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The IRIOP Annual Review

Journal of Organizational Behavior, J. Organiz. Behav. (2013)

Published online in Wiley Online Library ( DOI: 10.1002/job.1893

Identity conicts at work: An integrative

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Summary This review examines workplace identity conicts, offering three primary contributions. First, it reconciles
hitherto fragmented perspectives on identity conicts to offer an integrative and cross-level perspective on
identity conicts at work. Second, it elucidates an important distinction between two types of identity conicts,
namely intra-unit and inter-unit conicts, also outlining the different roots, moderators, and reconciliations of
these conict types. Third, it proposes an alternative perspective on identity conicts as constructive forces for
individual and organizational change, also stressing the importance of context and content in shaping identity
conict outcomes. Thus, this paper provides a comprehensive overview of identity conicts in the workplace,
clarifying the current state of the science and offering new directions for future research. Copyright 2013
John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Keywords: identity conict; cross-level; change

Every individual is a meeting ground for many different allegiances, and sometimes these loyalties conict with
one another and confront the person who harbors them with difcult choices.
Amin Maalouf (2003)

Identity represents an individuals answer to the question who am I? or a collectives answer to the question
who are we? (Pratt & Foreman, 2000). Individuals and groups dene themselves according to their central and
distinctive characteristics, including the values and beliefs they advocate and the expectations that they hold (Albert
& Whetten, 1985). Research has testied to the many different types of workplace identities, including career
identities, team identities, professional and organizational identities (Ashforth, Harrison, & Corley, 2008). In
addition, it has demonstrated the criticality of such identities for workplace outcomes, including motivation,
attitudes, behavior, and performance (Riketta, 2005; van Knippenberg, 2000).
However, attention has increasingly turned to the wider consequences of identity at work, including the potential
for identity conicts in the workplace. Identity conict is dened as conict between the values, beliefs, norms and
demands inherent in individual and group identities (Ashforth & Mael, 1989, p. 29). The last decade has seen a
burgeoning literature focusing on this topic, providing rich insights into the role and impact of work-related identity
conicts at individual, group, and organizational levels. This research testies to the pervasive inuence of identity
conicts in our workplaces. Indeed, the signicant and often deleterious effects of identity conicts have been
widely documented in empirical studies (Glynn, 2000; Voss, Cable, & Voss, 2006), while theoretical models place
identity conicts at the center of dysfunctional inter-group dynamics within organizations (Fiol, Pratt, & OConnor,
2009). Crucially, researchers also predict that identity-based conicts are only set to increase, as the multiplicity and
complexity of workplace environments and roles intensify (Fiol et al., 2009).

*Correspondence to: Kate E. Horton, Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, Burgemeester Oudlaan 50, Room L04-97, 3062 PA
Rotterdam, The Netherlands. E-mail:

Received 27 April 2012

Copyright 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Revised 10 July 2013, Accepted 16 July 2013

However, at present, the research on identity conicts remains scattered and disjointed, providing a fragmented
picture of the consequences of conicts at work. A systematic investigation of the nature and roots of different
conict types is also missing, as is an understanding of the dynamic drivers of identity conicts over time. Instead,
researchers typically operate within narrow disciplinary and methodological boundaries, taking a myopic approach
to identity conicts within their academic niche. Within this context, there is little reection on potential connections
across methodological traditions, disciplinary silos, and levels of analysis.
Addressing these limitations, our review offers three primary contributions to the eld. First, we identify two
different types of work-related identity conicts, integrating evidence from different traditions and domains. In
particular, we distinguish between intra-unit identity conicts (i.e., those that occur within an individual or
collective) and inter-unit identity conicts (i.e., those that occur across individuals or collectives). We start by
reviewing evidence of these types of conicts at individual, group, and organizational levels. We then draw on
the cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957) and the social identity approach (Tajfel & Turner, 1979; Turner,
1985) to shed light on the underlying mechanisms, triggers, and reconciliations of intra-unit and inter-unit conicts
within our workplaces.
Second, we examine the nature of cross-level identity conicts at work, outlining important interconnections
between identity conicts at different levels of an organizational structure. This discussion highlights the importance
of integrative and cross-level approaches to identity conicts, also implying that our current tendency to work within
disciplinary silos is highly detrimental to the advancement of the eld.
Third, we consider the dynamic nature of identity conicts, examining the processes through which identity
conicts become manifest and are reconciled over time. This discussion highlights the role of change as a primary
cause and consequence of identity conicts at work, demonstrating that while internal and external changes trigger
identity conict, identity conict is itself a critical driver of workplace development and change.
Before delving into the main topic of our review, we start by examining the foundations of identity research,
including the different levels of self-representation and analysis that lie at the heart of our integrative framework.

Theoretical Background: Identity Differentiations and Levels of Analysis

At a basic level, a distinction can be made between identities that are deep-structured and those that are situated
(Rousseau, 1998). Deep-structured identities are chronic and fundamentally shape ones self denition, whereas
situated identities are more transient and dependent on the presence of situational cues. In addition, identities may
be ascribed (i.e., involuntary and inherently deep-rooted) or non-ascribed (i.e., chosen or voluntary). For example,
although a female engineer can choose to adopt the (non-ascribed) identity of an engineer, her (ascribed) identity as
a female is inherited.
Workplace identities exist at multiple levels of the self, encapsulating individuals identication with personal,
collective, and relational foci. For example, an individual may simultaneously foster a personal identity as an
ambitious worker, a relational identity as a supportive colleague, and a collective identity as a loyal organizational
member. These different levels of the self are characterized by different frames of reference, motivations, and
demands (Brewer & Gardner, 1996), which can provoke identity conict as an individual attempts to balance their
commitment to divergent (personal, relational, and collective) interests. In addition, workplace identities represent
multiple levels of analysis, ranging from personal identities (an individuals perception about who I am) to group
and organizational identities (collective perceptions about who we are as a group or organization; Ashforth,
Rogers, & Corley, 2011).1
Encapsulating identity conicts across these levels of analysis, we begin by examining two different types of
identity conicts, namely those that occur within an individual or group (labeled intra-unit conicts) and those that

At the individual level, levels of self-representation and analysis are synonymous

Copyright 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Organiz. Behav. (2013)
DOI: 10.1002/job

occur across individuals and groups (labeled inter-unit conicts). We then go on to explore the different roots,
moderators, and consequences of these types of conicts within the workplace (Table 1).

