ., social structures . . ., individuating traits and characteristics . . ., and values.

  • Identities evoke a set of cognitions, feelings, and behaviors that are associated with these defining characteristics and relationships. The study of identity reveals the meaning and significance of such self-relevant constructions for individuals and organizations (Roberts & Creary, 2013, p. 15).

In her extensive multidisciplinary discussion of research on multiple identity construction, Ramarajan (2014) reviewed social psychological (social identity and self-verification theories), micro-sociological ([role] identity theory and identity construction), systems psychodynamic, and developmental, critical, and intersectional perspectives on identity. She found that the above five perspectives all recognize multiple identities. “The breadth of conceptualizations ranging from the graded, fluctuating hierarchies of social identity theory to the indivisible identities of intersectionality, offers scholars many unique ways to explore the complex reality of multiple identities” (Ramarajan, 2014, p. 611). Despite the differences between these perspectives there appears to be consensus across them regarding the structure and relationships in understanding the complex reality of multiple identities. In terms of identity structure, these perspectives emphasize hierarchy, independence of identities (acting on its own), and number of identities (identity plurality). Regarding the relationship among an individual’s multiple identities: (a) conflict or tension, (b) synergy, enhancement, or complementarity, and (c) overlap or integration, these appear across all perspectives. Ramarajan concluded her review by proposing an integrated intrapersonal network approach, “in which the nodes of the network are identities (which can vary in aspects such as number and importance) and in which the ties of the network are relationships, such as those of conflict, enhancement, and integration” (Ramarajan, 2014, p. 619). This framework elucidates the patterns of fluid relationships among multiple identities, to study the consequences of multiple identities in the workplace.

Roberts and Creary (2013) also explicated the various ways in which individuals actively participate in the co-construction of their identities in diverse contexts, according to the five perspectives on identity processes. They highlighted the following strategies individuals engage in to construct, restore, and sustain a positive sense of self.

  • Self-enhancement, differentiation or belonging through comparisons, in response to identity threats through group identification, from the Social Identity perspective.

  • Alignment strategies, such as intrapersonal identity integration and segmentation, to increase complementarity and reduce identity conflict between different role identities, from the role identity perspective.

  • Emancipatory strategies mobilizing organizational discourses, to resist and challenge the regulatory power and status relations embedded in identities, from the critical identity perspective.

  • Sense making, by constructing multiple stories about the relationship and interactions in one’s social world that explain critical processes of identity development, based on the narrative-as-identity perspective.

  • Self-verification by pro-actively constructing socially validated identities, through identity negotiation and agentic identity work performance that reflect one’s sense of self, from an identity perspective.

Like Alvesson (2010), Roberts and Creary (2013), and Ramarajan (2014), Miscenko and Day (2015) also concluded their review by emphasizing the multiplicity of identities and the interaction of multiple identities, including work and nonwork identities. Roberts and Creary (2013) pointed out that it is clear that individuals possess multiple identities, but there is still a gap in the theory on how people develop a shared understanding of one another across these multiple identities. The proposed conceptualizations that might aid us in exploring this gap include intersectionality, which is key in critical theory, the notions of sense making, and sense giving (Carroll et al., 2015) integral to the narrative as identity perspective, and the in-depth descriptions of identity performance, and identity claiming and granting we see in identity work studies (Roberts & Creary, 2013).

Leader Identity Research

Despite its potential, the importance of identity construction, work identity, and identity work in leadership remains at the margins and has yet to make inroads into mainstream leadership scholarship and leadership textbooks.

Some recent leadership texts focus on prototypicality of leadership identities, with its roots firmly in Social Identity theory (Haslam et al., 2011; Hogg et al., 2012) and identity work, based on symbolic interaction and identity construction (Raelin, 2016, Watson, 2008), or they dedicate a chapter or so to social identity and identity work (Carroll et al., 2015; Schedlitzki & Edwards, 2014), or narratives as identity (Sinclair, 2007), or they just mention the importance of social identity theory as a framework in leadership studies (Jackson & Parry, 2008). Although relatively little attention has been given to leader identity or leader identity construction, the study of identity is slowly starting to find its place within leadership studies.

