Improving team performance using identity theory

Dr Vivian Vignoles research on social identity helped enhance sports performance for Team GB.

Dr Vivian Vignoles

From rugby players to Olympic sports teams, finding ways to improve collective performance could be the difference between a gold and a silver medal, or relegation and survival. 

Performance analysts and sports scientists have become an increasingly important feature of elite sport to ensure that the players are striving for the same cause.

Some of the greatest team sporting achievements, such as the South African team that won the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the Leicester City side that won the Premier League against all odds in 2016, can be attributed to the sheer weight of the collective.

But forming a team identity isn’t easy. Finding the right conditions requires a solution with its roots firmly in academia. 

Motivated Identity Construction Theory (MICT) is borne out of University of Sussex-led research into social identity processes. 

Developed by a team led by Dr Vivian Vignoles, Reader in Social Psychology, it has since gone on to contribute to performance and the organisational success of not only elite sports teams but institutions as varied as the Royal Marines, the UK Defence Academy, multinational companies and universities. 

Building a theory 

Sussex social psychologists have led the way in understanding what motivates social identities for almost two decades. Part of the early work focused on trying to develop a coherent, overarching understanding.

As Vignoles explains: “One of the problems I saw in the literature was a proliferation of identity theories, each designed to address different outcomes–whether it was ethnic relations, consumer psychology, or personal well-being.”

Vignoles attempted to unify these approaches from different perspectives, with the aim of using this theoretical approach in real-world situations.

He says: “I always hoped and expected that this theoretical project would ultimately enrich the work that was already looking at identity processes in different ‘real world’ situations, including teams and organisations.”

In a seminal paper published in 2006, Beyond self-esteem: influence of multiple motives on identity construction, Vignoles and his co-authors argued that at least six identity motives were important in identity formation: continuity, meaning, distinctiveness, belonging, efficacy, and self-esteem. These contribute to shaping our sense of self, and thus how we relate to the societies in which we live.

All of this culminated in the formation of MICT, which provided a formula for helping to understand how people shape their sense of identity–including their personal sense of identity, future identities, and their identification with groups and social categories. 

Effectively, it would enable a better understanding of why people join and identify with a variety of groups, from charities, to sports teams, to religious denominations. 

Translating theory into real world practice

In 2014, Sussex researchers teamed up with Jeremy Holt, the founder and CEO of the Centre for Team Excellence (CfTE), and pushed the research into new territory.  

Holt explains: “There was a gap between practice and what academia was doing, so I wanted to see if we could bridge that gap. We were trying to answer two questions: is there a relationship between performance in a team and the strength of identity? If there is, what motivates people to identify with that team?”

With funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and CfTE, the collaborators explored how MICT could be used to enhance team performance.

The aim was to examine the role of the six motives of identity in predicting changes in group identity among members of amateur teams from 14 different sports. 

Crucially, the study found a clear relationship between strong team identity and performance.

Holt explains: “If you compare the top twenty percent of teams – in terms of strong identity – with the bottom twenty percent, the top 20 percent outperformed the bottom by 53 percent, which is massive!”

Backed by these results, the researchers set about translating the theory into something that could positively affect outcomes in team environments.

The answer was TRIBE, an applied model of team motivation closely based on MICT, developed in collaboration with CfTE. 

TRIBE focused on five key aspects of team motivators: Tradition, Relevance, Identity, Belonging and Effectiveness, to form the core of the model. Subsequently, this model became the centre of CfTE’s consultancy work, helping to build team identity to drive stronger performances.

Team success

It was clear that without a strong team ethos or a shared sense of identity, teams and organisations would struggle to find strategies for enhancing team performance. But even for teams that already had a functioning sense of identity, boosting this further could be a route to enhancing performance and success.

In 2016 CfTE were invited to use the TRIBE model with the Great Britain Women’s Hockey team to strengthen team identity and build resilience in the upcoming Olympics in Rio De Janeiro. 

Holt explains: “The research shows that teams that have a strong identity are also more resilient – and if you think about it, that makes sense.

“If I feel like I’m in this with everyone else, I’m going to feel less pressure in moments of performance because I’m supported and not going to be personally criticised if it goes wrong.”

This would prove to be critical with the Women’s Hockey Final heading to penalties after failing to find a winner in normal time.

“As the match went on, the GB team started to look better and better. The Dutch team began to look worse and worse, and crumbled under the pressure, whereas GB thrived – mostly because they had this really strong identity.”

The result? A Gold Medal victory and sixteen names written into the record books.

Working on the team’s identity gave them a chance to fine tune and further strengthen their sense of togetherness, says Holt.

“This helped create a culture in which the players fostered an environment where they could realise their own potential, whilst still putting the squad first.” 

Embedding an identity for future success

Winning Olympic gold medals, County Championships, and Premier League titles are the pinnacles of sporting achievement. But for Holt, the seeds of identity and belief are fundamentally sown from a young age.

“What you want is when a child dreams of playing for England or Scotland – that when they go to watch their first match at Wembley or Murrayfield with their mum or dad – that their dream is informed by what you want them to be in twenty years’ time.

“So we are trying to give them a story in their own mind from a very early stage – and then as they progress through the age groups to full international – the message is going to be the same. The fundamental belief about who we are is going to be consistent.”

“And this is what makes Viv’s [Vignoles] research so important. His research would say that those fundamental beliefs are built around five distinct pillars. We now have the practical solution to apply it.”  

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