Zero-sum is a concept that describes a situation where one person’s gain is directly balanced by another person’s loss.
What is zero-sum?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of zero-sum is of, relating to, or being a situation in which a gain for one side entails a corresponding loss for the other side. This goes for games or relationships, for example.
In other words, zero-sum refers to a situation in which the total gains and losses among participants remain constant. Any benefit obtained by one party comes at the direct expense of another party involved in the same interaction.
In zero-sum scenarios, resources, wealth, or opportunities are fixed and cannot be increased or expanded.
An example of a zero-sum situation
To illustrate an everyday example of a zero-sum situation, imagine a limited job market.
For example, consider a small town with only ten available job positions at a local factory, and 20 people actively seek employment. In this scenario, the job market is fixed, and the number of job opportunities cannot be increased.
If one person from the group of 20 secures a job at the factory, it means that there are now only nine job positions available for the remaining 19 job seekers. The gain of one individual securing employment is exactly balanced by the loss of another individual who remains unemployed.
The total number of job positions (ten) and the total number of job seekers (20) remains constant, resulting in a zero-sum situation.
In this context, any success achieved by one person in obtaining a job opportunity directly comes at the expense of another person who is unable to secure employment due to the limited number of available positions.
In other words, the zero-sum scenario is where a loss for another participant within the same interaction counterbalances any gain for one participant.
Zero-sum in economics
In economic discussions, zero-sum has historically been associated with the assumption that interactions between countries or economic entities are zero-sum in nature.
For instance, in the context of international trade, some have argued that if one country benefits from exporting goods to another country, it must come at the expense of the importing country, leading to a zero-sum situation.
However, modern economic thought recognizes that trade can create mutual benefits, leading to positive-sum outcomes where all involved parties gain.
Zero-sum in competitive environments
Zero-sum situations are often prevalent in competitive environments. A clear example is sports, where one team’s victory directly corresponds to the opposing team’s defeat.
Similarly, like the situation mentioned above, the number of available positions remains fixed in the job market, meaning that one candidate’s success might be another candidate’s disappointment.
It should be noted that not all competitive situations are inherently zero-sum, as innovation and improvements can expand the available opportunities and resources.
In the context of DEIB, a zero-sum mentality in competitive environments is detrimental. When individuals or groups perceive limited resources or opportunities, they may engage in cutthroat competition, undermining collaboration and empathy.
The fallacy of zero-sum thinking
Zero-sum situations exist, but it’s important to differentiate between their occurrence in certain contexts and the fallacy of zero-sum thinking.
Zero-sum thinking, also known as zero-sum mentality, is a cognitive error in which individuals believe that all interactions are zero-sum, leading to a pessimistic and limited view of the world.
This narrow mindset can contribute to harmful social dynamics, especially in diverse settings. For example, some may wrongly assume that opportunities for underrepresented groups must come at the expense of the majority.
However, embracing a non-zero-sum mindset is crucial for fostering inclusive environments, as it acknowledges the potential for collective progress and mutual gains.
How zero-sum situations impact individuals and businesses
In zero-sum situations, individuals and businesses must recognize that their success may directly depend on the failure of others. This can intensify competition and create an environment where cooperation is scarce. In such scenarios, short-term gains may take precedence over long-term sustainability and growth.
For businesses, a zero-sum mentality can lead to aggressive competitive practices, such as undercutting prices, which may harm the overall industry.
On the other hand, adopting a cooperative approach can result in industry-wide improvements and increased consumer satisfaction.
In diverse workplaces, zero-sum thinking can exacerbate tensions and hinder efforts to promote inclusivity and belonging.
For instance, some may assume that providing support or opportunities to one group means neglecting others. In reality, creating a diverse and inclusive environment benefits everyone by fostering creativity, innovation, and diverse perspectives.
Example of zero-sum thinking in a diverse workplace
A technology company launches a mentorship program to support the career development of employees from underrepresented backgrounds (such as women and minorities), providing them with opportunities for skill development and networking.
However, some employees, particularly those who are not part of the targeted groups, start perceiving the mentorship program through a zero-sum lens.
They worry that providing additional support and resources to women and minorities will come at their own expense, causing them to be overlooked for promotions or professional opportunities. This mindset leads to resentment and hinders collaboration.
To address this, leadership clarifies that the program benefits everyone by fostering an inclusive environment and providing diverse perspectives. They ensure transparency in promotions and highlight success stories, promoting a culture of fairness and equality.
Consequently, the workplace becomes more supportive and productive, leveraging the power of diversity for overall success.