Mainstream leadership identity research tends to focus more on social psychological intergroup theories such as self-categorization (Turner, 1985), social identity theory (Tajfel, 1974), and the extension on Social Identity Theory (SIT) by Tajfel and Turner in 1979 (Abrams & Hogg, 2004; Ellemers, Spears, & Doosje, 2002; Haslam et al., 2011; Hogg & Terry, 2000; Turner & Reynolds, 2012), optimal distinctiveness (Brewer, 2012), and (social) role theory congruence (Ely, 1995; Stryker, 2000; Reicher, Haslam, & Hopkins, 2005; Stryker & Burke, 2000). The main tenet of this stream of research is that “prototypical leaders are better supported and more trusted, and are perceived as more effective by members than are less prototypical leaders; particularly when group membership is a central and salient aspect of members’ identity and members identify strongly with the group” (Hogg et al., 2012, p. 258). More recent research in this stream focused on social identity complexity and multiplicity (Roccas & Brewer, 2002), multiple identities (Ramarajan, 2014), simultaneity of leadership identities by using an intersectionality lens (Holvino, 2001, 2010, 2012), identity construction (DeRue & Ashford, 2010), identity elasticity and renegotiation, (Kreiner, Hollensbe, Sheep, Smith, & Kataria, 2006), the process of leader identity construction drawing on social comparison and identity (Sluss & Asforth, 2007), maintaining positive identities in less than positive work places (Dutton, Roberts, & Bednar, 2010; Roberts & Creary, 2011), and identity work and the relationship between personal, relational, and social identities (Andersson, 2008; Ashforth et al., 2016).

Some of the less mainstream leadership identity research like Watson (2008), Alvesson, (2010), Alvesson, Ashcraft, and Thomas (2008), and Brown (2015) focused on critical theory and leader identity construction, and the contested, multiple, fluid, temporary, shifting, and context-bound nature of identities. Schedlitzki and Edwards (2014) pointed to some studies that bridged the social psychological study of leadership and leadership identity construction by integrating a critical and social constructionist perspective—for example, Ford’s (2010) study on multiple competing identities, which calls for nonessentialist leadership development, and Kempster and Stewart’s (2010) work on mutually constructed leadership identities, which include socially constructed and locally situated processes. In their study on multi-faceted leader identity development, Zheng and Muir (2014) also combined social psychological intergroup theories, with identity theory and critical theory. Recognizing postmodern intersectional identities Nicholson and Maniates (2016) acknowledged the historical, sociocultural, political, and institutional contextual constraints that influence leaders’ expression of identities, and that view leadership as nonlinear and circular (versus hierarchical and sequentially progressive), involving a continual negotiation of ambiguity, uncertainty, questioning, and revision.

Schedlitzki and Edwards (2014) identified similar tension in leadership identity and leadership identity construction studies that we have seen in identity and workplace identity studies. The more established strand closely tied to mainstream leadership and leadership development is the developmental psychological perspective on identity. This perspective views identity in an agentic and introspective manner as a unitary, coherent yet multifaceted, construction produced by the individual, assuming a relatively stable identity consisting of fixed and fluid identities based on contextual salience, that develops over time. The second less dominant strand is the critical sociological perspective on social identity. This perspective focuses on how identities are shaped, reshaped, controlled, resisted, and produced by discourse and institutionalized processes, and where identities are seen as unstable, temporary, fluid, and co-constructed within the social contexts and subject to contextual fluctuation and regulation (Andersson, 2008; Watson, 2008).

Leadership Identity Formation

As a particular workplace identity, or social identity, leadership identity formation is simultaneously individual, social, cognitive, and political, and is subject to all the micro individual, meso organizational, and macro societal landscape level influences, as discussed in workplace identity formation. In the case of leader identity formation the individual level refers to personal agency of both leaders and followers. The social level includes the processes by which leaders and followers construct who they are in relationship to the contexts they are in, which invariably also reshape the context itself. The cognitive refers to sense making and sense giving elements in the construction process, based on contextual cues and constraints. The political refers to the inherent power dynamics in the social construction process, illustrating the salience, the privilege or dominance, and the marginalization or subordination of some constructions and identities over others. This means leader’s identities are continually shaped and reshaped and is an ongoing affair; it is “processual, relational, and situational in character” (Andersson, 2008, p. 8). Leadership identity is not fixed—it is both an influence and an outcome of leader-follower-context relational processes (Carroll et al., 2015; Cunliffe & Eriksen, 2011; Nicholson & Maniates, 2016).

Two additional important levels of dynamics that influence leader identity formation and that function more on the relational and collective than individual identity level are (a) organizational leadership expectations and (b) leadership mental models. These influences move our thinking about leadership identity formation away from the individual identity level towards relational and collective levels of identity and group level organizational contexts, because leadership takes place in a relation space within the collective (Cunliffe & Eriksen, 2011; Raelin, 2016), situated in organizational contexts.

Integration: Work Identity Construction

From the above condensed discussion, it is clear that the field of workplace identity does not only call for integration across different theoretical perspectives and study fields, as discussed in the introduction of this article, it also has moved away from an essentialist view of identity as simplistic, static, and developmental based on agency. It has moved toward an understanding of the complex co-constructed process of identity (personal, relational, and collective) being shaped, re-shaped and produced in the nexus of individual experiences (agency), group interaction, (social construction) and institutionalized processes (regulated) nested in differing social-historical-political contexts (political). It focuses on both the internally oriented meaning (identity) and the externally oriented attachment derived from group belonging (identification). Identity is now generally seen as multifaceted, complex, interacting, shifting, morphing, overlapping, integrating, intertwined, conflicting, and competing. It shows hierarchy, multiplicity, and simultaneity, as well as dominance in salience, and it is embedded in context.

