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Leveraging Psychological Theory to Bring Staff into Your Tribe (& keep them!)

Part 2 of 5 In our Retaining Valuable Staff series

In this article we will explore how the application of identity theory can be used by employers to better understand staff recruitment, induction and retention.

Psychological principles of self & tribe (organisation) identity.

It is well understood by most of us, at an intuitive level, that we like to be in social groups — this is a human need, a drive. So important is this that Maslow (1968) considered the need to ‘belong’ as the next primary need after hunger and safety.

Social identity research develops our understanding further, offering an understanding of how we select groups to join. Early work by Tajfel (1981) suggests that we are drawn to groups that allow us to express or experience self-esteem (personal self-worth) and distinctiveness (feeling unique). Later theoretical development by Breakwell (1986) added two additional guiding drivers for groups seeking behaviour; temporal continuity (a sense of a connected path from past, present and future groups) and self-efficacy (our belief in our own capabilities).

Pause and think on this — we are talking about basic drivers in us at a Psychological and evolved level. We need these needs met in our social being — they are deep felt and manifest themselves in the things we do and the social groups (tribes) we connect with and stay with (or leave).

Becoming an employee is a modern day form of social identity, which we can refer to as an organisational identity. For the person, joining an organisation can be an invitation to incorporate the organisational values, norms and behaviours into their own social identity. Ideally, a person chooses an organisation where these traits resonate with their own and the resultant behaviours at work take the person and the organisation towards the same desired outcome. It can be helpful to think of work in relationship to our development of self identity…

‘a career is about the meaning of self in connection with the world of work’

(Millward and Kyriakidou, 2004)

Put another way, for many of us, who we are is reflected in what we do at work.

Social identity theory provides some ideas about how and why staff choose to work for an organisation — these insights can be flipped to provide us with insights into how an organisation might attract and keep valued staff, who align best with their mission.

Principles and Actions Leaders can Take to Bring People into their Tribes (and keep them)

Extracting Employee Perspectives

It is imperative to understand the drivers and social identity desires of our staff. Ideally we collect this at interview, but it is never too late to make this enquiry as a check-in on where staff are at and whether we are actively supporting the expression of their ideal self in the roles we have designed for them.

Questions you can ask, might include:

  • What roles have they had previously / do they have now and why did they choose their previous employer / to work with you.

  • Ask about significant events that occurred in the first 3 months of their post and what adaptations this prompted in them, to fit in their role.

  • Ask about their emotional responses to these incidents.

  • Ask why they quit their previous post.

  • Ask what would ensure that they stay in this role.

  • Ask what would prompt them to consider quitting.

Frame all of these questions as an invitation to show you what they need and be prepared to hear difficult answers. Promise that the interview is safe and a method for you to know the staff member better and to think about their needs and the organisation as a whole, to be sure that you retain them as a valued staff member.

Here we are trying to establish a sense of how to support a narrative of temporal continuity — drawing out a story of how this role fits in the story of their career… or identifying when it absolutely does not, and perhaps this is not an ideal recruitment.

Establishing meaningful work relationships

Social identity is built on social connections. Forming these within your teams is critical for staff retention. New staff tend to work hard to learn the operations, language and social network within an organisation in an effort to ‘fit in’.

Organisations can and should support this:

  • Provide early and well designed inductions that train the core values, skills and processes to enable staff to navigate their role quickly.

  • Provide access to supportive staff who can answer questions or point to common team processes.

  • Provide access to mechanisms that enhance efficacy — show staff how other team members have learned shortcuts, or key people to provide support. Don’t leave staff with the task of working out what the team has already worked out.

The goal here is to show staff that the organisation expects their support, but that support is mutual and the culture of the team at large. Remember that we connect with social groups that enable us to self express our uniqueness and provide a sense of efficacy in our efforts to get the job done. When staff are held up by processes that could easily be inherited, we are failing to activate guiding drivers and rather creating blockers to efficacy and self-worth.

Creating the opportunity to express uniqueness

In the workplace, we want staff to feel an open space and opportunity to express their skills in service of the larger mission. It is helpful to know that this is what people want too, so a win for us all!

People want roles that enable them to continue in their story of building a skillset and creating value in the workplace, within a team who share the same values.

  • Temporal continuity is supported by ensuring that the role fits the path of the staff member and builds on successes and drivers they have expressed in interview or in your 1 to 1s.

  • Supporting staff and providing feedback regularly is a great way of supporting their experience of uniqueness whilst also encouraging self-efficacy when we support staff to find solutions, take risks and innovate for us.

  • Show that there is career progression opportunities that come with performance and personal development. Show a future with the company, not just a present.

  • Continue staff training and development past the first 6 months of the role, see this as a primary need for most staff members.

Reinforcing and maintaining positive identities

Integration into the group identity is nurtured by reinforcing a sense of self-worth, uniqueness and observed efficacy.

  • Provide positive feedback on progress and support development when issues arise.

  • Encourage whole team appreciative enquiries to support open acknowledgement of their value, in relationship to others.

  • Monitor job satisfaction in relationship to performance, as job satisfaction is a primary reason staff leave their roles. A high performing staff member may feel low satisfaction or low appreciation — this is a bad situation for the organisation.

Shifting principles

It is observed that the guiding principles of staff often shift over time. In the first 6–12 months there is a focus on “what can I give to the organisation” as group integration and efficacy are prioritised. Beyond this there is often a shift towards “what can the organisation give to me” as personal drivers for a future and more opportunities to express their uniqueness appear.

  • Be sure to have a clear career plan with all valued staff and be sure to review this regularly, expecting a shift in values and priorities over time. These reviews should be more frequent than a 12 month appraisal, which can be too late for highly capable people.

  • Don’t see staff as payment for time, but as a person you are responsible for developing. Express (and believe in) a core value that you are invested in their success and willing to support growth. Build processes that enable this as a core business activity.


Staff retention is much more than the amount we pay — and there is psychological theory and research that can equip leaders to become strong in activating and retaining valuable people. Understand the core drivers and work hard to meet them, for all staff.

Informed by the Research of



Breakwell, G.M. (1986) Coping with threatened identity. London: Methuen

Millward, L.J. and Kyriakidou, O. (2004) Linking pre- and post-merger identities through the concept of career. Career Development International 9:12–27

Maslow, A.H. (1968) Towards a psychology of being. New York: Van Nostrand

Tajfel, H. (1981) Human groups and social categories: Studies in social psychology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

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