Types of Identity Conict

Intra-unit identity conicts
We dene intra-unit identity conicts as conicts in the values, beliefs, norms, and expectations held by a single
individual or collective about who we are as a group or who I am as an individual. Our review of the literature
provides extensive evidence of intra-unit conicts at different levels of analysis (e.g., organizational, group, and
individual levels). Research into intra-unit conicts at the organizational level nds it roots in the work of Albert
and Whetten (1985) on hybrid identities. In their seminal article, the authors drew attention to the prevalence of
organizations embodying two or more types [of identity] that would not normally be expected to go together
(p. 270). Since then, many papers have investigated the nature of dual or multifaceted organizations, such as those
that embody hybrid familybusiness or ideologicalutilitarian identities (Foreman & Whetten, 2002; Voisey, 2010).
Of course, hybrid identities are not always in conict. Yet, research suggests that they create inherent tensions that
must be reconciled or managed in order for organizations to survive (Voisey, 2010, p. 216). Providing an example of
this, Battilana and Dorado (2010) describe how two micronance organizations embodying hybrid commitments to
development and banking logics routinely wrestled with conicts between these two dimensions.
The co-occurrence of contradictory identity elements is also widely evident in occupational (i.e., group-level)
identities. For example, the role of an army medic hinges on two inherently conicting identities as a life-saving
medic and a combative serviceman (Leavitt, Reynolds, Barnes, Schilpzand, & Hannah, 2012), while many
leadership roles demand an adherence to potentially conicting utilitarian (cost-saving) and idealistic (professional

Table 1. Framework of identity conict types.

Intra-unit identity conict Inter-unit identity conict

Description Conicts in the values, beliefs, norms, and Conicts in the values, beliefs, norms,
expectations held by a single individual and expectations held by different individuals
or collective identity or groups within a collective identity

Organizational level Hybrid organizational identities (Voisey, 2010) Inter-organizational conictsIJVs
(Li & Hambrick, 2005)
Group level Army medic (Leavitt et al., 2012) Musicians versus board members
ASO (Glynn, 2000)
Individual level Intrapersonal workfamily Interpersonal conictstheater
conicts (Byron, 2005) directors (Voss et al., 2006)

Roots Cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957) Social identity (Tajfel & Turner, 1979)
Uncertainty reduction (Hogg & Terry, 2000) In-group projection model
(Mummendey & Wenzel, 1999)

Moderators Cultural and historical context Power and status

Reconciliation Segmenting Segmenting

Reinterpreting Bridging
Note: IJVs, international joint ventures; ASO, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Copyright 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Organiz. Behav. (2013)
DOI: 10.1002/job

excellence) logics. The most striking example of this type of conict was exposed in the lead up to the Challenger
space shuttle crash, when a senior engineer was urged to take off his engineering hat and put on his management
hat, in making the decision to launch the fated shuttle (Presidential commission, cited in Ashforth & Mael, 1989, p. 30).
At the individual level, intra-unit conicts are synonymous with intrapersonal conicts, representing conicts
in the values, beliefs, norms, and expectations held by a single individual about who I am as a person. Intraper-
sonal conicts thus reect an individuals personal attempts to juggle competing commitments to multiple work
and/or non-work identities. Intrapersonal conicts are rife within modern work environments as workers are
increasingly confronted with a range of workplace identities, as well as a multitude of social and non-work roles
(Ashforth et al., 2008). These identity targets typically span hierarchical and vertical boundaries, representing
different levels of self-representation (e.g., personal, relational, and collective) and different domains (e.g., work
and home). The ability to foster multiple identities is important in sustaining a complex and meaningful sense of
self that is essential to individual well-being (Thoits, 1983). However, research also indicates that an individuals
sense of consistency may be threatened by the enactment of different identities with different behavioral norms
and codes. For example, the demand to be uncompromising, formal, and authoritative in a work domain and
exible, informal, and spontaneous in a non-work domain may be the source of considerable intrapersonal
conict, as an individual attempts to reconcile the divergent claims and expectations of these different roles
(Greenhaus & Beutell, 1985). A vibrant literature attests to the pervasive inuence of workfamily conicts
(Byron, 2005) and workleisure conicts (Staines & OConnor, 1980), as well as conicts between challenging
occupational identities and neglected personal identities (Kreiner, Hollensbe, & Sheep, 2006) and between
ascribed social identities and chosen work roles (Bell, 1990).

