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The assumption that diversity requires only win or lose outcomes is a self-imposed trap fueled by fear. This fallacy operates quietly inside many of us, creating a stealth bias that puts us and others at risk. If you hold a leadership role, making this zero-sum assumption is perilous.
In my years developing inclusive leaders, I’ve noticed that this win/lose calculus about diversity often functions within one of three dynamics.
People with deep experience of advantage
People who live with multiple identity advantages — for example, like me, those who are white, male, upper-middle-class, educated, healthy — may worry that attention to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) will cause us to lose opportunities , standing or influence. We know how hard we work for what we have. We treasure our dreams for our children.
It can help people in this position to define privilege as “the accumulation of advantages.” As we explore how advantage may accrue in our lives, we learn to see that privilege is about steadily winning opportunities, whereas the disadvantage is about losing (or never having) chances to succeed in life.
Candidly, our fear that diversity will cause us to lose makes me wonder if, in a quiet place in our hearts, we can acknowledge that we have consistently been winning more than our fair share of opportunities. Those with a deep experience of disadvantage may look at the many advantages of us enjoy and think, “When you’re acccustomed to privilege, equality seems like oppression.”
We need to think more clearly about winning and losing. Equity is about each person having a fair shot at winning their fair share of opportunities.
People with deep experience of victim
When you are bone-weary from continually experiencing and dealing with disadvantage and trauma, the insistence that you are done losing in life should be seen as a sign of health and hope. If my colleagues of color, for example, are energetic in their expectation of equal opportunities, which is a better leadership response for me: Remaining passive or resistant because it sounds like white people like me are now going to lose or lean into DEI to completely recalibrate how opportunities are afforded in order to ensure robust fairness for everyone?
I’m not defending any utterance or policy that reinforces the destructive idea that human differences must divide or that aspects of identity and culture will always drive conflict. But when you encounter the win/lose formulation, it’s time to get curious about the emotion, experience and intent that informs it.
People in hyper-competitive companies
In some organizations, competition is prioritized over collaboration. Competition can surely evoke excellence. Yet competition among colleagues is often toxic, where winning and constantly losing emerge in behaviors that serve to dominate peers and damage their contribution.
Any person, team or company that maintains such a stubborn predisposition to winning promotes combative forms of competition that create damaging tension and animosity. Such contexts twist the powerful and positive contributions of diversity, equity and inclusion into entitled fears like, “They are giving our jobs to the women” or into low-performing conclusions like, “I guess they just want me to go out and hire a black person.”
In circumstances like this, competition is driving intellectual laziness and incompetent decision-making. Ultimately, an overbearing emphasis on winning makes everyone lose.
How to escape the win/lose trap
The thread that runs through this competitive mess is either/or, which is absolutist thinking. The times we live in offer permission for such win/lose assumptions, and sometimes it’s just easier to operate with an us-versus-them, all-or-nothing mindset.
But that’s no way to lead these days. If win/lose is a trap of our own making, then we can escape it. Diversity conversations and dynamics are layered and complicated. Inclusive leadership requires that we show up lucid and serious and engage every employee to ensure that they contribute and stay. Our people represent a nuanced spectrum of identities and experiences, which we, as leaders, get to explore with curiosity and courage.
Inclusive leaders acknowledge and embrace both competition and collaboration. Yes, people in organizations compete with one another for assignments and promotions. Let’s make sure that such competition is fair and fierce. As we focus on reducing personal and systemic bias, healthy competition increases, ensuring that all people have the equitable opportunity to advance. That’s how competition propels excellence.
We can also distinguish ourselves as inclusive leaders by collaborating with our colleagues across all identities to solve problems with innovative solutions. A powerful relationship exists between competition and collaboration when we compete with our skills and ideas rather than by trashing one another.
Think of your organization as a musical theater company producing Broadway shows. Musical theater performers constantly audition against one another based on voice, acting and dancing ability, looks and other qualifications. Yet once the casting decisions are made, the show’s success requires a remarkable degree of collaboration. You can lose a role to someone for one production and then, in the next show, perform with them hundreds of times in front of the world’s audiences.
Because theatrical competition selects around merit and match, many have the opportunity to audition, and the best shows feature performers in roles best suited to them in a community built with powerful collaboration. The outcome: Audiences on their feet at the closing curtain, swept up in the emotion, awestruck from a story well told.
The bottom line is that a win/lose assumption about diversity sets up you and your organization to do just that — lose. You lose by stifling opportunities, limiting performance and losing talent. Instead, commit to the vigorous interplay between competition and collaboration, which together drives excellence.