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DEI in 5: Bite-Sized Discussions on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion - Ep14: Resistance to DEI

On March 1st, there was an article published in HBR, Harvard Business Review, written by three psychology researchers, who’s recent research focused on the psychology of social change and how to leverage those findings to overcome resistance to diversity, equity, and inclusion work. I’ll link the article below.

If you’ve been following what’s going on in the DEI space, you’re likely aware of the sudden uprise against DEI efforts across a variety of domains. A number of organizations have dialed back on their DEI efforts, fired DEI teams, gotten rid of DEI roles, etc. But also within the context of Education, there’s been a lot of change happening as it relates to DEI. If you haven’t been keeping up with Florida and the Stop Woke Act, as well as House Bill 999, I encourage you to check that out.

But back to the article and the research that these three folks have done. Which by the way, as much as I appreciate this research, it still grinds my gears to no end that there’s such a lack of diversity amongst research of DEI. But that’s a video for another time—actually I already posted a video about that, you can find it on my channel.

But anyhow, the article delves into three primary forms of resistance to DEI initiatives: defending, denying, and distancing. And the researchers identified that these forms of resistance are driven by psychological threats such as status, merit, and moral threats. So, let’s break that down a bit more, and again, I’m pulling this from the HBR article linked below:

DEI initiatives can elicit threat and concern, especially from members of majority groups who feel that their status or resources may be threatened. This is what we call "status threat."

Some individuals may also feel that recognizing the existence of bias, discrimination, and inequality challenges their achievements and personal merit. This is what we call "merit threat."

Finally, some individuals may feel that acknowledging their privilege and connection to an unfair system undermines their moral standing. This is what we call "moral threat." This is the most common and based on the research is aligned to the cognitive dissonance, or discomfort that I often see people battling with when their behavior doesn’t necessarily align with their moral beliefs or values.

They go on to talk about how when individuals experience one or more of these threats, they tend to resist DEI initiatives in three primary ways: defending, denying, and distancing. Defending involves justifying and trying to maintain the current status quo, denying involves downplaying or denying the existence of inequality or bias, and distancing involves acknowledging but personally disconnecting from the issue. Again, the article does a good job of providing examples of these, so definitely give it a read.

To address these forms of resistance, they recommend that organizational leaders try a few things:

To reduce status threat by highlighting the long-term benefits of DEI initiatives for everyone, which is essentially highlighting the business case. In a recent video of “DEI in 5” I talked about how pushing the “business case” can be harmful, but in this case, as the researchers acknowledge helping individuals understand why this work matters, specifically to tackle “status threat” can be effective. Helping them shift away from a zero-sum way of thinking, or a way of thinking where one person or group loses something, for another to gain. And to take this from theory to practice, in my work I coach leaders 1:1 and have found it to be the most effective way to gain buy-in as well as to get them engaged hands-on with the work. And honestly it is a bit of handholding and coddling, to work with folks 1:1 to help them connect the dots between why DEI matters and why it should matter to them. But if we don’t do it, we keep walking int he same circles, with the same leaders making decisions that don’t take into consideration the very people that they’re impacting

To address merit threat the researchers recommend using self-affirmation exercises to bolster positive self-esteem and make it easier for individuals to accept information that challenges their beliefs. Now this one’s interesting, it feels very hand-coldish, but from a psychological standpoint makes sense. In general when our self-esteem as humans is high or increased, info that we generally might find threatening seems less so. Again, taking this from theory to practice - I like to do retrospectives with leaders, in which I first ask them to reflect on what they think is going really well in terms of how they are leading. We affirm the inclusive leadership best practices and then move on to reflect on what’s not going so well. Shameless plug, also in my workbook, which is linked below. Leaders are asked to reflect on their strengths and areas where they excel when it comes to leading others. This again is a practice of self-affirmation

Finally, the researchers suggest redirecting moral threat by reframing DEI initiatives as opportunities to express moral ideals and repair moral standing. So really thinking about equity and fairness, equality, etc. as universal ideas that we should all commit to instead of directly tying those ideas to discrimination or privilege. So, this one is probably my least favorite, because my interpretation—if I’m reading between the lines, is let’s talk about DEI at high-level, without calling out specific isms, like racism, sexism, ageism, etc. And again, from practice, people are more open to DEI when they don’t feel that they constantly have to reflect on their power and privilege. I personally think there’s a balance that needs to happen. In which, we have all people, especially in a work context, reflect on their power and privilege, because we all carry a level of it based on our social identities. And also, we can reflect on “the human” good, putting social identities aside.

So that’s it for today’s episode. Drop a comment on YouTube and let me know what you think. Check out my workbook, The Inclusive Leadership Journal, and let me know what you think, and I’ll see you back here tomorrow!

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