Posted: 25 Sep. 2018 15 min. read

Intergroup leadership theory: A fresh perspective on managing diverse teams

Typically, the leadership of diverse employees is often thought of from an individual lens, that is: how can leaders facilitate a sense of inclusion for individual employees within an organisation or community? However, it is equally important to think of managing D&I from an intergroup lens: bridging potential conflict, and enhancing collaboration between, multiple sub-groups.

So, how does a leader foster constructive relationships between various sub-groups, whilst also preserving a sense of identity?

Part of the answer is for leaders to develop their leadership agility.

In other words, leaders need the ability to flexibly apply different leadership approaches to suit different contexts. But how do we know what approach works best, and when to use it?

Research by Professors Rast III (University of Alberta), Hogg (Claremont Graduate University) and Van Knippenberg (Erasmus University, The Netherlands) provides a fresh perspective in answering the question above, through the lens of intergroup leadership theory.

Intergroup leadership theory suggests that leaders who emphasise the interdependency of sub-group members – that is their intergroup relational identity – will be more effective than leaders who promote a superordinate or intergroup collective identity. Having said this, the theory also suggests that under certain conditions, an approach which emphasises the collective identity may be more appropriate and thus, it’s up to the leader to appraise the situation and adapt accordingly.

What does intergroup relational identity and intergroup collective identity refer to? According to social psychology research:

  • Intergroup relational identity – refers to the leader accentuating the collaborative relationship between each sub-group. Importantly, this approach does not seek to downplay each group’s own unique identity but promote inter-dependence.
  • Intergroup collective identity – refers to the promotion of a common or superordinate identity between all sub-groups. Sometimes this approach can cause members of each sub-group to feel like their unique identity is being threatened. Researchers describe this as identity distinctiveness threat.

Ultimately, the research found that the effectiveness of each leadership approach depended on the context. Promotion of an intergroup relational identity was most effective when people felt their sub-group identity was under threat, whereas emphasising a collective identity was most effective when a sub-group’s identity was not threatened. This insight is critical to leaders framing their inclusion narratives and making choices about whether to emphasise the bigger picture (e.g. Canada) or acknowledge sub-groups and emphasise their interdependence (e.g. French and European Canadians).


The researchers aimed to explore the perceived effectiveness of leaders in promoting collaboration and reducing conflict when sub-groups felt that their distinctive identity was threatened. In particular, to explore the hypothesis that “when group members are experiencing an identity distinctiveness threat,

creating or promoting an intergroup relational identity (as opposed to a collective identity) is a more effective strategy to reduce intergroup conflict and improve leader effectiveness”.


The researchers conducted three separate studies drawing on a sample of 335 undergraduate studies from a Dutch Business school and a university in Midwestern Canada. Leadership effectiveness was evaluated across six measures, including whether students agreed that the leader could be trusted, represent them and lead the group effectively.

Study 1: The first study was a survey that examined the effectiveness of a leadership approach (intergroup relational identity or intergroup collective identity) when identity distinctiveness threat was high or low. The study was built around the perceived effectiveness of a leader in managing a real life intergroup issue: immigration.

Study 2: The second study was similar to study one but modified in research design, so as a way to validate the results of study one. In this study, the tension between group was activated by reference to the participants’ public university system vs. their local university identity.

Study 1 and 2 tested the hypothesis that “when sub-group identity distinctiveness is threatened, intergroup leaders are better evaluated when they promote an intergroup relational identity rather than an overarching collective identity”.

Study 3: The third study extended on the previous studies but instead of measuring leader evaluation, it measured the participants’ intergroup attitudes.

Findings and implications for leaders

The findings from all three studies provided support for intergroup leadership theory, revealing that the intergroup leadership approach used (i.e. relational versus collective identity) has an impact on how the leader is evaluated. Most importantly, the intergroup context in which the leader operated (that is, whether identity distinctiveness threat was high or low) was directly relevant to which leadership approach was most effective.

Put simply, when tensions are high, the most effective leader is one whose rhetoric acknowledges sub-groups and promotes inter-dependence between the sub-groups. When relationships are harmonious, effective leaders emphasise sub-group member’s common identity.

In sum, there’s no one approach that fits all, and it’s up to the leader to appraise the situation in order to respond best to different types of diversity scenarios. Being aware of the presence of identity distinctiveness threat is critical and determines which leadership approach would be most effective.

The findings from this research provide two key insights:

  1. When there are tensions: acknowledge what makes groups different: Previous research had recommended that leaders focus on the shared or common group goal as a strategy to foster collaboration when tensions are high. This study suggests that successfully bridging “intergroup divides cannot be achieved without leadership expressing acknowledgment and appreciation of the sub-groups being led, and the importance of these identities to their members”.
  2. Read the context and adapt: Leaders need to be able to sense and respond to changes in their context. Adopting an approach which emphasises the overall group purpose, or collaboration between sub-groups, depends on whether the background context is, respectively, harmonious or whether tensions are running high.

For more information about this article, contact Monica Pham. To read the full article, see here.