Moving beyond the ‘zero-sum’ mindset to grasp DEI initiatives’ win-win aspects

Beyond Zero sum thinking

While many people embrace their organizations’ initiatives to establish diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives aimed at identifying and overcoming barriers to entry and advancement, others resist those efforts. Dr Amy Kapatkin, diversity and inclusion representative to the AO Access Steering Committee, said understanding that resistance is essential to overcoming it.

Kapatkin cited a March, 2023, Harvard Business Review (HBR) article that asserts three forms of threat that resisters experience and—depending on the kinds of psychological threats they experience—the three kinds of resistance they engage in.

“Whether the DEI initiative is at the AO, at the institutions where we as AO members are faculty, or in our own practices, it’s important to understand resistance in order to overcome it and move forward to create more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces that ultimately will benefit everyone,” Kapatkin explained.

Kapatkin said the HBR article succinctly describes the mindsets and resistant behaviors of those who oppose DEI efforts. That article’s authors—researchers Eric Shuman (New York University and Harvard Business School), Eric Knowles (New York University), and Amit Goldenberg (Harvard Business School)—argue that status threats, merit threats, and moral threats are behind resistance to DEI initiatives. Relative to the kind of threat resisters are experiencing, they tend to engage in defending, denying, and/or distancing.

“DEI initiatives often involve significant organizational changes and thus can elicit threat and concern, particularly from members of majority groups, who have traditionally benefitted from being in the majority and may feel that their organizational status or resources are threatened,” the authors wrote. “This is what’s known as ‘status threat,’ and the people who experience it often perceive diversity initiatives in zero-sum terms. They assume that if members of minority groups make any gains—in opportunities, hires, the potential for promotion—members of the majority group will necessarily incur losses.

Others may experience what the authors call “merit threat,” the researchers wrote, describing that threat as “fear that DEI initiatives imply that their achievements are not the result of their skills and qualities but rather their group membership.”

“We call this “merit threat,” in which advantaged-group members feel that recognizing the existence of bias, discrimination, and inequality ‘explains away’ their own successes,” the authors add, noting that “merit threat is especially common among majority group members who are strongly committed to value systems that prize hard work and individual merit. It’s also common when a DEI initiative has strong implications for decisions that are usually seen as recognitions of merit, such as promotion.”

A moral threat, the authors explain, is “the sense that if you acknowledge your privilege, you tarnish your moral image by linking yourself to an unfair system,” Shuman, Knowles, and Goldenberg wrote.

Individually or together, these psychological threats can lead resistant group members to defend the status quo. 

Strategies can pave the way to DEI initiatives’ win-win aspects

While those psychological threats may feel very real to advantaged groups, the behaviors that follow them can be obstacles to DEI initiatives’ win-win aspects, Kapatkin and researchers agree.

“…[I]t’s important to draw attention to the “win-win” aspects of DEI initiatives, particularly how increased diversity can drive long-term growth in the business and increase opportunities for everyone (often referred to as the “business case” for diversity),” wrote Shuman, Knowles, and Goldenberg.

Since both status threat and merit threat drive denial—such as “We’re not discriminating against any employees here”—of the need for DEI, it’s important to reduce perceptions of DEI as a zero-sum game. Merit threat, on the other hand, calls for self-affirmation, the authors write.

“For example, someone who especially values loyalty and friendship might think about a time when they made a personal sacrifice to help a friend,” the article explains, underscoring the importance of engaging people in reflecting and affirming themselves before moving on to discuss the problem that needs to be addressed.

The authors wrote that people who engage in distancing, driven by both merit threat and moral threat, often think in individual terms and disconnect themselves from groups,” insulating themselves from accusations that they have benefitted from bias or privilege.” Since distancing has two drivers, a targeted strategy is called for, the researchers wrote.

“Because distancing is driven in part by merit threat, the self-affirmation strategy can be useful when trying to overcome it. The best strategy to use to counter moral threat, however, is to redirect it, by reframing DEI initiatives as a way for people to express their moral ideals and thus repair their moral standing,” they wrote.

Dr Robert McGuire, AO Foundation Board representative to the AO Access Steering Committee and AO Past President, agreed and underscored the importance of an open dialogue.

"Once people understand these perceived threats are just that, a perception and not reality, we can then strengthen the organization using the team concept with each person adding their own unique contribution to achieve a desired goal,” McGuire said. “It is very important to have open dialogue regarding this issue."

Learn more about AO Access, which drives the AO’s diversity, inclusion, and mentorship programs, here.