Bridging the research‐policy gap: the importance of effective identity leadership and shared commitment

Frank Mols

This blog post is based on the Evidence & Policy article ‘Bridging the research‐policy gap: the importance of effective identity leadership and shared commitment

There is widespread agreement, among public policy scholars, that research evidence does not translate readily into policy practice, and that more needs to be done to ‘bridge the gap’ between policy research and policy practice. But why is it so difficult to achieve evidence-based policy in practice?

An important reason for this mismatch is that there are typically different sources of knowledge and evidence, and because stakeholders will often disagree which of these sources of evidence should inform policy. Such disagreements are common when dealing with complex ‘wicked’ policy problems.

As researchers have shown, policy researchers and policy workers often feel as though they live and work in different worlds. Policy researchers are often disappointed their research finding are being ignored, while policy workers tend to complain that policy research lacks practical relevance.

But how can we bridge this divide? Evidence-based policy researchers have proposed different solutions, such as greater ‘linkage and exchange activity’, ‘joint knowledge production’, ‘knowledge brokering’. These proposals are all based on the idea that more frequent contact will increase preparedness to take on board other stakeholders’ views.

Increased contact may at times be beneficial. However, social psychologists researching tensions between groups discovered that there are many conditions that have to be met before contact will improve mutual understanding. In short, what this research revealed is that more intensive interaction does not automatically increase trust and mutual understanding.

What is more, it has become clear from social and organisational psychology research that our perceptions are shaped by shared social identity. For example, shared identity has not only been found to influence whether we perceive a leader as authentic, but also whether we perceive information we receive as clear, helpful and trustworthy. Likewise, research has shown that we are more forgiving when ‘our leader’ trespasses than when ‘their leader’ trespasses.

Such studies serve as a useful reminder that effective communication and persuasion require empathy and shared social identification. More specifically, what this line of research teaches us is that it is not so much ‘more evidence’ that will be required to bridge the gap, but effective ‘identity leadership’, with leaders undertaking active efforts to unite subgroups and to ensure core values (about shared goals and directions) become internalised in a new shared self-understanding.

To be sure, it would be wrong to suggest that identity leadership alone will suffice. Even when identity leadership is provided, it will remain important to continue building good quality evidence bases. After all, without sound evidence the scope for effective identity leadership will remain limited, and any efforts to instil a sense of shared mission without proper evidence will sooner or later become perceived as hollow ‘feel good’ rhetoric.

That said, the power of identity leadership (i.e. instilling an overarching shared sense of ‘who we are’ and ‘what we are about’) should at the same time not be underestimated. Of relevance here is closely related to earlier research differentiating between exchange- and communal relations, and between extrinsic- and intrinsic worker motivation.

As these literatures show, shared social identification with the overarching organisation not only predicts whether co-workers collaborate across teams in a genuine communal team spirit (without constant mental accounting), but also whether co-workers will be motivated intrinsically (“I do this because I want to”) or motivated extrinsically (“I only do this because I have to”).

The above insights have already proven useful in management studies, where it has helped to gain a better understanding of how to best manage mergers and acquisitions, and even in sport sciences, where it has been found to predict competitive team performance. Here too more ‘contact and exchange’ proved insufficient, and effective identity leadership turned out to be the key to success instead.

In sum, social- and organisational psychology research has generated important insights into the factors that drive shared mission commitment and intrinsic motivation, and effective ‘identity leadership’ has emerged as a reliable predictor of these outcomes. These insights have so far been neglected, resulting in naïve faith in increased contact and exchange to foster greater mutual understanding. This is undoubtedly a good start. However, increased contact can be expected to have limited effect without effective identity leadership.


Frank Mols is Senior Lecturer in the School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland (UQ). Frank’s research interests include governance, public policy, voter attitude formation, and political psychology. His research focuses on how social identity- and self-categorization theorizing (SIT/SCT) can be used to refine political science analyses. His research has been published in leading peer-reviewed international journals, such as the European Journal of Political Research, Leadership Quarterly, Political Psychology, Public Administration, Evidence and Policy, West European Politics, Journal of Common Market Studies, Australian Journal of Public Administration and China Quarterly.


You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy:

Mols, F. Bell, J. and Head, B. (2020) Bridging the research‐policy gap: the importance of effective identity leadership and shared commitment. Evidence & Policy, DOI: 10.1332/174426418X15378681300533.


Image credit: Photo by Luke Besley on Unsplash


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What makes a frame persuasive? Lessons from social identity theory

Systems thinking and the leadership conundrum in health care

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