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The elasticity of identity

The controversy surrounding the 2003 election of the Rev. Gene Robinson – the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay ordained bishop – challenged and opened for debate the identity of the church. Associate Professor of Management Mathew Sheep spent 10 years studying the controversy as an example of the implications change has on an organization’s identity.

“Research has found that organizations have identities much like individuals do,” said Sheep. “For example, Illinois State’s identity could be characterized as a large, Midwestern public university, emphasizing quality teaching and research,” said Sheep. He added that when an organization confronts change, members often renegotiate identity. “Certain aspects will expand or stretch identity apart, while other aspects of identity simultaneously hold it together — much like stretching an elastic rubber band or balloon.”

As part of a team of five scholars from universities across the United States, Sheep watched history unfold and the church face a stretching of identity, which he refers to as “identity elasticity.” The team conducted more than 70 interviews of church members and officials who were both for and against the ordination as they pondered the church’s identity with the inclusion of the Rev. Robinson as a bishop.

Over the decade of studies, Sheep’s team found the church lost about 10 percent of its members, while the other 90 percent were able to embrace the change and the more expansive identity of the church. Sheep said in essence, the church stretched its identity to be inclusive of openly gay clergy in top positions of leadership. “When identity is stretched, it doesn’t matter why or how it happens, it just becomes a larger identity,” he said.

Although the focus of Sheep’s findings was on the Episcopal Church, the study, which will soon be published in the Academy of Management Journal, can relate to all organizations and how they adapt to change. According to Sheep, organizations engaged in mergers, rapid growth, new technologies or other types of change, will experience some shifts in or expansions of identity.

“The crucial question is how effectively an organization can navigate such change. How much can its identity stretch without breaking apart? How elastic is the organization’s identity,” said Sheep. “Our research finds that the answer to that question depends on how organizational members and leaders manage tensions created by the stretch and pull of identity change. These tensions are at the heart of understanding identity and the extent of its elasticity. How much can we change and still be ‘us’?”

 

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