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Individual vs team vs org vs company vs ecosystem identities: a balancing act

A sense of belonging comes from meaningful connection with a subject--an individual, a team, or even a company for example.

  • As individuals in the workplace, we aren’t drones. Or, we shouldn’t be. Because the more of our full selves we can bring to the table, the more likely we can bring our unique perspectives and innovation that comes with different energy.

  • To be on a team, is to identify as part of a group with a common purpose. That identity matters. It’s not just an identity to label the people who work on common goals, but a way to make those people feel more connected so they can work better together. Duh. Of course.

  • And on the company level, there’s something about seeing yourself as part of a whole that elevates purpose, and in turn, connects individuals to an identity strong enough to bring staff together that aren’t even regular teammates.



But there can be such as thing as too strong an identity.

Think of a time when you worked on an extremely close team. Perhaps y’all had consistent operating rhythms, used common language unique to your team, and celebrated shared experiences that only this team can recall. If you have a team in mind, I bet y’all produced great work together and carry fond feelings of each other.

Now, think about that same time period. Think about whether you and your teammates felt close to other people in the workplace (i.e. those whom you didn’t work with regularly). There’s a good chance that you felt much less close to them.

As a flip side to that exercise, start from the company level. Have you ever had a strong feel of connection to a company, a sense of belonging so strong that it rivaled the connection to your day-to-day team? Or if that’s too hard, is there a department or large team you felt a part of that outweighed the strength of connection to a sub-set of that group?

There’s a trade-off here. When you strengthen bonds within one group, you have to loosen bonds with another.

  • In the first photo, there is an extra large rubber band stretched around all five fingers + smaller rubber bands connecting the thumb to each of the four other fingers.

  • In the second photo, all five rubber bands are stretched around all five fingers.

  • The fingers in the first photo are taught, drawn to the thumb. The fingers in the second photo are evenly pulled towards an invisible center. (Note: I know it’s hard to see this because I was taking a photo with my other hand and it was tricky to pose at the exact same angle).

IMG_4734.jpg  IMG_4735.jpg

These photos are meant to illustrate how the tension focal points are different depending on where the fingers are being pulled. And if you develop strong company-wide pride, investing all community development there vs on the team or individual identity levels, then there will be less slack to give for connections anywhere outside of where you’re investing. The forces move in opposing directions.

So, we see that a strong identity can engage people at work inward, making it harder to pull folks in an outward direction. And vice versa. In other words, the more I feel more like “a company team player,” the less I prioritize being a “functional team, team player.” And vice versa. Could this decrease motivation go as far as unfairly prioritizing work only for a team--or for the big company things or just for personal projects? Could this decrease motivation to want to work with those who you have less of an identity bond with?



There is a way to have a connection to each of the subjects in discussion…without having to lengthen the rubber bands by unhealthily stretching our capacities.

From a motivation statement, we can cite the principles of Self Determination Theory by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. Here, there is a spectrum of motivation types that start in a low engagement mode, move towards actual drive derived from external factors like rewards + punishments or celebration + shame, and all the way on the other end into personal interest satisfaction land. All of that is to say that the spectrum of motivation reflects the level of personal connection to the work/group.

Let’s relate this back to identity.

  • The more an individual feels connected to who they are while in the workplace, the more motivated they are to do work with their personal identity in mind.

  • On inclusive teams, the more a strong individual identity can be reflected inside their team’s identity, the more an individual can still see themselves as unique while also connecting with the culture of that larger team.

  • In inclusive workplaces, teams can do the same thing as above; they can fold team personalities into the larger company.

The opposite is true, too. The less a company stays rigid and does not make space and celebrate teams as part of the company, the more those teams will dissociate from the company identity. Same goes for individuals disconnecting from their teams. And in each of these instances, motivation to participate--on a team level within the company, as a unique and whole individual within a team, decreases.


How about you?

Have you tried to play with the different forces that pull teammates towards different groups of identity? 

At what point is there a healthy amount of separation in identity between teams?

Is there a different in the amount of swag or perks or unique experiences between teams? What about put up against the company level of a team?

What has worked and what could use balancing?

Hopefully, these questions can help foster inclusion and motivation for the right work at the right time.



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