Where Organizational Identity and Role Identity Meet

This post features guest author J. Travis McDearmon, Ph.D., whose seminal work on Alumni Role Identity created space for a new narrative in understanding the alumni to alma mater relationship. Read on and enjoy! - Jay


Take a second and think about an organization, business or institution you really like. It could be a store where you shop, a restaurant you visit often, a place you have been employed, or even a school you attended. Now think about why you have this feeling. Is it due to a particular experience? Do you have a personal connection to it? As important, what would happen if this organization was to go away? All of these questions are poised to explore an interesting human phenomenon where individuals can actually grow a bond towards an organization similar to their connections with other people. Although this may seem trivial, it can have a profound impact on organizational growth, brand management, talent acquisition and many other areas related to the human side of the modern economy.

There are many theories on how this type of social bond came about but two that look at it from a more personal perspective are Organizational Identity and Role Identity. Both have strong conceptual backings and provide factual evidence on why individuals develop a sense of loyalty to certain organizations over others. However, this post will focus not only on the unique perspectives each theory brings to the topic at hand, but where they are conceptually similar and can assist organizations in continuing to build a base of followers from the inside out.

Organizational Identification, as developed by Frank Mael and Blake Ashford (1989), is defined as perceived “oneness” with an organization. Research by the original authors plus a host of others has found that individuals can become so attached to an organization that they actually experience either joy or sorrow by integrating the institution’s successes or failures as their own. This can be seen very clearly in sports fandom where emotional outbursts and its effect on a person’s psyche can be dependent upon whether their chosen team wins or loses the big game.

On the other hand, Role Identity is where an individual actually inherits their position within an organization into their own sense of self. This paves way for people to make statements such as “I am <insert organization’s name>” instead of “I like…” or “I am a member of …” respectively. Role identity can be applied to many organizational structures; however, research on college and university alumni (McDearmon 2011; Dillon 2017) have found graduates who develop a greater role identity towards their position with the institution will give, volunteer and serve as brand ambassadors at a greater level than the average former student.

Both of these theories explore how people classify themselves in a social environment in order to find their place in an otherwise random universe. Organizational identity usually includes group membership such as religious affiliation, generation, gender, etc. Sometimes it is based upon the actions an individual takes to gain membership (joining a church, enlisting in the military, or attending a school). It can also be assigned by more natural methods such as biological (gender, hair color, race) or even physical location (nationality, regional, or neighborhood). Whether by choice or birth, these classifications can bring forth great pride and/or shame depending on how the individual responds to environmental stimuli.

Role identity is where people use their self-induced positions for classification purposes that are more narrowly defined. Not only does the individual want to be recognized as a group member, they want to act out the behaviors associated with these classifications as well. Take the stereotypical perception of attorneys versus those who work in the tech sector. Attorneys may work in more traditional offices, wear business clothing and take on a persona of a character strait out of a John Grisham novel. However, the tech worker could be in an open aired environment, dress casually and resemble someone from CBS’s hit sitcom, The Big Bang Theory. Each actor in this scenario is taking on the behaviors previously established for that role and making them a part of their own self-perception. The role itself is a pathway for behavior if the person so chooses.

Both theories are useful in their owns rites and can be complimentary. In most cases, it’s positive experience and perceptions that cause people to take on these identities. The entire profession of marketing is built on this premise and advertisers spend billions making sure their brands and the organizations behind them become your preferred choice over the competition. This mentality has also bled into corporate recruiting, nonprofit fundraising, college alumni relations and many other organizational types that are looking to maximize the number of people who prefer them to someone else. For those who seek to profit in this area should pay attention to identity formation around their brand and work to control the positive stimuli that is being projected to the outward world.

As you can see, identity development can be an important growth area for any organization, brand or institution. To learn more about how you can maximize your organization’s potential, subscribe to this blog or follow along on Twitter or LinkedIn using the hashtag #AlumniIdentity.


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Dr. McDearmon is a fundraiser, teacher, speaker and social scientist with over 15 years of experience in nonprofit and university administration. His research has been featured in Research in Higher Education and the International Journal of Educational Advancement. He is also an adjunct professor at the Indiana University Lilly School of Philanthropy. Connect with Travis on LinkedIn to learn more about how role identity can work for you.

Jay Dillon