Blog Post

Why Business Teams Need an Identity

Loyalty. Unity. Passion. These are some of the key buzzwords we’d be likely to see floating around a colleague’s LinkedIn page. Though cliché, these are strengths that executives look for in their teams. Everybody has these qualities in some area of their life; you’d struggle to find someone who isn’t loyal to somebody, isn’t passionate about something or isn’t unified around some cause. They’re ubiquitous traits outside of the workplace, so how can we transfer these desirable attributes into the office?


In 1979, Polish psychologist Henri Tajfel, alongside his protégé John Turner, made his most crucial contribution to the field by founding the social identity theory. Social identity refers to a person’s sense of self, based on their group membership. Briefly summarised, it outlines the processes that develop an ‘us and them’ group mindset. Groups offer both identity (they tell us who we are) and self-esteem (they make us feel good about ourselves). His theory went on to explain the causes of conflict, prejudice, discrimination, fandom and unity.

One of the critical reasons behind football fans’ passion and love for their clubs is identification. All clubs are unique, representing different cities, boroughs, classes and political views. Nowhere is this more evident than in heated derbies. Local rival teams, with battling ideologies, split some of the world’s major metropolitan cities into two, where, for a few days, the divide in the town is almost reminiscent of a civil war. This can be seen in Glasgow’s ‘Old Firm Derby’ or Buenos Aires’ ‘Superclásico’. It seems that the fans of these teams have a deep-rooted view of what it means to support their team – it stems back to the very core of their being. Their club is a vessel to represent the way that they look at the world. Their team’s colours and crest represent not just a football club, but an extension of themselves.


Every club has an identity, and it’s this shared identity between the fans that creates a unified group. My club, PSV, was founded in 1913 by electronics company Philips as a workers’ team. The club’s fans, to this day, sing ‘my father works for Philips, my mother works at the factory, and together they make lightbulbs, from Philips, they burn the best’, whilst fanatic supporters wave huge flags with graffiti-painted lightbulbs on. The pride of the city’s working-class unites fans behind the club. The club’s motto? ‘Unity makes strength’.

Of course, a mini civil war between HR and branding department employees is not the inspiration to be drawn from football fans. However, there’s a lot to be said for fostering a football-esque identity within work teams, and organisations as a whole. By creating an identity around a department, such as a team name, logo, motto, mission statement, or team colours inspired by common values can go a long way towards creating, as Tajfel called it, an ‘in-group’ – something people can get behind, and feel a part of.

Relationship Systems Intelligence (RSI) refers to a team skill that complements – even transcends – Goldman’s established theory of Emotional Intelligence. A team with a high RSI would consist of members who are no longer masked by superficial identities, or ego, but connect to the team as vulnerable people, all of whom are engaged in trying to fulfill a common purpose. It elevates simply ‘working effectively with others’ to a higher level, where we see the team as a single, integrated whole; a living, breathing system as opposed to individuals in a group. Conflict is not seen as a problem because everyone is a voice of the system, which is aligned with a common purpose and identity. It’s less ‘Who said what?’ and more ‘What are we trying to make happen?’, creating a trusting safe space to explore new ideas and create a forward-thinking culture, free from stagnation.

No arguments, no hurt feelings, and a cohesive and effective team sounds like the dream! But this doesn’t happen overnight. People need a purpose to get them out of bed in the morning, not a mission statement written up and imposed on them by the leadership. Organisations require an authentic identity, stemming from a purpose that’s been architected around the values of its people.

Over time, as groups ‘fan-ify’, members become aligned with the team’s identity, and those LinkedIn buzzwords will start to reveal themselves in the office as employees begin to connect with the common goals and values of the organisation. The transition is made from a ‘me’ to a ‘we’ mindset.

When you feel as if the team is an extension of yourself, an extension of your values, your community – that win means everything.

Which companies are ready to take a 1-0 lead?

Open Water supports organizations seeking clarity, trust, and cohesion around their Purpose and goals by using science and psychology-based strategies to create positive and productive purpose-driven cultures. If you’re interested in finding organizational Purpose, unlocking potential, and driving culture change at your organization, we’d love to hear from you.