Posted: 27 Feb. 2020 5 min. read

The link between shared identity and how organisations respond to natural disasters

Organisations are under increasing pressure to act responsibly and take meaningful action following crisis situations in the communities they serve. Previous research on organisational responses to natural disasters has largely focused on recovery at the individual firm level. Less explored is the way in which organisations interact with diverse external stakeholders during a crisis, and the mechanisms that strengthen the effectiveness of a collective response. Researchers Battaglia (University of Rome), Zhou (University College London), and Frey (Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies) sought to investigate the link between identity and crisis situations (e.g. natural disasters), through the lens of a shared identity between individuals, organisations, and communities. Their findings suggest that the strength of a relationship between an organisation and its external stakeholders (suppliers, customers, governments), defines the extent and speed to which the community and organisation recovers. Moreover, their findings imply that organisations play a pivotal role in shaping community cohesion, and thus a crisis offers a moment to redefine relationships between stakeholders, reduce polarisation amongst diverse groups, and foster a more inclusive society.

Aim

The aim of this qualitative study was to understand the link between the shared identity of individuals, organisations, and their stakeholders in the aftermath of natural disasters.

Method

Researchers conducted 11 semi-structured exploratory interviews with leaders and key external stakeholder representatives from a multi-utility organisation (AIMAG) which experienced earthquakes in Italy 2012. Interview data was supported by secondary archived data (e.g. reports and newspaper articles). 

Questions to leaders of the organisation covered:

  1. Their perception of their role, and organisation,
  2. Their participation in responding to and recovering from the disaster,
  3. Their perception towards colleagues before, during, and after the disaster,
  4. The organisation’s relationship with external stakeholders (e.g. interactions post-crisis and perceptions of the organisation before, during, and after the disaster).

Questions to key external stakeholders covered:

  1. Their participation in responding to and recovering from the disaster,
  2. How their organisation interacted with AIMAG before, during, and after the disaster,
  3. Their relationship with other local entities before, during, and after the disaster.

Findings

This research produced three key insights relating to the shared identity between organisations and communities following natural disasters: 

Insight 1 - Shared commitment: Leaders who believed they were socially responsible, capable, and ethical demonstrated highly collaborative and motivated behaviours in responding to the disaster. The perception that the organisation’s services were important to their community created an increased sense of awareness and shared responsibility. 

Insight 2 – Shared identity: Self-reflexive learning (choosing responsible decisions in uncertain situations) triggered by the crisis reaffirmed the organisation’s identity and increased its sense of responsibility towards the citizens it serves. The identity of both the organisation and external stakeholders reflected the shared identity of being responsible, trustworthy, and collaborative. This shared sense of belonging enhanced community perception of the organisation and enabled the community to find suitable solutions in a high-pressure situation. 

Insight 3 – Reinforced connection: The response of the community influenced the actions of the organisation during and following the disaster, reinforcing the shared sense of identify between the stakeholders. This influenced the behaviours of external stakeholders who invested in supporting the organisation in their recovery efforts as they were perceived as a key contributor to the community. 

Implications

The research provides a case study of how individuals’, organisations’, and communities’ sense of shared identity is linked to the speed and support that organisations provide during and following natural disasters. Beyond insights about the role of shared identity during a crisis, this research points to the pivotal role an organisation can play in fostering connection between stakeholders. Given the trend towards fracture and polarisation of communities around the world, this research suggests that organisations which step up during a crisis can help to facilitate inclusion in the longer term.   

Key takeaways include:

  1. The strength of an organisation’s relationship with the community it serves, influences how it is perceived by the community and can further shape their corporate identity.
  2. A strong sense of a shared community identity enhances an organisation’s ability to recover from natural disasters. It increases the organisation’s awareness of their importance and role within the community, enhancing community resilience to prevent and manage risks in crisis situations.
  3. Organisations have an opportunity to leverage the sense of shared identity created during a crisis to support an inclusive and connected community in the longer term.

With the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters there is a growing expectation that organisations will play visible and important roles in disaster recovery within communities. This research highlights the important link between a shared community identity and disaster recovery, and the influence on community resilience. It also points to the pivotal role organisations can play in fostering connections between diverse stakeholders in the longer term and building more inclusive communities.

To read the full article see: Battaglia, M., Zhou, S. and Frey, M. (2019). Linking inside and outside: “identity” in crisis situations. Journal of Organisational Change Management, 32(4), pp.457-472.

More about the author

Grace Steedman

Grace Steedman

Analyst, Human Capital, Consulting

Grace is an Analyst in our Human Capital Consulting division in Perth. She is passionate about promoting Diversity & Inclusion in the workplace, advocating the value of inclusive leadership in fostering collaboration and enhancing productivity.