Reframing the Game: Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Management Is Not a Zero-Sum Game

Whenever I hear the term, zero-sum game, flashbacks of my college economics advisor droning on about various situations where one person gains something and another loses something in exactly the same amount flood into my mind. This memory often comes up when I’m facilitating diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategic planning sessions with senior executives and board members concerned about some stakeholders “losing power” when an organization commits to engaging, empowering, and elevating historically underrepresented & undervalued stakeholders into the highest levels of an organization in aggressive and achievable ways.

When this concern arises, I’m inspired to further explore where this fear comes from, and how we, as DEI champions, can coach leaders to dismantle it. One strategy to move beyond the zero-sum game belief comes in the form of transforming our scarcity mindset, or the belief that we have unlimited human wants in a world with limited resources, into something different. The argument for making such a transformation in this context is that our scarcity mindset impairs our abilities to effectively problem solve, make sound decisions, and move the DEI needle forward. Rather, this mindset roots us in habits of fear that result in playing office politics, managing from a place of limitations, and clouding our vision of building a more inclusive organization.

Fortunately, some business leaders embrace the abundance mindset, or the belief that we can all win when we collaborate and coordinate with each other, rather than compete and hoard profit, credit, and power. When senior executives and board members move into an abundance mindset, they move into a leadership zone where they can create bold visions for the future without constraint, and offer doses of inspiration for their teams to work towards that vision with a strong commitment of what could be possible for everyone to win. The abundance mindset encourages leaders to co-create with their teams to build a workplace that respects and includes members from historically dominant and underrepresented groups alike.

When it comes to DEI management, leaders with an abundance mindset can transform some of the five most common fears that arise when creating bold DEI strategic visions, plans, and concrete strategies. These fears along with strategies to overcome them are outlined below:

  1. Anxiety, fear, and shame. Experience and research indicate that talking about DEI in the workplace leads to a healthy dose of anxiety, fear, and shame. Such feelings are rooted in the belief that managing DEI will create (or amplify existing) problems in the workplace such as isolation, prejudice, conflict. When working across group differences, leadership managing these fears often focus too heavily on bias, discrimination, and microaggressions. To move beyond these common fears, leaders with an abundance mindset amplify the benefits of DEI – specifically focusing on educating stakeholders about the positive results that come from this critical work, and share a path of how to realize such results. Positive benefits include cross-cultural mentorship, multi-cultural team collaboration, and measuring progress through publicly sharing an organization’s DEI numbers.

  2. Loss of Status. Leaders from dominant groups, especially those who have benefited from the current workplace culture fear that diversity goals will displace them, and result in a loss of status as diverse stakeholders assume positions of greater authority and obtain more power within a given organization. Leaders with an abundance mindset recognize that such initiatives will allow them to have greater contact with people from different cultures, experiences, and with different ideas multi-cultural team collaboration and mentorship opportunities. Such increased contact will give the organization greater abilities to effectively solve problems, appeal to new markets, and increase collaboration and team morale. Leaders that step into their power and understand the importance of opening up their organizations to more diverse people, ideas, and experiences will gain status, respect, and enjoy a rising tide that floats all boats.

  3. Looking incompetent. Feelings of anxiety and fear can be further exacerbated when leaders and other stakeholders accept that DEI efforts need to take root within an organization, but fear looking incompetent, saying the wrong thing, and ultimately offending others. Those leaders that believe diversity is a zero-sum game fail to manage such concerns and create a silencing environment that limits the learning process. A leader with an abundance mindset has the emotional intelligence to create an encouraging learning environment for employees and other stakeholders to learn new practices through training, mentorship, coaching, and other professional development opportunities. Leaders that cultivate a positive learning environment will empower their teams to draw upon their differences to work towards achieving a shared business goal.

  4. Earning a Bad Reputation. Similarly, leaders with a scarcity mindset adopt DEI initiatives begrudgingly for fear that they will gain a bad reputation among their competitors and customers. Those leaders that embrace an abundance mindset recognize the value of being an exceptional organization – going above and beyond the dusty old steps of creating an inclusive organization – and overcome the fear of earning a bad reputation by establishing a bold vision for creating an inclusive workforce, which will attract the best and brightest talent, increase innovation, attract new markets, and improve team morale. With this vision, coupled with concrete strategies leading to a more welcoming, inclusive, and affirming workplace, who wouldn’t want to be a part of such an organization?

  5. Getting Sued. The single greatest motivator for leaders with a scarcity mindset to adopting DEI initiatives is the fear of litigation or worse, getting fired. Both carry extremely unfortunate consequences, and serve as a negative motivator. For leaders with an abundance mindset, they see beyond these fears, and recognize the real opportunities that await them. For example, for the business fearing a potential lawsuit, the transformative leader would use this moment to work with senior leaders and other stakeholders to revisit how the organization is working to engage, empower, and elevate diverse stakeholders, ideas, and experiences into all levels of the workplace. Such a moment could lead to the development of a more robust DEI policy, opportunities to coach staff around how to implement it, or simply navigating a conversation around why DEI matters to the organization. Achieving these small successes, and repeating them over time, will result in new experiences that allow new DEI values and beliefs to become embedded into the organization’s DNA.

Leading with an abundance mindset has the power to reframe the false notion that workplace diversity is a zero-sum game. Research and anecdotal experience confirms the reality that DEI is a game where all parties can truly win. This reality is absolutely possible for small and large organizations alike, and if you are curious about how to begin the dialogue in your own organization, let’s set up a time to talk. Even better, in honor of Pride Month, let’s talk specifically around how you’re reframing the game for your LGBTQ stakeholders.


Rhodes Perry

Rhodes Perry is a nationally recognized expert on LGBTQ and social justice public policy matters, with two decades of leadership experience innovating strategy management, policy and program solutions for corporations, government agencies, and non-profit organizations. At his core, Rhodes is an entrepreneur, where he most recently established Rhodes Perry Consulting, LLC, a national diversity and inclusion consulting firm that uses an intersectional approach to collaborate with leaders on creating solutions in the practice areas of strategy management, issue advocacy, and stakeholder engagement. Previously, Rhodes founded the Office of LGBTQ Policy & Practice at the New York City Administration for Children’s Services, and prior to this assignment he served as the founding Director of Policy at PFLAG National where he led the policy strategy and advocacy efforts for the organization’s 350 chapters. He cut his teeth serving as a Program Examiner at the White House Office of Management & Budget, where he improved upon federal benefit programs designed to provide assistance to low-income communities. Rhodes earned a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Gender Studies from the University of Notre Dame, and obtained a Master of Public Administration from New York University.