We can’t lead if we don’t connect - harnessing the power of commonality 

29 March 2019

The biggest risk to our mortality – above smoking, poor diet, a lack of exercise or air pollution – is a lack of social connection. This is according to world-leading psychologist Alex Haslam, Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology and Australian Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland.

“If you really care about your health, the number one thing that you should attend to is your sense of connection with other people,” said Alex.

SuperFriend, with our LeadingWell Queensand partners, have been working to support Alex and his team to enable leaders and organisations to cultivate these groups and build a sense of ‘us-ness’.


Why does social identity matter for our health¹?
  • Without social identity there can be no group-based social connection – we can only connect if there is a ‘we’ to connect around (eg. ‘We are all at this conference together as health professionals to learn more,’ a basis for connection)
  • Group membership, and the social identities they furnish us with, provides us with a sense of meaningful connection to others and wider purpose
  • Our groups are the important resources we have.

Multiple social groups form our identity – whether it be family, a football team, a country, community group or neighbourhood. And if our workplace becomes one of the groups we identify by, our mental health and wellbeing can experience major improvements, as can our performance at work.

“Building social identity needs to be at the heart of any attempt to promote wellbeing or cultivate good leadership,” said Alex.

“When people lose their memberships to a group through life events such as unemployment, an interstate move or parenthood, this can be a critical determinate of mental health (such as depression). A key intervention to make this transition effectively is cultivating new groups or maintaining existing ones.” The importance of social groups is particularly apparent in retirement, especially for those who have considered their workplace one of their key social groups. People can retire well by spending time in the lead-up to this transition carefully considering which social groups they would like to take into retirement so they can begin setting up these relationships ahead of time.

You can’t be a good leader without considering the social identity of your group¹
  • Effective leaders embody and advance a social identity that is shared with other group members – and exert influence based on this
  • Leadership is a process of social identity management that centres on a leader’s ability to create, represent, promote and embed a shared special sense of ‘us’. People follow those who represent their ideas and take them forward
  • Without a social identity there can be no leadership.

“Leadership and health are natural bedfellows. Who do we listen to? Who do we trust? – those with whom we share our social identity. We look to the leaders within our social groups for guidance,” said Alex.

Alex also talks about trade unions as being a good example of the success that comes when collective potentials and gripes are harnessed – in that case it can go well beyond industrial relations.

“If an organisation doesn’t have that sense of ‘us-ness’ or come together around that shared sense of identity then it’s impossible to lead. When you see leadership failing, such as in political leadership, that’s typically because the people on the receiving end of that leadership activity have no shared identity.”

“You won’t do well to ‘diss’ the collective potentials of the group you are trying to lead – listening to collective voice is what good leadership is about. If these are the things that matter to people, then these are the things we need to engaged with rather than saying that this isn’t what we should be focusing on.”

In fact, empirically, a leaders’ capacity to represent, advance, create and embed shared social identity is one of the most powerful ways of assessing their leadership.

“The more you represent a group, the more effective you will be as a leader – and this is the case the world-over.”


What can we do¹?
  1. Ensure your organisation recognises the importance of social identity and then work to build and harness it as a resource
  2. Understand what social identities matter to people – so when you say ‘us’ or ‘we’ – who is this? Build an understanding of who the group is, what makes its members collectively tick, what is it that brought them there and that their goals are
  3. Work with the group to better understand those goals and aspirations and work with group members to identify avenues for the achievement of these
  4. Define and integrate different identity-related goals and embed them in practice and policy, making a collective commitment to take that strategy forward and actually live that strategy!


1: This article is a summary of Professor Alex Haslam’s presentation at the LeadingWell Queensand Leadership Breakfast in Mackay. SuperFriend is a proud partner of LeadingWell Queensland, together with the Queensland Government and WorkCover Queensland – which also hosts regular leadership events. To register for invitations to future events, please visit the registration area of the partnership nearest to your area: Victoria or Queensland.