This conceptualization of identity is comparable to a critical identity perspective, where identity is seen as “[m]ultiple, shifting, competing, temporary, context-sensitive, and evolving manifestations of the self that are shaped by socio-economic, institutional, cultural, and historical boundaries between identity groups” (Roberts & Creary, 2013, p. 3).

Workplace identity and leadership identity as a specific workplace identity, focus on intra-personal (individual agency, integration, belonging, segmentation and development), inter-personal (relational, sense making, negotiated identities, claiming and granting of identities), and collective (categories, groups, subgroups, and super-groups) meaning making and regulatory processes, power relations, and emancipatory discourses, nested within specific organizational expectations and aspirations, and embedded in structures of domination and power dynamics (political), influenced by internal and external forces.

To understand the interplay between identity construction, meaning making, institutional regulatory processes, and shared understanding of one another across multiple identities, the “lens of intersectionality can shed more light on identity construction.

Intersectionality and Work Identity Construction

Intersectionality, originally coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, has become an influential concept shaped by critical feminism, critical race theories, and social justice theory and practice (Carrim & Nkomo, 2016; Rodriguez, Holvino, Fletcher, & Nkomo, 2016). Crenshaw (1991) problematized single axis notions of identities and criticized the limits of an additive approach to identity by pointing out that identities are not operating independently, but rather are woven together and entangled in their relationships with each other, with multiplying effects. Patricia Hill Collins (2015) introduced the related notion of complex interlocking oppressions, or matrices of domination to illustrate the parallel, systems of power and domination in, for instance, racism, sexism, and heterosexism, and perpetual reproduction of inequality through institutionalized processes. Roccas and Brewer (2002) introduced the concept of social identity complexity to refer to people’s subjective representation of the interrelationships among their crosscutting, multiple, collective identities. Holvino (2001, 2010, 2012) extended Crenshaw’s notion of interwoven and entangled identities and Roccas and Brewer’s (2002) concept of social identity complexity by coining the term simultaneity, emphasizing that it is not only the complex entanglement of the identities that is important, but also the simultaneous occurrence of identities.

In recent years intersectional studies have become a field of its own that has cut across and been embraced by various disciplines, including legal and political studies, sociology, psychology, and increasingly, organizational and management studies (Ramarajan, 2014), and specifically in diversity studies (Dill & Zambrana, 2009; Merriweather Woodson & Ollier-Malaterre, 2016; Nicholson & Maniates, 2016). In essence intersectionality makes the invisible visible by placing focus on the meaning and consequences of multiple categories of group membership, and simultaneously considering categories of identity, difference, and disadvantage. Intersectional analysis includes the following four main tasks that help make the invisible visible:

  1. 1. Placing the lived experiences and struggles of people of color and other marginalized groups as a starting point for the development of theory.

  2. 2. Exploring the complexities not only of individual identities but also group identity, recognizing that variations within groups are often ignored and essentialized.

  3. 3. Unveiling the ways interconnected domains of power organize and structure inequality and oppression.

  4. 4. Promoting social justice and social change by linking research and practice to create a holistic approach to the eradication of disparities and to changing . . . institutions (Dill & Zambrana, 2009, p. 5).

Intersectionality is a methodology and analytical tool that unlocks ways in which different forms of social inequality, oppression, and discrimination interact and overlap in multidimensional ways. Generally, intersectionality studies have analyzed the interlocking systems of oppression between race, gender, sexual orientation, or class (Rodriguez et al., 2016; Zanoni, Janssens, Benschop, & Nkomo, 2010). This resulted in scholars asking whether intersectionality “is an integrated theory of identity that includes positions of privilege and power, or if it is only a paradigm for understanding multiply marginalized identities” (Mehrotra, 2010, p. 418). Yet, the significant theoretical and analytical insights gleaned from focusing on multiplicity (mutually constitutive relations among multiple identities), simultaneity of identities (indivisible nature of identities), and power dynamics inherent in reinforcing interacting and intersecting categories of difference in interlocking systems of oppression, can be applied to a broader level of categories and identities as well. It does not only have to apply to marginalized categories (Zanoni et al., 2010); it can also be used to explore interlocking systems of privilege, in the case of white men for instance, and how privileged and marginalized identities intersect and interact with each other.

Intersectional Research on Workplace Identity Construction

Organizational research using intersectionality perspectives on identity work is fairly recent (Ramarajan, 2014); and despite its potential to develop a shared understanding of one another across multiple identities (Roberts & Creary, 2013) intersectionality is still on the margins in organizational and leadership studies (Rodriguez et al., 2016). Only a few empirical studies have integrated social identity and intersectionality theories into exploring work identity and leadership identity; for instance Bell and Nkomo’s (2001) study on the different struggles of black and white women in constructing their professional identities, and Holvino’s (2010) review of the simultaneity of race, gender, and class in organizational studies. Four recent studies (Atewologun et al., 2016; Carrim & Nkomo, 2016; Love, Booysen, & Essed, 2015; Nicholson & Maniates, 2016) are examples of how intersectionality and social identity theory and/or identity work can be integrated as a combined theoretical frame in the research agenda of workplace identity.

