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How to talk about privilege so people will listen

If you benefit from an inequity, how you handle the situation could depend on its presentation, according to a new study.

The study tested people’s willingness to surrender part of a bonus at work as a way of studying the presentation of an unjust imbalance or inequity.

“When attempting to influence individuals who are in a position to help rectify financial and social inequity, the way in which you phrase it makes a difference…”

“The manner in which you frame inequity or privilege, whether it’s focused on the self—my unearned privilege—or focused on the other—his or her unfair disadvantage—can influence the extent to which you want to rectify it,” says Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, an associate professor of management and organizations and a Center of Leadership and Ethics scholar at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University.

“When attempting to influence individuals who are in a position to help rectify financial and social inequity, the way in which you phrase it makes a difference,” Rosette says.

Previous research found framing inequity as a group advantage made members of the group more likely to support efforts to address the inequity. But Rosette found the opposite is true for individuals.

“We show that at the individual level, when you tell a person that what they have received is unearned,” Rosette says, “it triggers self-serving biases and they become less likely to rectify the inequity.”

The researchers asked 199 white participants to imagine they were sales associates who were to receive a performance bonus. Researchers told the participants that an audit found company policy had assigned sales opportunities unfairly based on race. The participants then had the chance to share some or all of their bonus.

Participants who were told a specific black colleague had been unfairly disadvantaged by the policy were willing to give up more of the bonus than those told they had been given an unfair advantage because they were white. They also gave up more than the participants who were told that all white personnel were undeservedly advantaged, or that all black employees were unfairly disadvantaged. A second study replicated the results.

“When we frame inequity as a person’s undeserved privilege, that person tends to justify their status by talking down the other party, describing the colleague as lazy or incompetent. This disparagement then justifies their decision not to share their rewards even though they were unfairly distributed in the first place,” Rosette says.

“Simply by changing the framing and presenting inequity as another person’s undeserved disadvantage, we find people are more interested in addressing it and are less likely to blame the other person,” she explains.

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The findings suggest that understanding how people think about the disadvantages of others may be just as important as understanding how people think about their own advantages—especially when the goal is to encourage behaviors and policies to redress the imbalance.

“It’s two sides of the same coin,” Rosette says. “How you look at it determines whether you are willing to address inequity. Our findings suggest the focus should be on the disadvantages bestowed upon the other person, rather than the unearned privileges that accumulate to the self.”

The study appears in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Source: Duke University

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