Nested intra-unit identity conicts

The intra-unit conicts we have considered so far occur at a single (individual, group, or organizational) level of
analysis, reecting conicting identities in different domains (e.g., worklife or familybusiness). However, identity
conicts may also occur across levels of analysis when the values, beliefs, norms, and expectations held at one level
(e.g., the team) conict with those advocated at another level (e.g., the organization). Such conicts may be expected
to be particularly common when identities are nested, that is, when one identity is inherently subsumed and
interconnected with another. For example, if the norms and values of an Accident and Emergency department
directly conict with the hospital in which it resides, then salient identity conicts are highly likely to emerge.
We label these types of conicts as nested intra-unit identity conicts and suggest that they are both critical and
underexplored in the extant literature.
The incidence of nested intra-unit conicts may be expected to be limited by the structure of identities in a means-
end chain in which goals and values are aligned (Ashforth & Mael, 1989; March & Simon, 1958). For example, the
organization (e.g., a hospital) provides a platform in which to fulll personal (e.g., career) ambitions, while the
profession (e.g., nursing) can only be enacted within the context of a particular team (e.g., midwifery). As Ashforth
et al. (2011) testify, isomorphism between identities at different levels thus often prevails. Yet, although nested effects
are rarely explicitly considered in current research, we nd that they are a pervasive source of intra-unit conict in our
This was recognized in the early writing of Gouldner (1957), who highlighted inherent conicts in the service
orientations of professions and the commercial orientations of organizations, in which these professions are enacted
(See also Bamber & Iyer, 2002). More recent research demonstrates conicts between individuals identities and the
norms and values advocated by their organizations. For example, Creed and colleagues provide an evocative exam-
ple of the identity conicts experienced by gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender ministers in reconciling their
marginalized personal identities with the contradictory identity claims entrenched within their Presbyterian Church
(Creed, DeJordy, & Lok, 2010).
Nested identity conicts are also implicit in Mair and colleagues fascinating examination of the inherent con-
tradictions experienced by entrepreneurial women in Bangladeshi marketplaces (Mair, Marti, & Ventresca, 2012).
The authors conclude that women are often excluded from work life because of the patriarchal systems, religious

Copyright 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Organiz. Behav. (2013)
DOI: 10.1002/job

doctrines, and behavioral norms advocated in Bangladeshi society, which act to contradict and frustrate the
personal career aspirations of ambitious women. At the same time, the authors reveal inherent conicts in
taken for granted elements of modern markets and the rules of the game advocated within Bangladeshi
As these examples demonstrate, work identities are not performed within a vacuum, and the nature of identities at
organizational and societal levels has a powerful inuence on those working within its boundaries, often acting to
conne and contradict personal and subgroup ambitions. Given the profound effect of nested conicts, we propose
that more research is needed to understand the nature and implications of such conicts for organizations and the
individuals that serve within them.

Inter-unit identity conicts

The preceding discussion focused on identity conicts that involve a single individual or collective. However,
identity conicts can also involve multiple individuals or parties. Indeed, evidence suggests that collective identities
can be contested territory for opposing subgroups, who make divergent identity claims according to the unique
norms, values, and resources of their subgroup (Glynn, 2000). We label these as inter-unit identity conicts, dened
as conicts in the values, beliefs norms, and expectations held by different individuals or groups within a collective
identity. At the inter-group level, this type of conict reects discrepancies in the organizational identity claims
made by different subgroups within a single organization or collective.
Early work by Reichers (1985) recognized the existence of multiple organizational coalitions and constituencies
within organizations, each fostering distinct expectations and ambitions, which are often misaligned with those of
other subgroups. These unique interests provide a basis for divergent identity claims. For instance, whereas the
administrators of a hospital may emphasize issues of efciency and protability, professional employees may
conceptualize the hospitals primary goal as the delivery of professional excellence (Hekman, Steensma, Bigley,
& Hereford, 2009). In this way, subgroups form distinct faultlines, aligning not only in their professional and
workgroup categorizations but also in their behavioral expectations and the unique goals and resources that they
advocate (Lau & Murnighan, 1998; Pratt & Rafaeli, 1997).
Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in Glynns (2000) portrayal of factional dynamics in the Atlanta
Symphony Orchestra (ASO). In exploring the origins of a musicians strike, Glynn demonstrates that the professional
identities of musicians and administrators aligned with members organizational identity claims, resulting in an em-
phasis on distinct artistic versus economic perspectives. The core capabilities and emphasized resources of ASO
members were similarly polarized in line with these (musician and administrator) subgroups. The discipline of
management research is also not immune to such inter-unit discrepancies. Gulati (2007) describes tribal identity
conicts built around the labels of rigor and relevance and even sub-tribal conicts based around academics
adherence to narrow disciplinary and methodological frameworks. These disciplinary boundaries shape and dene
scholars claims of academic rigor, so that even within the rigor tribe, subgroups are divided as to what that rigor
actually entails.
Most research on inter-unit identity conicts has focused on the divergent identity claims of organizational
subgroups. This is perhaps unsurprising given Brewers (1991) work on optimal distinctiveness, which underlines
the important role of proximal subgroups in balancing a basic need for inclusiveness and distinctiveness. Yet,
inter-unit identity conicts are also evident in more macro (inter-organizational) contexts as well as among
(interpersonal) dyads. For example, research has testied to the impact of identity conict on the effectiveness of
international joint ventures (IJVs), in particular showing that the conicting identity claims of organizational
partners is key to the failure of many collaborative enterprises (Li & Hambrick, 2005). Similarly, Voss et al. (2006) show
that the dyadic leadership of theater organizations was often characterized by identity conict emanating from the
contradictory ideologies and values of managing and marketing directors.

