Understanding DEI Resistance

Tuesday, March 19, 2024 8:00 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Understanding DEI Resistance

Written by Jill Tabbutt-Henry

Any of us who have been involved with any kind of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) work are all too aware of the resistance that our efforts encounter—from token gestures of one-time staff trainings, to hiring a DEI coordinator and then not providing the support needed for that person to be effective, to the Supreme Court decision against Affirmative Action in college admissions undermining DEI in education.

These occurrences prompt difficult questions…

What is behind this resistance? Is it a fear of change? Something deeper?  Should we even dare to ask these questions, or should we focus on program strategies and organizational issues?

A recent event in Maine brings these questions even more to the forefront of our thoughts. In December, the DEI coordinator for the South Portland School Department, an Iraqi immigrant, received a threatening email from a man in New Hampshire. His superintendent described the email as “the most vile email message I have seen in my 35 years in education.” The ultimate result of this incident was that the employee resigned from his position and left the state of Maine with his family. 

Are people in our communities feeling threatened by DEI work?

Last year, the Harvard Business Review (March 1, 2023) published an article—”To Overcome Resistance to DEI, Understand What’s Driving It,” by Eric Shuman, Eric Knowles, and Amit Goldenberg. In this article, the authors describe three types of psychological threats that some people experience in response to DEI initiatives and three types of resistance that they engage in, depending on the type of threat.

The three types of psychological threats named by the authors are:

       Status threat—when people perceive that if anyone from a minority group gains status in an organization, someone from the majority group will have to give up their status.

       Merit threat—when people worry that, if their value to their organization is assessed purely in terms of merit, there may well be people from minority groups who are better qualified or will perform better in their position.

       Moral threat—in the authors’ words, “the sense that if you acknowledge your privilege, you tarnish your moral image by linking yourself to an unfair system.”

The three primary forms of resistance described by the authors are:

       Defending—justifying the status quo to prevent changes that are perceived as harmful to the existing staff (driven by status threat)

       Denying—rejecting DEI initiatives as unnecessary because there’s no bias, or very little (driven by status and merit threat)

       Distancing—acknowledging that some discrimination may exist in the system, but arguing that they themselves never benefited from it (driven by merit and moral threat)

The authors provide some simple and concrete approaches to addressing these forms of resistance. One strategy is to emphasize the “win-win” aspects of DEI initiatives, to reduce status threat and counter the “zero-sum” scenario about power within the organization.

Another approach is to use self-affirmation to identify positive aspects of the organization and its employees prior to addressing problem areas.

The moral threat can be minimized by “highlighting how DEI efforts present an opportunity for majority-group members to demonstrate their commitment to universal moral principles [e.g. fairness and equality], and in doing so ensure that they are not automatically associated with discrimination and privilege.”  

These strategies require an assessment of what kinds of threats people are experiencing and what forms of resistance they are demonstrating. Considering these different kinds of threats and different types of resistance before initiating DEI efforts may give us tools for introducing and sustaining DEI efforts.

 So, how do you think DEI changes would impact you?

What do you think?  Join the discussion in the comments below and join our chapter’s next DEI SIG meeting on April 4th, 10-11:30.


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