In their pragmatic, sequential, mixed method design study consisting of interviews, a survey questionnaire, and focus groups, Love et al. (2015) used intersectionality and social identity theories in a complementary way to explore the intersections of race, gender, and generation in African American women (n = 183) doing social justice work. They used social identity theory to explicate how black women “as a multi-dimensional group, navigate their race and gender identifications based on how society perceives and engages with them and how they are perceived and perceive themselves within their social identity group” (Love et al., 2015, p. 3). They maintained employing intersectionality, is “a useful epistemological and methodological approach and analytical tool to explore and explain the inseparability of identities/categories of difference (individual, institutional, social and cultural) and how these interact with opportunity, power, disadvantage and discrimination in social systems” (p. 3).

Carrim and Nkomo (2016) conducted life story interviews on thirteen South African Indian women in their qualitative interpretivist study on how women negotiate managerial identity. They wedded intersectionality and identity work to illuminate the dynamic interaction between institutionalized processes and systems and the formation and re-formation of both categories and identities over time. They maintained that “[b]y explicitly situating the identity work of the women within the larger social-political-historical context, we were able to show how the racialization processes of the system of apartheid fused with patriarchy and Indian culturalization practices to shape the identity work the women encountered when entering corporate South Africa” (p. 20). In conclusion, they stated: “Studying the identity work of any individual in isolation of the multiple social categories to which he or she belongs as well as the socio-historical-political context in which the identity work occurs can lead to reductionism and a failure to capture the simultaneity among the many influences on forming workplace identities” (Carrim & Nkomo, 2016, p. 22).

In their theoretical study Nicholson and Maniates (2016) used Núñez’ (2014) multi-level model of intersectionality, which interrogates (a) social categories and relations (micro-level), (b) arenas of contextual domains of power (meso-level), and (c) societal level power and classifications (macro-level), to problematize views on how leadership identities are conceived, described, shaped, and re-shaped. They suggested a move away from the binary notions of leaders and followers, and the modernist assumptions that position identity as an “individual’s unitary, coherent, and fixed essence of the self.” They suggest leadership must rather be seen as a broad and shifting notion that has no fixed identity because it is in constant state of deconstruction, interpretation and reconstruction. They proposed that in situating identities of leadership as “multiple, dynamic, relational, negotiated, emotional as well as cognitive, and (in different contexts) potentially contradictory” (Nicholson & Maniates, 2016, p. 77), will unlock different and emancipated ways of thinking, reflection, and action for leaders.

Atewologun et al. (2016) incorporated identity work, which highlights everyday experiences of self-identification as an analytical and theoretical lens into their intersectionality research on ethnic identities among 24 British Asian and black women and men at work. They utilized data from journal descriptions of “everyday identity-heightening episodes” and subsequent semi-structured interviews in their study.

They proposed the construct of “intersectional identity work” to show “the ongoing construction of mutually constitutive identities in response to identity threat” (Atewologun et al., 2016, p. 5). They concluded: “Focusing on how intersectional locations are experienced through an identity work lens informed us about sites and patterns of identity construction, countering the criticism of essentializing subordinate identities” (p. 240). Their work “challenges and enriches identity work theory, which generally neglects the significance of the intersectional social locations of individuals in organizations” (Rodriguez et al., 2016).

An Intersectionality Approach to Work Identity: Intersectional Identity Work

Both intersectionality and identity work are focused on how individuals navigate themselves in their worlds, and how they make sense of who they are, in relation to others. Intersectionality, similar to a post-modern and critical view of social identity, also focuses on the multiplicity and simultaneity of identities and multidimensional conceptualizations of identity (2001). Social identities are seen as multiple and intersecting, dynamic, fluid, and shifting, constantly evolving, repeatedly (re)negotiated and transforming and competing (Nicholson & Maniates, 2016). Both critical identity theory and intersectionality theory emphasize the socially constructed, co-constitutive, located, and relational nature of difference (Love et al., 2015; Núñez, 2014) and study the meaning and consequences of multiple categories of social group membership. Both also focus on emancipatory motives (Carrim & Nkomo, 2016), sense and meaning making (Atewologun et al., 2016), and the struggle (Nicholson & Maniates, 2016) of intersecting identities. Both perspectives also challenge power differentials and structural inequity and elucidate the influence of socio-historical-context on identities (Dill & Zambrana, 2009; Love et al., 2015).