Copyright 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Organiz. Behav. (2013)
DOI: 10.1002/job

Roots of Intra-Unit and Inter-Unit Identity Conicts

Having illustrated the nature of intra-unit and inter-unit identity conicts, we next consider the underlying roots of
these conict types. In particular, we draw on existing theories of cognitive dissonance and social identity to explore
the foundations of intra-unit and inter-unit conicts, suggesting that these are uniquely associated with processes of
uncertainty reduction and self-esteem enhancement, respectively.
Cognitive dissonance theory highlights our inherent desire for consonance and the distress caused by dissonance
in ones attitudes and behaviors (Festinger, 1957). Similarly, the uncertainty reduction hypothesis draws attention to
the central role of social identity in reducing uncertainty and encouraging a sense of belonging (Hogg & Terry,
2000). On the basis of these theories, we suggest that intra-unit identity conicts are an antithesis to our underlying
need for identity consistency. More precisely, we observe that intra-unit conicts are threatening and costly because
they violate a basic need for internal consistency and certainty in our individual and group identities.
In contrast, the roots of inter-unit identity conict appear to be found in classic theories of social psychology
and the social identity and self-categorization processes that fuel inter-group identity dynamics within our work-
places (Tajfel & Turner, 1979; Turner, 1985). The self-esteem hypothesis proposes that a desire for positive self-
esteem is fundamental to our social and group identities and that as such, group categorizations involve a process
of differentiation in which an in-group is favorably distinguished from relevant out-groups (Abrams &
Hogg, 1988). Research also shows that groups tend to project their own subgroup identity on the super-
ordinate collective (Mummendey & Wenzel, 1999), meaning that different groups will harbor discrepant
perceptions and claims on an organizations identity depending on their distinct subgroup values and norms.
This motivation is also found to apply to interpersonal (workplace) conicts, where individuals represent a
particular social or professional group within their organization. For example, the two theater directors in Voss
and colleagues (2006) study mentioned previously were key representatives of different professional subgroups,
therefore claiming different (marketing versus managing) values in line with these identities. Thus, while intra-
unit identity conicts appear to be intimately connected to an underlying desire for certainty and consistency, we
see inter-unit identity conicts as strongly tied to processes of inter-group categorization, projection, and

Moderators of Intra-Unit and Inter-Unit Identity Conicts

Researchers have identied a number of potential moderators of identity conict, including the number or
complexity of identities, the extent to which these are integrated or segmented, and the strength of an individuals
identication with these targets (Ashforth, Kreiner, & Fugate, 2000; Pratt & Foreman, 2000). For example, identity
conicts may be expected to be particularly rife where individuals foster multiple competing identities, which are
highly integrated and with which they identify strongly. We further emphasize two key constructs, which we suggest
are important and currently underexplored moderators of intra-unit and inter-unit conicts; namely contextual/
historical context and power/status dimensions.
The particular historical and cultural setting plays a role in many of the intra-unit identity conicts described
previously. For example, the conicts experienced by entrepreneurial women in Mair and colleagues (2012) study
are profoundly connected to their position within a Bangladeshi society. At the same time, identity conicts are
shaped by the social and political climate dominant in a particular era. In discussing her experiences of conict as
a black, female journalist, Carol Simpson remarked, The civil rights confrontations. The student protests. The
anti-war rallies. It was a turbulent period in American urban history. And I was stuck in the middle of it (cited Slay
& Smith, 2011, p. 95). Slay and Smith go on to explain that the circumstances of the time created both opportunities
and threats for black journalists, who were, on the one hand, unique and in demand and, on the other hand,
subject to racism and inequality.

Copyright 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Organiz. Behav. (2013)
DOI: 10.1002/job

In contrast, power and status are important moderators of inter-unit identity conicts. Research shows that when
there are power asymmetries amongst subgroups, the norms of the collective identity are largely dictated by the
dominant or majority group, whereas subgroups claims on a collective may be expected to be more equally
balanced when power is equitably divided (Devos & Banaji, 2005; Li, Xin, & Pillutla, 2002). In addition, research
shows that inter-unit identity conicts may be more ercely fought when they threaten high-status subgroup identi-
ties than when they involve lower status groups (Sachdev & Bourhis, 1991).
Interestingly, the aforementioned accounts also imply that the severity of identity conict may depend upon
whether conicting identities are ascribed, deep-structured, or situated. Specically, when identity conicts impinge
upon ascribed or deep-structured identities, which are chronic and integral to self or group denitions, their effects
may be expected to be particularly invasive and deep-seated.

Connections Across Types and Levels

In addition, to the inuence of nested intra-unit identity conicts outlined previously, our review indicates a second
and perhaps even more pressing reason to consider cross-level effects in our studies of identity conict. Specically,
we nd that identity conicts at one level of analysis are often foreshadowed by conicts at other levels, meaning
that intra-unit and inter-unit conicts are interconnected throughout an organizational structure. Detailing such a
case, Golden-Biddle and Rao (1997) report that the conicting nature of a nonprot organization had direct impli-
cations for the rms directors, who were highly susceptible to intra-role conicts based on their adherence to these
contradictory organizational elements. In addition, at a dyadic level, Beutell and Greenhaus (1982) showed that
interpersonal identity conicts caused by the married couples contradictory beliefs about the importance of work
directly contributed to womens personal experiences of work-family conict. Similarly, Li and colleagues (2002)
provide intriguing propositions regarding the effects of concurrent identity conicts in IJVs, specically proposing
that while identity-based factionalism is a prevalent inter-unit dynamic in IJV management teams, individual man-
gers are also prone to intrapersonal role conicts because of their parallel commitments to parent and joint venture
entities. Finally, highlighting the links between intra-unit and inter-unit conicts, Battilana and Dorado (2010) dem-
onstrate that the effects of intra-unit dissonance may lter through an organizations fabric causing subgroup con-
icts at a lower level. Focusing on a micronance non-government organization in Bolivia, the authors showed
that inter-unit identity schisms were a direct consequence of subgroups underlying commitments to conicting (de-
velopment versus banking) aspects of the organizations hybrid identity.
These studies illustrate important connections between identity conicts of different types and at different levels
of analysis, in particular demonstrating that identity conict at one level of an organization may have ripple effects
that shape experiences of intra-unit and inter-unit identity conicts throughout the organizations structure. Yet, at
present, we know little about the causes and consequences of these multi-level connections, suggesting that further
research into these effects is sorely needed.
Having explored the roots, moderators, and interconnections between different types of work-related conicts, we
next consider the mechanisms through which intra-unit and inter-unit conicts become evident and are managed
over time. In particular, we examine the role of change as an antecedent to identity conict and, in turn, the role
of identity conict in triggering individual and organizational change.

