How three levels of human identity can be used to build relationships that work across difference.

Alliances_Across_Difference_CoverThe business case for Diversity and Inclusion programs in organizations has been building for decades. The increasingly global nature of business leaves us with an ever greater need to integrate cross-cultural skills and competencies into multiple levels of system in organizations across the world. As a result, education and change management plans that help leaders, managers and staff navigate their differences and use them to achieve better business results are more and more common.

Consequently the need has never been greater for organizations to have common language and frameworks to help individuals understand the complexities of communication dynamics posed by working across social group identities such as age, ability, gender, culture, class, race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and more.

In her article Alliances Across Difference: Useful strategies for building effective relationships across difference,” Amber Mayes illustrates two critical foundational concepts: Levels of Human Identity and Social Power and Group Dynamics. As a consultant for over 15 years, she has used these concepts with leaders across sectors, industries and geographies to resolve conflict and unleash the power of diversity in organizations.

Levels of Human Identity

At any given point, we all have a framework – or multiple ones – with which we see human identity and differences. Two of the major difficulties we encounter when communicating with others across difference are a. understanding each other’s frame, and b. meeting others where they are.

Mayes presents three levels of human identity that dictate how people typically “frame” human diversity:

  • At the individual level, no person is like any other. We each have a unique fingerprint, personality, mix of experiences, etc. People who see differences using this frame often value unique perspectives, resist being put into groups, and prefer to focus on how each of us has the ability to forge our own paths in life. Those who solely use this frame often miss ways people are labeled, put into groups, and treated differently based on their social group identities. They may also miss out on many points of universal connection they have with other people.
  • At the universal human level, we are all the same. We all breathe. We all need food and water. We are all social beings. People who spend most of their time using this frame prefer to see the ways we are all connected and the same. They may say things like “we are all cut from the same cloth,” or “we shouldn’t talk about how we are different because we are, in fact, the same human race.” Those who overuse this frame run the risk of dismissing the ways we are different and may minimize the different experiences of others – both at the group and individual level.
  • At the level of social group identity (i.e., age, ability, gender, culture, class, race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, etc.) we are like some people and unlike others. Those who focus on this frame are very aware of the different experiences we have based on how we are socialized and treated by the organizations, communities, and societies in which we live. Mayes suggests that the social group identity level is one of the most misunderstood in diversity and inclusion work. They are also laden with power inequities. Thus the dynamics at play across social identity groups are often rife with conflict. She suggests that leaders allot ample time and energy to practicing using this frame to understand the dynamics that lead to conflict in their organizations. It is worth noting, however, that focusing entirely on this frame can result in stereotyping or neglecting the ways in which individuals in groups have different experiences.

In reality, all three of these frames exist at once. To fully understand diversity dynamics, it is important to be able to accept and see all three. With regard to communication across differences, realizing the frame you are bringing to a conversation while understanding and honoring the frame of another person is a crucial first step. When we can meet each other at the same level (individual, social group identity, universal human) we are much more likely to fully hear each other.

Societal Power and Group Dynamics

To truly understand many of the breakdowns that occur when we attempt to create inclusion in our organizations, we must have a deep understanding of the power dynamics that exist at the “social group identity level” of systems.

Within each social group identity (age, ability, gender, culture, class, race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, etc.) there are dynamics that afford some people the benefits and privileges of social power while depriving others of the same. Mayes refers to these groups as “dominant” and “marginalized,” respectively, and illustrates the typical patterns of treatment and experience within each subgroup.

The article concludes with specific recommendations for dominant and marginalized groups when communicating across the boundary of social group power. For example, when interacting with marginalized group members, it is a good idea to not make the difference the only thing to which you respond.

Read the full article as it appeared originally in Organization Development Network in March of 2015.

About the author

Amber Mayes is an independent OD consultant and coach with over 15 years of experience supporting the transformation of organizations, teams, and leaders. She works with clients in the nonprofit, government, and corporate sectors. She has taught Organization Behavior and Cross-cultural Communication at Bentley College, Northeastern University, and Georgetown University. She has a BA from Harvard University, an MSOD from the American University/NTL Institute program in Organization Development, and an advanced certificate from the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland. She can be reached at

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