The Stages of Identity Development

A few days ago we discussed learning about your own identity. Now we will have a look at the three stages in which people can be in the development of their own identity and how these stages affect the way to communicate with them when we try to implement a diversity and inclusion program.

In the first stage, people don’t know much about themselves. Maybe they don’t care, or maybe they suppress their own identity for some reason, but most likely they just never had a reason to think about it. Most people surround themselves with people who are similar like them.

Think about it: who do you spend the most time with? Probably it is someone in a similar position like you, with similar hobbies like you and a similar socio-economic status like you. I am sure you know the saying that we are the average of the five people we spent the most time with. Well, yeah. But we the thing is that we choose these people to be our friends because they are so much like us. Sure, they also influence our behaviour, but to a big part it is also just a matter of choice who you make friends with.

People in this stage often do not really realize – or do not want to realize, that differences between people exist. Or if they are aware of them, they often despise them. When we want to get their buy-in about creating an inclusive environment, the best thing we can do is to focus on the similarities of all members of the organization. We need to make it clear that we are all on the same boat together, that we are part of a team and that there are certain things that we all share. All of us are employees of Tata Steel, whether we are men, women, transgender, heterosexual, homosexual, German, French or Indian. It really doesn’t make a difference who we are – we all have one goal which unites is: to create a great future for Tata Steel.

In the second stage, people’s understanding of who they are is increased. They understand that they are not just an Indonesian women, for instance, but they have a more refined understanding about several aspects of their identity. “I am an Indonesian women, born in an urban environment, focused on my career while trying to balance it with my family life, which is important to me because in the Javanese culture there is a great emphasis on the role of the family”.

At this point people accept small differences, but the focus is still on similarities. Find out which differences people do not see as threatening and focus on these. Discuss these minor differences – it will help people to learn more about their own identity. If most of your colleagues from the city, point out that some of the others were raised in small villages. This will probably not make them outsiders, but it gives people a sense of how even small differences can make people see the world in contrasting ways.

Slowly begin to discuss what benefits a practise of diversity and inclusion has by showing facts and sharing stories that touch the emotions of your colleagues. Show videos of cooperation between people of different backgrounds and how this has benefited both parties, talk about your own experiences and find people who can serve as a role model. Find people who have established great relationships with “different” people and who feel like this experience has enriched their lives and let them share their stories.

Finally, in the last stage, people want to learn more about each other, share more about themselves and treat others with respect. People are happy to discuss even the most uncomfortable differences, no matter what they are. Diversity has become a part of the corporate culture, a part of who people are. In fact it has become so important that it plays a major role in company policies, structures and procedures. The team constantly tries to expose itself to new ideas. To do that, they actively seek out people from different kinds of backgrounds who can provide them with a new perspective.

Let’s say they feel like their innovativeness is not good enough. Something has to change. Maybe they can bring a professional improv artist on the team, who can teach them to be more spontaneous and how to build on other people’s ideas? Or how about a jazz player, who is an expert on how to synchronize people’s ideas real time? There are no boundaries. Everybody has his or her special skillset – we just need to learn to tap into it.

Many of the ideas expressed in this article are adapted from Robert Hayles, one of the co-authors of “Diversity at Work: The Practise of Inclusion“. Thanks for the great work! Guys, if you do have the time to read 500 pages, giv