Change as a Trigger of Identity Conict

Latent identity discrepancies may pass unnoticed for some time without provoking conict, while the greater
recognition of these disagreements is a catalyst for developing hostility (Pratt & Rafaeli, 1997). Thus, borrowing
the terms originally adopted by Pondy (1967), we discriminate between latent conicts (i.e., those in which disagree-
ments are hidden or suppressed) and manifest conicts (i.e., those in which conict is recognized and prominent).

Copyright 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Organiz. Behav. (2013)
DOI: 10.1002/job

Exploring the triggers of identity conict, we nd that external and internal changes are critical in provoking
manifest identity conicts by creating a sense of temporal inconsistency or by bringing existing identity conicts
to the fore. These changes can take the form of identity jolts (i.e., sudden challenges to the existing identity) or
slower processes of adaptation. Evocative accounts of the impact of identity jolts on experiences of intrapersonal
conict are evident in the trauma-based literature, where individuals describe their personal struggles to deal with
events that challenge a valued identity or that cause perceptions of this identity to be fundamentally revised. For
example, Haynie and Shepherd (2011) provide rich accounts of the identity conicts experienced by disabled
servicemen who are faced with building a new self-identity in the wake of a career-shattering injury. Similarly,
Maitlis (2009) highlights the fundamental sense of identity loss experienced by musicians that are forced to end their
profession because of injury. As Matthew, a cellist in Maitlis study comments, one of the amazing things to come
to grips with is the identity crisis of who on earth you are if youre no longer a cellist, having wrapped yourself in
that cover for so long (p. 47).
Intrapersonal conicts may also be activated by desired life changes. Key life events, including parenthood and
promotion, can trigger the reassessment of identities, bringing existing identities into conict with new roles and respon-
sibilities (Ibarra, 1999; Ladge, Clair, & Greenberg, 2012). Of course, there are individual differences in workers
responses to these events, which may be perceived as enriching to one individual but threatening to another.
Changes at an organizational level have also been found to be destabilizing. Indeed, Corley and colleagues
(Corley & Gioia, 2004; Corley, 2004) describe the discrepancies and tensions experienced by employees of a global
technology rm in the wake of an organizational spin-off, in reconciling their organizations emerging identity with
their reminiscences of its past and expected future identities. In addition, research shows that fundamental structural
changes (e.g., new joint ventures and organizational mergers) can be a potent trigger of inter-unit identity conicts
amongst organizational subgroups (Wiesenfeld & Hewlin, 2003).
Identity conicts may also stem from slow processes of internal adaptation, which cause identities to diverge and
disassociate over time. Research has explored how the departure of an identity from its original foundation, a process
termed as identity drift, leads to identity conict as the organizations current identity becomes misaligned with its
past. For example, Drori, Honig, and Sheaffer (2009) describe how an organizations gradual departure from its
starting norms and values alienated those workers still entrenched in the companys starting vision.
Inter-unit identity conicts are also shaped by slow processes of adaptation, which cause units to develop
divergent accounts of their organizations identity over time. Coining the term identity blurring, Ravasi and
Philips (2011) describe how inconsistent rhetoric emanating from two management teams at Bang & Olufsen
(B&O) resulted in ambiguity and misunderstanding amongst different stakeholders. Commenting on the case,
Poulsen (1997, p. 39) writes, for many years B&O sent two different messages, in two different languages, spoken
by two management groups who didnt understand each other. Such ambiguous and contradictory projections
contribute to deviance in the identity norms, values, and visions held by different subgroups, thus inciting inter-unit
conicts over time. Interestingly, as well as illustrating the impact of identity blurring on the development of man-
ifest conict, this example provides a clear portrait of the cascading effects of identity conict at the organizational
level on the emergence of subgroup conicts within the organization.

Reconciling Identity Conicts: Situated Versus Deep-Structured Solutions

Research focusing on the reconciliation of these manifest conicts is primarily concerned with management strate-
gies aimed at repositioning identities in a way that minimizes and suppresses conicts. We label these strategies as
situated solutions because they primarily rely on managing the situational salience of the conicts. Yet, our review
also suggests that identity conict may play an important and largely unrecognized role in driving individual and
organizational change. More specically, we review evidence showing that identity conict paves the way for
deep-structured conict solutions aimed at redening and realigning identities at their very source. We begin by

Copyright 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Organiz. Behav. (2013)
DOI: 10.1002/job

reviewing evidence of situated strategies, considering both intra-unit and inter-unit conict resolutions. This discus-
sion highlights overlaps and distinctions in the appropriateness of different strategies for these two conict types.

