Groucho Marx famously said “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” But, as this picture demonstrates, he was unique. The rest of us spend much of our lives striving to join groups that help us see ourselves for who we want to be. From Tau Beta Pi to varsity football to the Young Republicans, acceptance by groups helps us figure out who we are, and who we are going to be. Even rejecting group membership is joining a group: What school didn’t have its gang of “stoners” or “burnouts” who supported each other in not joining other more productive groups?
But this is something we grow out of, right? The simple answer is no. Just as we define ourselves by the cliques we belong to or reject in high school, as adults, our workplaces help shape our sense of self. Social identity theory (SIT) explains the myriad ways in which our self-identity is shaped by the social groups we belong to. According to the theory, we join social groups because they give us a sense of purpose and belonging. And from cheering for sports teams and their mascots with millions of other fans to building a startup with a dozen colleagues, SIT impacts more aspects of our daily lives than we can comprehend.
Take for example the pop-culture powerhouse Lady Gaga and her fans, the “Little Monsters.” The singer has used social media to essentially redefine the word “monster,” and has transformed it into a term of endearment and recognition for dedicated fans of her music. Members of the community take intense pride in being a part of this unique group, crawling and screaming like monsters during a show. The sense of belonging and identity results in admiration and appreciation for one another, and a sense of common purpose. This feeling of being distinct is a key aspect of social identity theory, and has driven Lady Gaga to the top of the charts.
Establishing a shared sense of team, identity and community is as important in work as out of it. At startups in particular, where employees are often asked to make an intense commitment in order to create something out of nothing, identity, community, belongingness and engagement matter more than in the average workplace. The feeling of belonging is central to our own personal happiness. It has been proven to be linked to motivation, interest, and aspiration. Those who lack the feeling are less likely to work hard to achieve goals. With this connection to the workplace comes pride, which many cite as one of the most powerful motivators (even above money). In addition, there is a sense of joy, which research shows results in higher productivity without losing quality. Engaged employees are even healthier than their counterparts.
Companies that are consistently rated as top places to work focus on more than the benefits package. At Salesforce.com, for example, an incredible 91 percent of employees feel a sense of pride in their company. From SaaSy (the company mascot) to the Salesforce Foundation, the company embeds fun and a broader social mission into its culture. While monetary incentives may encourage some, pride is what keeps the majority of the Salesforce team returning to the office each morning.
As is the case with Salesforce, trust in leadership, company pride and employee camaraderie have been shown to outweigh pay and perks. Relationships and experiences matter more to individuals than a fully stocked employee fridge. Engagement outweighs policies regarding vacation time, flexibility and more when it comes to employee well-being, yet only 30 percent of America’s workers identify as “engaged” in their jobs.
In the tech industry today, the battle for talent is centered more around boasting the best perks than the strongest internal identity. Yet without an underlying layer of connectivity, a “fun” campus just becomes an empty shell. Without identity, individuals tend to underperform at work, and are unfulfilled even in spite of achievements.
On HBO’s comedy series “Silicon Valley,” lowly programmer Richard leaves the satirical quintessential tech company Hooli to launch his own startup. The perks at Hooli — ranging from high-tech rides to work and unlimited snacks to “bike meetings” and more — don’t perk him up at all. The irony of Hooli (and many real-life companies like it) is that these benefits are just window dressing for a unified, fun-loving culture. They ring hollow without underlying trust and clarity in the organization. Richard (and his real-life compatriots) has to leave to reach his full potential.
At my company, Yesware, we Yetis take pride in our unique identity. We wanted a visual representation of our culture, and designed our mascot for this purpose. We’re not as hairy or green, but like the Yeti, we’re a group of rare, quirky individuals full of energy. Sure, we may have a nap room, yoga classes and other standard startup treats, but what keeps us staying late is our community.
Every tech company’s employees stand under one company name. What’s the difference between companies that have a name and those whose team members successfully establish an identity? The answer — everything. Tech companies that stand united as one team will remain strong for many years. Others will succeed through luck, or fall to the wayside.