Intersectionality provides a specific frame to consider the temporal and spatial nature of lived experiences and oppression, because interlocking inequalities (and privilege) are not fixed or ahistorical; they are time-based and context contingent (Atewologun et al., 2016; Carrim & Nkomo, 2016; Dill & Zambrana, 2009).

An intersectional approach to identity also explicates how an individual’s multiple social locations can culminate in complex combinations of privileges and disadvantages, where people could simultaneously hold marginalized and privileged identities. Or, how “diversity within social locations and their relations to systems of power leads to similar experiences of privilege and disadvantage among people occupying vastly different social locations” (Wiley & Bikmen, 2012, p. 190). This opens up the possibility that individuals with different social identity constellations (or locations) can act together based on a common understanding of their marginalization or privilege, building a shared social identity. It also opens up the field of identity work and research to study privilege, and not only disadvantage, from an intersectional perspective—or, to put it differently, to conduct intersectional analyses beyond traditional minority samples (or subordinate group membership), and to extend to majority (or dominant group membership) or mixed majority and minority individuals.

Intersectionality, should therefore be central to our thinking about social identity and identity work, because it focuses not only on the cross-cutting, indivisible, and overlapping categories, but also on the multiple intertwined social locations within the categories, and the socially constructed nature of identities, embedded in the socio-historical-political contexts, and time, and place. Moreover, it is applicable to both minority and majority populations. Future intersectional identity research needs to explore the intersection of privileged identities, and the interaction of intersecting marginalized and privileged identities, in which experiences of marginalization might outweigh the recognition of privilege, or the recognition of privilege might outweigh the experiences of marginalization, based on contextual aspects.

One area of difference between identity work and intersectionality is the emphasis each lens puts on individual agency and social regulation in identity construction. Identity work tends to emphasize internal meaning making, self-verification, and agentic identity performance (Atewologun et al., 2016; Roberts & Creary, 2013), whereas intersectionality emphasizes socio-structural meaning giving, and emancipation. Atewologun et al’s. (2016) notion of intersectional identity contests the traditional emphasis of intersectionality on structural influences and interlocking oppression, in offering an agent-centered social action perspective on identity work.

This article is in agreement with the more balanced view in intersectional identity work, proposed by Atewologun et al. (2016, p. 227) “we acknowledge the socially constructed nature of identification and the intertwining of self, other and contexts in this, however, our individual constructivist approach privileges individual’s effort in constructing intersecting identities.” This viewpoint is also compatible with Giddens’ (2006) notion of structuration, where social structure and social action are seen as interdependent, in the sense that identities are partly formed by individual agency, but agency is limited by social structure, socio-historical-political contexts, time and place, and culture.

Attention now turns to the influence of culture to highlight super-group and societal contextual macro-level influences on identity construction. This adds a cultural lens to augment the already discussed identity and intersectionality lenses on identity formation.

Cross-Cultural Leadership and Identity Construction

Social identity theories, identity formation, and identity work are relatively new concepts in cross-cultural leadership research (Carroll et al., 2015; Hannum et al., 2010; Schedlitzki & Edwards, 2014; Smith, 2011), because cross-cultural leadership research tends to mainly focus on national culture or cross-cultural comparisons (Klarsfeld et al., 2016).

Even though there is no consensus among cross cultural leadership theorists on the definition, culture generally refers “to a set of parameters of collectives that differentiate the collectives from one another in meaningful ways and that culminate in a set of values and behavior patterns” (Booysen, 2015, p. 246). Culture is a socially constructed shared system of meaning, derived from one's social environment in which context it is learned, not inherited. It permeates our thinking, doing and being and also, therefore, leadership practices, follower expectations, and organization culture and practices. Culture is not absolute; it is relative, each culture is relative to other cultures’ way of perceiving the world and doing things, in a group process (Chhokar, Brodbeck, & House, 2007; Hofstede, 1980, 1991, 2006; Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010; House et al., 2004; Schedlitzki & Edwards, 2014).

Culture and leadership are, like identity, socially constructed processes that occur and evolve within a certain collective or group setting, and constantly adapt to changing contexts. Although cultural forces influence many aspects of leadership, leadership is also a universal phenomenon (Chhokar et al., 2007; Dorfman, 1996; Earley & Ang, 2003; Hofstede, 2006; Hofstede et al., 2010; House et al., 2004; Schwartz, 2006; Smith, 2006, 2011). The foundational question under exploration in cross-cultural leadership is actually to investigate to what extent leadership (as universal phenomenon) is influenced by culture (Dorfman, 1996, p. 267). This question can be approached in a culture-free (etic) or culture-specific (emic) way (Booysen, 2015):

A culture-free, or universalist, approach proposes that there are universal leadership traits/attributes/behaviors/theories that remain similar across culture in the sense that they are comparable, though probably not equally important, across cultures. The culture-specific approach assumes that because cultures are different, leadership processes should reflect these differences, and that certain leadership constructs and behaviors should be unique to a given culture.