Managing intra-unit conicts

The cognitive mechanisms of segmenting and organizing are key ways to manage intra-unit identity conicts.
Identities may be temporally segmented so that at different times, different identities are given precedence, or
hierarchically organized, so that priority is given to the most valued identity (Ashforth et al., 2008). For example,
an individual may choose to give precedence to their leadership identity during a performance appraisal and their
engineering identity when working on a project design (temporal segmenting) or to a valued identity (e.g., a
professional sportsperson) at the expense of a peripheral identity (e.g., a media gure; hierarchical organizing).
Identity conicts may also be managed through reinterpreting the nature or value of the identity target. Petriglieri
(2011) outlines the process of identity restructuring through which the meaning or importance of a beheld identity is
modied in response to a perceived threat. For example, a woman may reconcile conicts between a work and a
mother identity by emphasizing a mothers role in nancially supporting her family and providing an active working
role model, as opposed to being fully employed within the family home (Brook, Garcia, & Fleming, 2008). Simi-
larly, Pratt and colleagues document the process by which trainee surgeons reinterpret their professional identities
to better align them with the reality of their daily routines (Pratt, Rockmann, & Kaufmann, 2006), while Ashforth
and Kreiner (1999) examine the ways in which stigmatized occupations are reframed to reconcile negative social
stereotypes with job incumbents perceptions of a valuable work role. Narrative devices are often critical mecha-
nisms in these reevaluation attempts. For example, conicts caused by changes to an organizational identity can
be resolved through the reinterpretation and retrospective rationalization of the past to align it with the present
(Ravasi & Schultz, 2006, p. 451), while personal and organizational myths help maintain a sense of consistency
in ones self and collective identities (Pratt & Foreman, 2000).
Finally, perhaps the most radical or extreme way to manage identity conict is through identity elimination
(Petriglieri, 2011). This process essentially involves shedding (one of) the conicting identities so that it no longer
poses a threat to other valued identities. Interestingly, research also indicates that actors may be proactive in
avoiding conict by actively shunning identities that are likely to undermine or threaten existing identities. For
example, Slay and Smith (2011) propose that individuals with a stigmatized identity may be loath to take on profes-
sional identities that conict with stereotypical prototypes of their cultural group, while gender role stereotypes are
found to shape womens professional self-images and to limit their advancement into counter-stereotypic managerial
positions (Eagly, 1987; Roberts, 2005). In this way, identity conicts not only disrupt actions and identities in the
present but also set the limits for the adoption of new identities.

Managing inter-unit conicts

Research focusing on the management of inter-unit identity conicts also advocates the use of segmenting and
bridging strategies, although these take on a slightly different form for this type of conict. Conicting subgroups
may be segmented to ensure physical or symbolic separation in different parts of an organization. For example, Pratt
and Foreman (2000) suggest that universities may separate different educational and research traditions into different
geographical locations to manage the inherent conicts that exist within these subgroups. The authors explain that
this method is protable in enabling organizations to capitalize on the multiple identities of their subgroups in
exible ways.
Bridging methods are also commonly cited as a way to manage inter-unit identity conicts. In particular, subgroup con-
icts may be bridged by promoting attachments to a transcending super-ordinate or shared identity. For example,
Battilana and Dorado (2010) demonstrate that by emphasizing a shared organizational identity based around excellence,

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the micronance organization, Los Andes, was able to avoid many of the identity clashes experienced by competitor rms
in reconciling development and banking aspects of the organizations hybrid identity. In a similar vein, research has given
much emphasis to the resolution of inter-unit conicts through the activation of a dual identity, in which both valuable
subgroup and super-ordinate identities are fostered (Hornsey & Hogg, 2000). Indeed, Fiol and colleagues (2009) model
of Intractable Identity Conict Resolution cites the promotion of a dual identity as a key mechanism for reducing inter-
group bias, while research based on the Actualizing Social and Personal Identity Resources (ASPIRe) model highlights
the importance of capitalizing on strong subgroup and collective identities for minimizing intra-organizational conicts
(Peters, Haslam, Ryan, & Fonseca, 2013). Ofcial boundary spanners may also play a role in this process, acting at
the interface of inter-unit conicts to bridge divisions between organizational subgroups (Richter, West, Van Dick, &
Dawson, 2006).
Finally, there is a rich body of evidence highlighting key strategies for avoiding both intra-unit and inter-unit con-
icts during periods of organizational change. Gioia and colleagues propose that by promoting ambiguous visions,
organizations can avoid identity conict by allowing different individuals and subgroups to project their own unique
identity claims on the same amorphous vision (Gioia, Nag, & Corley, 2012), while Clark and colleagues show that
transitional identities may be important in providing a bridge between an organizations past identity and its present,
within the context of a merger (Clark, Gioia, Ketchen, & Thomas, 2010).
Interestingly, although the aforementioned strategies may often be used for both intra-unit and inter-unit conicts,
the suitability of different strategies can depend on the type of (intra-unit or inter-unit) conict encountered. Indeed,
while bridging strategies aimed at fostering dual (subgroup and shared) identities are predicted to reduce inter-unit
identity conicts (Fiol et al., 2009), they are expected to have the reverse effect on intra-unit conicts, increasing the
experience of intrapersonal conict associated with an individuals divided group loyalties (Li et al., 2002). On the
basis of such observations, we call for more research aimed at systematically understanding the applicability and ef-
fectiveness of different reconciliation strategies in resolving intra-unit and inter-unit identity conicts within our

Identity Conict as a Trigger of Change

Research has widely acknowledged that identity dynamics are at the center of workplace change and that the ability
to successfully reconstruct and renegotiate identities is vital to constructive change outcomes (Hodgkinson &
Healey, 2011; Nag, Corley, & Gioia, 2007). However, it may further be suggested that identity conict is a key
mechanism in this process, providing the platform to challenge existing identities and stimulate change efforts.
Indeed, although this link between identity conict and change is rarely made in OB research, connections to the
related concept of institutional contradiction2 have long been established. Institutional theorists place the role of
conicting logics at the heart of human agency, specically proposing that while underlying contradictions
provide the impetus for change efforts, they also offer the alternative behavioral codes and resources that enable
these changes to be implemented (Benson, 1977; Seo & Creed, 2002).
Yet, empirical accounts of the micro-processes involved in mobilizing latent contradictions into change-related
action have been limited. In a rare example of such work, Creed et al. (2010) provide a fascinating account of the
processes involved in reconciling conicts between ministers marginalized gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender
identities and the Presbyterian institutional identities to which they belong. Importantly, this work provides
compelling evidence of the central role played by marginalized individuals in effecting organizational change. Such
ndings are consistent with the work of Meyerson and Scully (1995) on tempered radicals, which suggests that
actors with multiple conicting identities and institutional afliations may be best positioned to engender long-term
change in their organizations, through challenging existing logics, norms, and values. Finding empirical support for
The term institutional contradiction describes incompatibilities, inconsistencies, and tensions within social and institutional systems (Seo &
Creed, 2002).

