How Diversity Leaders Can Learn From Politics

If you define diversity as differences, similarities and related tensions and complexities, you can conclude quickly that the world of politics is characterized by diversity. As voters and politicians address this mixture, they are providing rich lessons on how and how not to manage diversity.

In recent months, gut-wrenching conflicts have surfaced over multiple issues. Interestingly, CDOs and other diversity leaders rarely refer to politics as an arena characterized by diversity — let alone as a real-world laboratory offering potentially valuable lessons. At least four reasons explain why CDOs have not exploited the political arena for learning.

1. CEOs employ CDOs to manage workforce diversity within their enterprises, and might want their diversity leader to focus primarily on internal issues.

2. Many CDOs define diversity narrowly as the representation and utilization of minorities and women in the workforce. For these individuals, diversity does not include political identity groups and parties, but relates primarily — if not only — to the workforce.

3. Because of this workforce focus, the CDO’s tools tend to be workforce specific and not easily applicable beyond the workforce. This narrow set of tools does not equip CDOs to address or study political diversity dynamics.

4. The intense tension and complexities of current politics have the potential to complicate the internal practitioners’ work. Because many organizational advocates for diversity frequently cite the benefits and richness of diversity, they might fear that the world of aggressive, hard-knocks politics threatens to compromise their message that workforce diversity is desirable and good.

CEOs and CDOs desiring to use the political arena as a learning laboratory should consider the following recommendations:
• Identify and adopt a universal framework that can facilitate comparative analysis of workforce and political diversity. This framework should have concepts, principles and a decision-making process, not just tactics.
• Appoint two or three multi-partisan study groups to apply the framework to the political world in search of deeper understandings about transferable diversity lessons. Questions that might be addressed include: How do the dynamics of political diversity compare to those of workforce diversity? In light of the recent gridlock tensions and challenges, what are the implications for the management of workforce diversity? In general, what lessons from political diversity management can be gleaned and transferred to the corporate world? What lessons from the practice of managing workforce diversity can be transferred to the political realm?
• Require the study groups to report back to the diversity council and other organizational diversity leaders to foster focused discussions that enhance understanding about diversity and facilitate the adoption of beneficial lessons gleaned from the study groups.

Consideration should be given to thoughtful external groups concerned about the political process. General, non-focused, partisan discussions should be avoided. Using your universal framework, you would be interested in focused, multi-partisan explorations of how the political process might be enhanced.

Many organizations would benefit from identifying and adopting a universal framework even without the additional benefit of providing a comparison context. CDOs could elect to use this framework to guide the development and adoption of strategies and tactics on an ongoing basis. This would be an enormous improvement over focusing primarily on tactics.

In addition, the aforementioned comparative analysis would provide a fresh and different perspective that could generate some out-of-the-box discussions and actions. This, in turn, might provide a foundation to take a corporation’s diversity work a notch higher.

Finally, sharing the results with the broader society might — if done by enough corporations — give partisan political players pause and encourage them to think more creatively about improving the process. At a minimum, this sharing might stimulate a general awareness of America as an experiment in diversity, and of the importance of how we make significant decisions. That alone could be the biggest benefit.

R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr. is CEO of Roosevelt Thomas Consulting & Training, founder of the American Institute for Managing Diversity and author of World Class Diversity Management: A Strategic Approach. He can be reached at