Susan R. Madsen: Helping those at a disadvantage doesn’t cost anything

One group making progress does not hold other groups back.

As many readers know, I’ve been working for 14 years on strengthening the impact of Utah girls and women.

While I understand that people can have different ideas about how to achieve an environment where everyone can thrive, I am surprised at the defensiveness of many people who assume that when specific resources and assistance are provided to people who need them, they themselves are somehow disadvantaged.

This reveals not only the scarcity mentality, but also a lack of understanding around privilege. (Frankly, I’m still working on understanding my own.)

First, I want to acknowledge that, yes, some resources are finite. There is only so much water, so much oil and gas and so much money allocated to various causes. And if one group gets a large slice of pie, that means someone else gets less. But most cases aren’t “pie.” And efforts to help someone make progress does not involve tripping someone further along in the race.

In the past month or two, I’ve spent time meeting with many Utah leaders, and encountered two individuals who had strong beliefs that efforts focused on addressing “disparities” (e.g., gender, race, poverty, homelessness, education) are not only not needed, but are harmful. They both stressed that initiatives around equality or equity are disadvantageous to other Utahns, even if those people do not need extra assistance or the resources themselves.

When I pointed to the vast amount of research that shows that targeted efforts can lift Utahns who would not be helped through general efforts, I was told by one individual that research is “hogwash” because people can make it say whatever they want it to say.

Frankly, in both conversations, I was utterly speechless by the end. There was nothing I could say that would help. I was reminded, again, that we still have people in influential positions within our state who are not open to discussing findings of topics that are so well-researched.

I was also reminded, again, how important it is for our state Legislature, city councils and other elected bodies to consist of people who represent their districts and areas in terms of gender, race and other types of demographics more equally.

These conversations remind me of Carol Dweck’s mindset work and how we all need to be intentional about being open to learning and growth.

First, Dweck teaches that when someone has a fixed mindset, they tend to believe that people and things are just the way they are and cannot really be changed. These folks are more likely to avoid challenges, believe that intelligence and abilities are fixed, think that if they need to put in effort to do something then they are not “good enough,” and believe that people are failures if they experience failure. We also tend to blame others for setbacks, become defensive when someone criticizes us and even feel threatened when other people are having successes.

On the other hand, if we are hanging out more often in a growth mindset, we tend to embrace challenges, believe that intelligence and abilities can be strengthened and improved and think the effort helps you master new skills and that failures are actually an opportunity to learn and grow. Setbacks are viewed as chances for growth, feedback is a gift and you are happy when other people succeed because it does not diminish you.

I believe there is most likely a continuum between these two mindsets, and we are not all in one or another all the time.

While we see these types of mindsets played out in individuals, I can see how this also applies to groups, organizations and even societies. Can a governing body or a society lean toward a fixed mindset or a growth mindset? I would say “yes.” The mindsets of Utah leaders matter as they are making decisions that impact all Utahns.

Using well-researched findings are absolutely linked to better decisions and outcomes for all members of society. Being open — instead of defensive — to learning and growth makes a big difference, especially to the disadvantaged.

Effort, success, growth and progress for one doesn’t necessarily come at the expense of another. In fact, I believe that the more we empower and lift those in need, the more we rise as a society. Research backs me up on this. My response to those who say otherwise: Hogwash!

Susan R. Madsen

Susan R. Madsen, Ed.D., is the inaugural Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership & Director, Utah Women & Leadership Project, Jon M. Huntsman School of Business, Utah State University.