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this work, Meyerson and Tompkins (2007) demonstrate that the dualities and contradictions embodied by the
principal investigator of the Michigan University ADVANCE project were crucial to her effectiveness as a change
agent responsible for advancing gender equity at the university (p. 320). As these examples demonstrate, identity
conicts provide an important impetus and mechanism for challenging existing logics and extending identity bound-
aries to incorporate previously marginalized or excluded groups.
As well as driving bottom-up processes of organizational change, identity conicts may also provoke top-down
change processes aimed at better aligning the organization with the individual employee. For example, changes to
human resource frameworks (Kossek & Ozeki, 1998), the revision of work hours (Ng & Feldman, 2008), the
promotion of a workfamily culture (Lewis, 2003), and the implementation of new socialization and hiring decisions
(Battilana & Dorado, 2010) each represent organization-based change policies aimed at reducing employees
experience of identity conict within their workplace.
While the aforementioned examples focus on nested intra-unit conicts, intrapersonal conicts may also promote
change at an individual level. For example, Petriglieri (2011) describes how identity conict may pave the way for
identity growth by causing an individual to restructure their identity and pursue alternative career and non-career
pathways. Likewise, recent research suggests that discrepancies between an individuals current identity and their
future work self may motivate proactive behavior aimed at achieving ones goals (Strauss, Grifn, & Parker,
2012). In this way, intra-unit identity conicts may provide a key catalyst for career change and development.
The link between inter-unit identity conict and workplace change is less clear. Indeed, many subgroup conicts
are characterized by prolonged competition as groups jostle for positive distinctiveness and superiority over rival
groups (Fiol et al., 2009). Given this nature, it may be expected that inter-unit conicts will be less conducive to
collective development and change.
In addition, we do not presume that intra-unit conicts have predominantly positive effects because of their capac-
ity to drive change, in fact far from it. Research cited at the outset of this paper emphasizes the often catastrophic
consequences of prolonged identity clashes within our workplaces. However, consistent with the sentiments of
Ashforth et al. (2008), this discussion does suggest that by challenging the status quo and offering alternative
pathways for adaptation, identity conict can enhance options for constructive development and change (Dutton,
Roberts, & Bednar, 2010). Specically, although identity conicts may be managed by suppressing discrepancies
and ensuring that conicts remain latent (situated solution), they may also be resolved in a way that challenges existing
identities and fundamentally changes both individuals and organizations (deep-structured solution; Figure 1).

Figure 1. Identity conict and change

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Contributions and Future Directions

We see three important contributions of our review. First, our review explicates an important distinction between
intra-unit and inter-unit conicts. In particular, we draw on existing theories to shed light on the different underlying
roots of these conict types, highlighting the unique role of cognitive dissonance and self-esteem enhancement in
driving intra-unit and inter-unit identity conicts, respectively. This distinction is important in organizing the
literature and enabling us to map the triggers, moderators, and reconciliation strategies associated with these differ-
ent conict types. Previous research has not systematically considered the underlying roots and implications of dif-
ferent conict types. Thus, our review extends current understandings of identity conicts, also providing an
important platform for further explorations of identity conicts role in our workplaces.
For example, given the common roots of intra-unit conicts at personal, group, and organizational levels, it may
be predicted that common reconciliation strategies will apply across these levels of analysis. Similarly, it may be
expected that key moderators of inter-unit identity conicts (e.g., power and status dimensions) will have analogous
effects at interpersonal, inter-group, and inter-organizational levels. Conversely, our review suggests that reconcili-
ation strategies may be differentially effective in resolving intra-unit and inter-unit conicts according to the unique
characteristics of these conict types, while we would also expect key moderators of identity conict to vary
according to the type of (intra-unit or inter-unit) conict encountered. Of course, it is also possible that these
moderators will interact. For example, the historical context may shape power and status dimensions, thus fuelling
inter-unit as well as intra-unit conicts. On the basis of such observations, we call for empirical investigations of our
framework, aimed at the systematic comparison of intra-unit and inter-unit conicts in the workplace.
Second, we offer an integrative review, explicitly considering multiple levels of analysis and reconciling hitherto
fragmented perspectives on identity conicts. In adopting this approach, we stress the interrelatedness of conicts across
an organizational structure and the importance of cross-level solutions in resolving such conicts over time. Such
observations underline the importance of an integrative approach to identity conict research, in particular demonstrat-
ing that cross-level mechanisms and processes are essential to identity conicts role and resolution in the workplace.
Although the importance of multi-level and cross-level dynamics is beginning to be recognized in theoretical
work (Ashforth et al., 2011), empirical research lags sorely behind in delineating the linkages between identities
at different levels of analysis (see Chreim, Williams, & Hinings, 2007, for a notable exception). This shortage in
cross-level studies appears to be a symptom of our broader reticence to cross academic boundaries within the
management eld. Empirical research on identity conict is typically nested within distinct literatures and method-
ological frameworks, with little crossover or synergy sought among these domains. For example, intra-unit conicts
are primarily discussed within OB research, whereas research on inter-unit conicts stems from social psychology.
Similarly, dynamic perspectives on identity conict are tied to social constructivism and qualitative traditions,
whereas discussions of individual agency emanate from institutional theory. In addition, we nd inconsistencies
in the conceptualizations and terminologies used by researchers in these different disciplinary silos, while there
has been little if any academic rhetoric aimed at clarifying these semantic and conceptual distinctions. For example,
research is yet to consider how organizational theorists conceptualizations of institutional contradiction (Benson,
1977; Seo & Creed, 2002) correspond and contrast with the more micro concept of identity conict familiar to
organizational behaviorists. On the basis of such observations, we propose that greater clarity and integration is critical
if we are to garner a full understanding of the complex nature and implications of identity conicts in the workplace.
Identity scholars have recently questioned the appropriateness of such efforts at academic integration, instead
suggesting that heterogeneity across disciplines is inevitable, productive or perhaps indicative of the robust health
of a eld of inquiry (He & Brown, 2013, p. 12). Given the importance of cross-level effects and interdisciplinary
perspectives implicit in our review, we challenge this assumption and support recent calls for greater integration
across the eld (Hodgkinson, 2013). In particular, we emphasize the need to cross disciplinary, methodological,
and analytical boundaries to advance a comprehensive understanding of identity conicts within the workplace.
Appropriately, in discussing the identity conicts rife within our own management eld, Gulati (2007) provides
us with some specic suggestions aimed at bridging our inherent interdisciplinary divides.

