In recent years, we’ve seen tremendous growth in diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. Many people have eagerly embraced these efforts, but others have criticized and resisted them, including the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, who recently announced. plans to block state colleges with DEI programs.
This type of external resistance to DEI initiatives tends to dominate the headlines – but in many organizations, there is also significant internal resistance to DEI initiatives that leaders must overcome.
We’ve done a lot of research on why people resist social change efforts and on strategies to overcome that resistance. If you want to make your efforts more effective, we’ve found, the key is to understand why people resist them. This applies to DEI initiatives, which generate many different forms of resistance, each of which demands a different strategic response.
In this article, draw some of our new ones psychological research, we will identify those different forms of resistance and explain what psychological threats drive these forms of resistance. We’ll also offer guidance for framing your efforts in ways that will help you overcome that resistance.
DEI initiatives often involve significant organizational changes and thus generate threats and concerns, especially from members of majority groups, who traditionally benefit from being in the majority and may feel that their organizational status or resources are threatened. This is known as “status threat,” and people who experience it often understand diversity initiatives in zero-sum terms. They believe that if members of minority groups make any gains — in opportunities, hiring, the potential for promotion — members of the majority group must suffer losses.
Some group members may also fear that DEI initiatives mean that their achievements are not a result of their skills and qualities but rather of their membership in the group. We call this “merit threat,” where members of an advantaged group feel that acknowledging the existence of prejudice, discrimination, and inequality “explains” their own achievements. Merit threat is common among group members who are strongly committed to value systems that value hard work and individual merit. It is also common when a DEI initiative has strong implications for decisions that are usually seen as merit recognition, such as promotion.
Finally, most group members sometimes experience “moral threat.” It is the feeling that if you recognize your privilege, you are damaging your moral image by linking yourself to an unfair system. This is most common when the majority of group members are generally committed to the moral value of equality. Because people are fundamentally motivated to see themselves as good and moral, those who rely on the ideal of equality may experience a threat if a DEI initiative highlights how their group violates this moral principle.
When most group members experience one or more of these threats, they respond with three main forms of resistance.
When members of majority groups feel that their status is threatened, they may try to defend (or justify) the existing status quo by seeking to legitimize it. Defending the status quo prevents changes that may be perceived as detrimental to their group. For example, at Google, an employee responded to a DEI training by writing a memo where he argues that gender gaps in the tech sector are not the result of discrimination but “non-biased factors.” Among the reasons he specified were gender differences in prenatal exposure to testosterone, different interests in people versus things, and levels of extraversion and neuroticism. The memo is a classic example of defensiveness, as it argues that existing inequalities are legitimate because they are based on perceived biological differences.
Organizational leaders should work to reduce the threat of the situation before attempting to counter-defend with evidence of unfairness; otherwise, such evidence is likely to be met with further resistance. To address the status quo threat, it is important to draw attention to the “win-win” aspects of DEI initiatives, especially how increased diversity can drive long-term business growth and increase opportunity for all (often called the “business case” for diversity). While some research suggests that business justifications can have problematic effects when embedded in organizational normative statements, they may still especially useful in dealing with threatening situations by helping to shift people from a zero-sum mindset. Additionally, some DEI policies can be framed in a way that works to value the views and experiences of all groups. These inclusive multiculturalism policies, which include the majority group, help the majority group members feel that the values and interests of their group not neglected.
Some people resist DEI initiatives by downplaying inequality or prejudice, or even denying that it exists at all. “I don’t understand why we have to attend these sessions,” one employee wrote in a feedback survey afterward. a diversity training at L’Oreal, “because we don’t discriminate against any employees to begin with.” Denial is usually elicited when members of majority groups experience status threat and merit threat.
Because denial is driven by status threat and merit threat, it is important to address both. For the status quo threat, as we noted above, the key is to reduce perceptions of DEI as a zero-sum game. Addressing the threat to merit, however, requires an additional strategy: self-affirmation, in which people are invited to reflect on an important characteristic, value, or achievement, why it is important to them, and how it expressed in their lives. For example, a person who particularly values loyalty and friendship might think about a time when they made a personal sacrifice to help a friend.
Self-affirmation is done SHOW to strengthen positive self-esteem, allowing people to accept information that they may find threatening. In the context of DEI, self-affirmation makes it easier for deniers to admit evidence of ongoing discrimination. When we meet a person who is in denial, our initial desire is to present them with overwhelming evidence of inequality, but prioritizing confirmation helps open people up to this information. So instead of starting a meeting about the need for diversity training by giving statistics about the severity of the problem, consider first engaging people in an exercise that allows them to reflect and confirm their self, or emphasizing the positives about the organization and its employees that give it meaning. to verify. Then just move on to talking about the problem that needs to be solved.
In some cases, members of advantaged groups are willing to acknowledge that there is discrimination and inequality, but they distance themselves from it personally, by arguing that they themselves are not discriminated against and have never benefited from discrimination. . People who engage in alienation, driven by both meritocratic threats and moral threats, often prefer to think in individual terms and work to disconnect themselves from groups, thus distancing themselves from on accusations that they benefited from bias or privilege. For example, Spencer Owens & Co. thought they had made progress on diversity issues, as most organizational team members increasingly made statements such as “I don’t see people of color” and “We are all people here.” However, an inspiring incident and subsequent company-wide survey Revelation significant racial tensions, due to frustration from minority-group members about the refusal of majority-group members to recognize how race affects their views and work.
Since alienation is motivated in part by the threat of merit, the strategy of self-affirmation can be useful when trying to overcome it. The best strategy to use to combat the moral threat, however, is to redirect it, by reframing DEI initiatives as a way for people to express their moral values. and thereby improve their moral condition. For example, researchers have found that when DEI initiatives are framed as a means of expressing universal values (fairness, equality, etc.) rather than an obligation that must be followed by the majority of group members, it increases support for DEI programs. So consider highlighting how DEI efforts present an opportunity for most group members to demonstrate their commitment to universal moral principles, and in doing so ensure that they are not automatically associated with discrimination and privilege.
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Most group members who resist DEI efforts usually do so because they experience the efforts as threatening. To overcome their resistance, you must first identify what types of threats they experience (the most common forms are status threats, merit threats, and moral threats), and what types to resist what they impose in response (common forms are denial, defense, and avoidance). By understanding these dynamics, and by using the targeted strategies we’ve described for overcoming these different types of resistance, you’ll more quickly advance your organization’s DEI efforts.