(Booysen, 2015, p. 246)

A combination of emic and etic research approaches is recommended. Although, culture-free or etic approaches might be seen as perpetuation stereotypes, it will help us with cultural comparisons and generalization. Emic or cultural-specific approaches on the other hand are giving voice to minorities and diversity within cultures, while working against stereotypes.

The Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness study, or Project-Globe (Chhokar et al., 2007, p. 3; House et al., 2004, p. 15), developed and tested the Culturally Endorsed Implicit Leadership Theory, (CLT),2 which proposes:

  1. 1. Culture influences organizational practices and leader attributes and behaviors that are most frequently enacted, accepted, expected, and effective in that culture. Cultural forces include the larger societal landscape and political, economic, social, technological, legal, and environmental stability and uncertainty (PESTLE forces).

  2. 2. Organizational contingencies, such as organizational tasks, strategy, mission, and leadership expectations, also affect organizational culture and practices, as well as leader behaviors, acceptance, and effectiveness, and vice versa.

Furthermore, culture (national or sub-cultural) as contingency influence on leadership behavior and follower expectations is important and should not be underestimated; however, care should also be taken not to overemphasize culture, because, it is not predictive of individual behavior. Culture is only one of several other identity and contextual influences that impact leadership behavior. Cross-cultural theorists agree that on the individual level, individual differences are more salient than cultural differences, and personality is a more reliable predictor of individual behavior than culture (Chhokar et al., 2007; Hofstede, 2006; Hofstede et al., 2010; House et al., 2004;).

Klarsfeld et al. (2016) point out that most cross-cultural leadership studies follow a culture-free or etic approach, and are focused on the influence of national culture on leadership, or cross-national differences, like Hofstede and the Globe study. Yet national culture is not homogenous but multi-dimensional and contains different sub-level cultures and social categories that are affected differently by power differentials and social regulation in societal cultures. This diversity within national culture needs to be taken into consideration as well. National culture is just one level of cultural influence, a myriad of other sub-cultural/social category and social identity influences, nested within a particular group dynamic context, inextricably bound by a national context and societal landscapes, shape and reshape a person’s identity.

The Leading Across Differences (LAD) framework (Hannum et al., 2010) is one such study that looked at both etic and emic aspects and extended the Globe study’s CLT theory, illustrated how this myriad of cultural and contextual forces influence leadership practices. In essence it showed that, in addition to its influences on workplace and leadership identity formation, social identity category, and individual mental models of leadership, LAD also influences workplace and leadership identity formation. Like CLT it takes the individual, organizational and societal levels of reciprocal influences into account. Of particular interest in this framework is the focus on how different groups and sub-groupings on all three levels can cause “geological fault-lines”3 that create friction when the boundaries rub against each other, and that have repercussions throughout the whole system. These fault-lines can pull groups apart, grind and collide, and create conflict. According to Booysen (2016), the LAD framework suggests that:

  1. 1. Fault-lines (sub-groupings such as national culture, race, gender, language, and religion) function on the societal level and spill over into the organizational context.

  2. 2. The societal landscape (which includes the demographical, historical, and PESTLE contexts) influences the individual level identity development and awareness of leaders and followers.

  3. 3. Individuals (followers and leaders) carry these fault-lines into their organizational context, and specifically into leadership practices and expectations. For instance identity group history, as well as intergroup anxiety and conflict, all spill over into the organizational context.

  4. 4. The organizational context includes yet another level of cultural influences: organizational culture, shared values, both espoused and enacted; the organizational climate and practices; human and other resources; and the organization’s vision, mission, strategy, strategic intent, and practices.

  5. 5. Over and above societal-level fault lines, organizations create their own organizational fault lines (or Us and Them groups), for instance interdependent divisions and departments, functional silos, competitive teams, competing organizational cultures, and employee hierarchies (tops, middles, and bottoms).

  6. 6. Last, there are power differences between fault line groups, where some groups are seen as in-groups, dominant and the norm, and others as subordinate or marginalized.

It is clear that cross-cultural leadership, in its broadest sense, speaks not only to the super group level diversity or difference (e.g., national cultures, multi-national organizations, geographical difference, societal influences), but also to sub-cultural difference (e.g., race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation), and social-identity difference (specific group identification of individuals in the organization), as well as individual personality differences. Schedlitzki and Edwards (2014) pointed out that deeper exploration is needed of these different contextual and cultural influences on leadership and followership.

