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A psychological study into what can happen when your identity becomes subsumed into your employer

What happens when you work at Goldman Sachs and start referring to ‘The Firm’, refusing to take calls from nice journalists, and wearing Ferragamo Loafers each day? How about when you work at Barclays and become a paen for Bobtastic Bob and everyone you work with, despite their possible shortcomings?

Blame identity fusion. The American Psychological Association has recently published a report on the phenomenon by various academics. It defines such fusion as: “a visceral feeling of oneness with the group.”

Identity fusion is not exactly brainwashing, says the APA, because brainwashed individuals lose all sense of person agency On the other hand, fused people…

‘…maintain a strong sense of personal agency that they channel into pro-group behavior. That is, because group members who are highly fused with the group channel their feelings of personal agency into the priorities of the group, they effectively bolster the collective agency of the group.’

However, the process becomes scarily self-reinforcing.

“Just as highly fused persons come to view themselves through their group membership (“My group membership is a crucial part of who I am”), they also perceive the group through their personal self (“I am an important part of the group”). These mutual influence processes encourage a strong sense of connection to the group, a sense that motivates highly fused persons to do as much for the group as they would do for themselves.”

And it’s in banks’ interest to promote identity fusion because…

“…the personal and social self will combine synergistically to motivate pro-group behavior…measures of fusion are exceptionally strong predictors of extreme pro-group behavior.’”

Fusion can, however, lead to dangerous feelings of collective invincibility:

“Moreover, just as highly fused persons will be inclined to believe that they themselves will do anything for the group and its members, they will project their feelings of personal agency onto others. As a result, they will develop the conviction that other group members are similarly disposed to protect the group and its individual members. This assumption that other group members are also extraordinarily committed to the group and its individual members will foster the perception of reciprocal strength, wherein highly fused individuals will perceive that the group is not only extremely powerful, but invulnerable due to the combined effect of personal and group agency.”

It can also lead to social isolation:

“The single-mindedness of highly fused individuals may impair their ability to display sufficient role flexibility needed to maintain healthy relationships with individuals who are not members of the fused group. In addition, insofar as such individuals display extreme pro-group behaviors that are deviant in nature, they may find that they are not welcome in circles outside the fused group.”  

And when an individual is ousted from the group, identity fusion can result in meltdown:

“Instances of de-fusion are likely to be emotionally wrenching, as they theoretically entail substantial restructuring of the self-concept, one’s relation to others, and even the very meaning of one’s actions…”

The academics don’t offer much in the way of advice on how to deal with such traumatic instances of de-fusing (AKA layoffs). The best bet would seem to beware of becoming too fused in the first place.

AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor

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