How we identify ourselves is a complicated process. Whether you define yourself by what you are or more by what you aren't, explaining who you are can be a tricky process. So is cultivating a sensitivity towards those identifiers you use to label others. Using an identity wheel is one way to narrow in on terms and concepts that speak to how we feel about ourselves and help us put into words our most deeply held concepts of self. Using this in a work setting can be an eye-opening experience and help build a stronger, safer environment for everyone.
What is an identity wheel?
An identity wheel is a visual aid often used in learning environments such as universities or progressive companies to highlight different ways people define themselves.
Identity is an issue fraught with complications and shades of meaning. Gender, race, religion, sexual identity, economic class, education level... Most of us probably don't realize quite how many factors make up our sense of "me." This means, in a social or professional setting, we probably have more blind spots than we realize. For example, if you grew up wealthy you may not have a sense of how different life can be for someone who isn't. You've maybe never thought of how that particular identifier influences how you experience the world and how the world itself defines you.
Creating and sharing identity wheels in a group setting, such as a training or course session, is a good exercise in learning how our coworkers define themselves, how they feel the world defines them because of those things and how their process of experiencing those identifiers differs from our own. The exercise itself is simple enough: a circle divided into sections, inside of which you write your different social identities, such as those listed above or any others that feel relevant to you. You then rank these identifiers based on their importance to you on a daily basis and those you feel are most often used by others to categorize you. Simple but starkly effective once sharing and discussing group members' wheels begins.
History of the identity wheel.
The identity wheel is a worksheet activity that encourages personal reflection and also aids in group discussions on topics of diversity. While no one really knows who created the exercise, it’s been an important tool in both classroom and professional settings alike for decades.
It exists thanks to the creation of social identity theory, which first emerged in the 1970s. Social identity theory boils down to the idea that people naturally divide the world, including themselves and other people, into categories. These categories can separate “us” from “them” in ways that aren’t exactly positive. And we all practice some level of social identity categorization every day, whether we realize it or not.
The social identity wheel is a guide for discussions necessary to cultivating an awareness of other people’s experiences, and a prompt to get us to think about our own beliefs and prejudices. It continues to be a tool popular in both academic and professional settings.
Using an identity wheel in courses.
1. Find or create a course specific to your environment’s needs.
When your office has in some way become unhealthy, or even toxic, improving the health and wellness of that environment is a priority. If your workplace seems to be having difficulty integrating folks from different backgrounds, then host a course on diversity and identity that will encourage participants to talk openly. Choose a course that focuses most on topics useful to your situation. The identity wheel exercise will be a great way to introduce those topics, and lead into further course materials.
2. Tailor the identity prompts from which participants will choose.
One of the best things about using an identity wheel as a course tool, and a discussion exercise, is that you can tailor it specifically to those needs you pinpointed in step one. If the gender divide is your biggest crevasse to navigate, or race is something that needs to be discussed, create a list of identifiers relevant to those different areas. While it’s useful to provide participants with a variety of identifiers — because we are all layered individuals, with more than one source of identity — hedging in the direction of the topic or topics you want to address will make transitioning from group discussions to course materials easier.
3. Give participants plenty of time to complete their wheel.
It’s not a bad idea to hand this exercise out ahead of time, giving people a day or more to really think about the identifiers they ascribe to themselves, and which ones they feel the world assigns to them. Identity isn’t an easy topic to unpack, nor is it always simple to express. In no way should anyone feel rushed to pick and choose what applies to them. The more time participants have to complete their identity wheel, the more prepared they’ll feel to discuss it.
4. Allow each person time, and a safe space, in which to discuss their wheel.
Who you are and how you define yourself is difficult to condense down to a sound byte. In fact, to do so would do the subject a disservice. Topics of identity are tied to family, upbringing, nationality, personal preferences and many other things. Give participants time to unpack their identity wheels, in a safe setting, so that they have the space not only to say who they feel they are but also why they feel that way.
5. Allot a fair amount of time for discussion.
Once everyone has a chance to share, facilitate a group discussion on the topics around which your course is constructed, as well as any themes or concerns that perhaps emerged. Again, give this step plenty of space. Honest, open conversations are themselves a tool useful in creating awareness about diversity and inclusion. Use the group discussion as a way to transition into, and to personalize and highlight, the course content that follows.
Courses that utilize the identity wheel are quite effective. Being able to talk openly about who they are, how they feel about themselves and how they feel the world defines them is the first and biggest step toward showing marginalized employees that they are seen, heard and valued. Open, constructive dialogue is the first step toward creating an inclusive and safe environment in a diverse workplace setting. Or, you know, anywhere
Being is belonging.
Categories of identity, of belonging, are fundamental to everyone's most bedrock definitions of self. Who am I, who do I "belong" with, who do I not belong with and how does the world answer those questions for me? Categories of social identity are important considerations in workplace environments. As Tajfel's theory of social identity posited, We are as much defined by who we aren't as who we are, always needing a Them over there against which we can measure ourselves.
Yet what happens when an office finds itself full of both We's and Them's?
Smart employers will recognize that what needs to happen in this situation is some immediate and honest conversations led in a constructive fashion. The more people talk and interact, the more they can begin to see that the We/Them categorizations may not be as important as previously supposed. Use an identity wheel to foster these necessary discussions, and begin to create a workspace that is open and inclusive to everyone.