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Third, we provide a dynamic perspective on identity conict, highlighting the important connection between
conict and workplace development and adaptation. In particular, we elaborate on the role of change as a
primary cause of identity conict and the role of identity conict in developing and shaping individuals and
organizations. Importantly, this review reveals signicant gaps in our understanding of the longitudinal
processes through which identity conicts emerge and are resolved over time. Similarly, we nd little
empirical evidence of the role of individuals in affecting and embedding organizational change. On the basis
of such observations, we echo the sentiments of a number of institutional scholars (e.g., Smets, Morris, &
Greenwood, 2012) by calling for further empirical insights aimed at exploring these important phenomena.
In particular, we see much merit in examining the (bottom-up) mechanisms through which individuals with
conicting or contradictory identities challenge and ultimately change the nature of their organizations. In
addition, we believe that more emphasis should be placed on the (top-down) managerial policies and practices
that may serve to realign and resolve identity conicts within our workplaces.
Although it is beyond the connes of the current paper, we also call for extensions of this work aimed at
exploring possible selves dimensions and explicating how conicts with alternative, provisional, and
desired possible selves may facilitate and disrupt efforts at organizational and personal changes (Obodaru,
2012; Bazerman, Tenbrunsel, & Wade-Benzoni, 1998). The role of conicting possible selves as a driver
of organizational action and individual agency has been highlighted by several authors (Ibarra, 1999; Pratt,
2000). We thus propose that insights from this literature may have important implications in further
theorizing the cyclical link between identity conict and positive identity construction over time (Dutton
et al., 2010).
Our review also draws attention to several important moderators of identity conict, which are deserving of
further research. Implicit in this review is the assumption that context matters. Individual workers are
entrenched within a particular historical, political, and social climate, while institutional boundaries dene
the prevailing norms, values, and logics that organizations must adhere to in any given era. As such, context
plays an important role in shaping identity conicts. We thus suggest that greater attention should be paid to
this underrepresented aspect of OB research (Johns, 2006). Similarly, scant attention has been paid to the
content of identities and how identity conicts may relate to different aspects of the values, norms, and
expectations that individuals and organizations hold. Voss et al. (2006) showed that the impact of theater
directors identity conicts on organizational income and revenue depended on the values that clashed, so
whereas conicts in artistic, achievement, and nancial values were detrimental to performance, conicts in
prosocial values were catastrophic. This suggests that the severity and perhaps even the trigger of identity
conicts may stem from specic content aspects of the conicting identities. Drawing upon these observations,
we propose that understanding the content and context of identities may lie at the heart of predicting and
reconciling identity conicts at work. Further research in this direction would therefore be highly benecial
to the eld.
In sum, our review took an integrative perspective on identity conicts, incorporating insights from different
methodological traditions, levels of analysis, and domains of research. This broad-based perspective is needed to
overcome current disciplinary silos and to advance a comprehensive and cross-level understanding of identity
conicts at work. Given the growing prevalence of identity conicts in modern workplaces, this integrative review
is both timely and important, offering a comprehensive and conceptually driven portrait of the state of the science
and an exciting agenda for future research.

We would like to thank Steffen Giessner and Daan van Knippenberg for their useful comments on an earlier draft of
this manuscript. In addition, we thank IRIOP special issue editor Gerard Hodgkinson and four anonymous reviewers
for their guidance in developing this paper.

Copyright 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Organiz. Behav. (2013)
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Author biographies
Kate E. Horton is a postdoctoral researcher at RSM, Erasmus University, the Netherlands, where she is working on
the EU-funded Comparative Police Studies in the EU (COMPOSITE) project. Her research interests include
multiple identities and identication, group and inter-group dynamics, organizational change, and workplace
Petra Saskia Bayerl is a postdoctoral researcher at RSM, Erasmus University, and a member of the COMPOSITE
project. Her current research addresses the link between identity and technology acceptance in organizations,
technology adoption and use with a special focus on social media, coordination in virtual settings, and organizational
Gabriele Jacobs is an associate professor in the Department of Personnel and Organization at RSM, Erasmus
University, since 2000. She is the coordinator of the multidisciplinary, EU-funded COMPOSITE project. Her main
research elds are organizational change, organizational justice, and cross-cultural management.

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