One identity-based leadership study that explored the micro, meso, macro, systemic level cultural interplay is that of Booysen (2007). Booysen used Social Identity Theory (Tajfel, 1974) and its extensions (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) alongside Alderfer’s (1987) theory of group embeddedness to describe the organizational leadership implications of social identity and power shifts in South Africa’s sub-cultural groups in its transition from an apartheids state to democracy. Despite 13 years of democracy, race was still the most salient social identity categorization in South African workplaces, due to a spill over of racial fault lines embedded in the polarized national context, as Booysen explained:

Alternative social identities, like gender, ethnicity, and professional identity, seem to be embedded within the primary group identification of race as sources of intra-group variation . . . For instance, a black female manager who assigns primacy to her race identity regards all blacks as part of the in-group. Being a woman and manager describes what kind of black person she is, what makes her more or less similar to others in her in-group category or prototype. This results in the African black woman manager feeling closer to other blacks than to other women or other managers. This dynamic is just more pronounced in contexts where some groups have dominance over others and where some groups are populated more or less prominently by a specific group of people, as explained by the embedded-intergroup theory.

(Booysen, 2007, p. 5)

In her work on cross-cultural leadership, Booysen (2007, 2015, 2016) showed how social identity acts as a bridge between personal and national culture identity, or to put it differently, between individual and national levels of mental programing. She proposed Social Identity Theory (SIT) should be employed alongside CLT, because it explains how individual identity (personal and relational), and group level identities (social, collective, cultural) integrate by focusing on the variety of cross-cutting individual and group located properties, their embedded nature, and their shifting salience and influence, based on context (Booysen, 2015, 2016).

Booysen extended Hofstede’s (1980, 1991, 2006) well-known three levels of mental programing, human nature, culture, and individual personality to five levels, by expanding the cultural dimension into three separate levels of influence based on SIT, (a) national culture (macro level), (b) sub-culture/social category (meso level), and (c) social identity level (micro level). She also integrated CLT (House et al., 2004) into her model of Levels of Cultural Influences on Leaders and Followers, by focusing on how national culture (super group macro level contexts) influences group (meso level) organizational culture and social identity level (follower and leaders) leadership practices and expectations.

Intersectional-Identity-Cultural Conceptualization of Work Place Identity Formation

In conclusion an integrated framework of leader identity formation is proposed as a specific workplace identity, based on identity theories, intersectionality, and cross-cultural leadership research. Booysen’s (2016) Levels of Cultural Influences on Leaders and Followers, which includes SIT and CLT, is extended by including identity formation elements (Vignoles et al., 2011), aspects of Hannum et al.’s (2010) Leading Across Difference framework, and the multilevel model of intersectionality of Núñez (2014), as depicted in Figure 1. Figure 1 shows that there is an interplay of five levels of influences on leader identity formation, which falls out in micro, meso, and macro levels:

Workplace Identity Construction: An Intersectional-Identity-Cultural LensClick to view larger

Figure 1. An Intersectional-Identity-Cultural Conceptualization of Leader Identity Formation.

Source: Adapted from Booysen (2016, p. 364), including concepts from Hannum, McFeeters, and Booysen (2010), Núñez (2014), and Vignoles, Swartz, and Luyckx (2011).

Macro level refers to a super group-level identity informed by human nature and national culture. Human nature is universal and inherited, and national culture is specific to a national culture group, socially constructed, and learned through socialization. National culture also includes its particular societal landscape, which encompasses its socio-historical, cultural-political, and legal dynamics, as well as societal level power and classification, and fault lines that inform a particular culture’s CLT. These cultural influences, power dynamics, and fault lines spill over into the meso and micro levels of influence on an individual’s leadership identity.

Meso level, refers to a group level identity informed by sub-cultures/social categories. Sub-cultures/social categories are specific to a social category or group and values and practices are learned and socially constructed. In the case of leadership identity formation, two specific important sub-cultural group influences, as explicated in CLT and LAD, are the organization and leadership. Organizational contingency factors, organizational leadership mental models, and leadership expectations, demands and practices add yet more layers of cultural influences fault-lines and power dynamics that carry normative beliefs, values and behavior that privilege normative groups and marginalized other groups, into the process of leadership identity formation.

Micro level refers to intra- and inter-personal levels of influences, as well as social identity level, and individual (intra-personal), relational (inter-personal), collective identity (social identity) specific to an individual. Personality, partly learned through socialization and internalized processes, co-constructed, and partly inherited, culminates in a relatively stable core of individual identity that is constantly adapting to changing context (internal personal self-identities). Social identity is learned, co-constructed, and negotiated through meaning making and sense giving processes, and includes individual, relational and collective identity (external discursive social identities). It is multiple, fluid, and in constant flux, producing and reproducing.

  1. A. Social identity is the bridge between personal identity and group identity, and it focuses on the interplay between individual, relational, collective, and group identity. The circles indicate the simultaneity, cross cutting, intersecting, and differing prominence and power differences of social identities based on differing contexts. Specifically, they highlight the intrinsic, inextricable, intertwined, and inescapable nature of an individual’s multiple group belonging. Social identity actually spans micro, meso, and macro level contexts, because it includes individual, group, and super-group level identities.

  2. B. Culture, in its broadest sense, includes three levels of influences: national culture (super groups level), sub-culture/social category (group level), and social identity levels, (individual, relational, and collective level), all nested within and influenced by particular societal contexts and historical and socio-political-legal landscapes.

The boundaries between the levels of identities are not solid but permeable, especially the boundary between social identity and personality. The arrows indicate the reciprocal nature of each level of cultural influences and how social identity informs personal identity and vice versa.

This intersectional-identity-cultural conceptualization of leader identity formation, as a specific workplace identity, shows (a) how agency, power dynamics, and fault lines, cut across all levels of identity formation; (b) how culture in its broadest sense influences an individual’s personal, relational, and collective identities (social identities); and (c) that an individual’s social identity is influenced by a micro (individual-level identity, a meso (group-level identity) and a macro level (super group-level identity). Not only does super-group level identity inform an individual’s identity, it is also ubiquitous in the organizational and external contexts and institutional processes that shape and re-shape identities.

Furthermore, leadership is a process that takes place on a systemic level within micro, meso, and macro levels. It is not simply a matter of cultural influences on the expectations of leaders and followers; what also matters is how both leaders and followers interact and engage in meaning making and sense giving practices within place, space, and context (Booysen, 2014; Carroll et al., 2015; Cunliffe & Eriksen, 2011; Raelin, 2016). Leadership is a process that takes place in the relational space between leaders and followers as individuals, within specific social groups, and in specific organizational contextual settings embedded within particular societal and national cultural contexts and historical, socio-political, and legal landscapes.


In conclusion, workplace identity construction can be defined as the confluence of the interplay of individual, relational, and collective level identities, in specific workplaces that include internal organizational contexts, expectations, and aspirations, nested in specific structures of domination and power dynamics negotiated in interactive dynamics, with meaning making and sense giving processes embedded in external socio-historical-political contexts.

Using an intersectional-identity-cultural conceptualization of workplace identity formation elucidates the personal, social identity, sub-group, group, and super group levels of influence on identity formation. It shows that social identity is the bridge between personal identity and group identity, and it focuses on the interplay between individual, relational, collective, and group identity. It highlights the multiplicity, simultaneity, crosscutting, intersecting, and prominence and power differences of social identities based on differing contexts. It illustrates the relatively stable, fluid nature of individual (intra-personal and core) identity as it adapts to the environment, and the constantly changing, co-constructed, negotiated, and renegotiated nature of relational (inter-personal), collective identity (social identity) as it gets produced and reproduced.

The intersectional-identity cultural model also shows how macro level historical, cultural, and political contextual dynamics (House et al., 2004) and societal fault lines (societal landscape) spill over into meso level organizational contexts, and add another level of control regulation (Hannum et al., 2010; Núñez’, 2014). The organizational context includes organizational structural and cultural influences, as well as profession and task-specific expectations, and relevant group-belonging dynamics that add a meso level of influences on workplace identity formation.

Organizational leadership expectations may privilege certain types of leaders above others (Carrim & Nkomo, 2016), that may result in implicit leadership theories (leader-follower expectations and perceptions of effective leadership) (House et al., 2004) that favor prototypicality (Abrams & Hogg, 2004; Ellemers & Haslam, 2012) and/or dominant leader mental models, for instance “think manager think male” or “west is best” (Booysen, 2007). This adds another two layers of social regulation and control, which has a compounding effect in the decrease of power for marginalized groups and an increase in power for dominant groups. It undercuts and decreases agency of leaders in marginalized groups and increases social regulation and control in their identity formation processes; simultaneously, it increases agency of leaders in dominant groups and decreases social regulation and control in their leadership identity formation processes.

Understanding the interplay of the micro-level, individual (agency), relational and collective identity levels (social construction) (Vignoles et al., 2011), nested in the meso level structures of domination and group dynamics in the workplace (control regulation/political) (Atewologun et al., 2016), in its macro level societal landscape context (additional control regulation) (Carrim & Nkomo, 2016), will help us to understand the cognitive sense making processes individuals engage in to construct their workplace identities (Alvesson, 2010; Roberts & Creary, 2013). This understanding can create spaces where non-normative individuals can resist, disrupt, withdraw, or refuse to enact the “limited” accepted identities—or limited identities on offer—and can create alternative discourse or identity possibilities for leadership, other than the dominant mental models.


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(1.) This apparent oxymoron will be clarified, and illustrated in the discussion on Identity complexity, multiplicity, simultaneity, and salience in the sections on Identity processes, and Work Identity Research.

(2.) The CLT is an integration of Implicit Leadership Theory, Value-belief Theory of Culture, Implicit Motivation Theory, and Strategic Contingency Theory of Organizations. See House, Hanges, Javidan, Dorfman, and Gupta (2004).

(3.) Lau and Murnighan (1998, 2005) brought the fault-line analogy into leadership studies and explained it as hypothetical dividing lines that can split organizations (and societies) into “us” and “them” groups. See Hannum, McFeeters, and Booysen (2010).