Diversity Lessons From the Political Season

The 2012 election proved once again that political dynamics can be useful as a diversity laboratory with lessons that can be gleaned from the contest for the U.S. presidency between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

People want leaders who can work collaboratively and effectively with people who are different from themselves. They do not mind the presence of strong differences, but when the dust settles, organizational participants, like political constituents, want problems to be addressed effectively.

Leaders with widely divergent and strong views can work together. The climate before the final days of the presidential campaign suggested politicians of different parties could not be expected to reach across the aisle. Then, Hurricane Sandy provided a dramatic context that prompted immediate and effective problem solving and cooperation between Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Across lines of diversity, compromise is not the desired end, but rather solving the problem at hand. The New Jersey citizens did not want to hear about different political agendas and their implications; they wanted relief from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Too often, we are told that diversity requires compromise. While this may be true with respect to getting along, it is inadequate for issues demanding decisions. For this, problem solving is a necessity.

Effective decision making in the midst of diversity requires compelling shared objectives that yank the focus from individual agendas. Hurricane Sandy accomplished this refocusing for Christie, Obama and New Jersey residents. All parties had to shift their agendas from political posturing to delivering relief from the storm. Because this delivery became the compelling objective of the moment, it temporarily subordinated differing political agendas. All remained aware of their different perspectives, but their primary focus was elsewhere.

In situations where crisis circumstances such as Sept. 11 are absent, leaders must create a compelling context to work routinely across lines of diversity. At a minimum, they must work to assure that the organization’s mission, vision and strategy are sufficiently clear, vivid and compelling to direct focus from individual concerns to those of the collective entity.

Pioneering leadership and management theorists emphasized this task. These writers, while not always explicitly speaking about diversity and inclusion, were addressing the challenge of melding disparate individuals with self-interest agendas into a unified, mission-driven collective entity. This is the fundamental challenge of diversity management with respect to the workforce.

The implications of these lessons from the political season are significant. They highlight an area often not targeted by CEOs and CDOs whose focus is often getting “diversity” — the numbers. Relatively little has been done to promote effectiveness without unnecessarily compromising this diversity. For many, this will be a new frontier.

CEOs and CDOs wishing to prepare their organization for leading, managing and working across diversity lines should commit to creating an understanding of diversity among organizational participants. Organizations frequently are so busy “doing diversity” they attain little understanding of diversity.

They also should avoid the temptation to commit to a given tactic without understanding the underlying principles. This is analogous to a want-to-be golfer who masters the tactics of hitting the golf ball, but has no understanding of the game. In both instances, individuals are unlikely to move beyond their self-interests to an overarching communal or organizational compelling framework.

Then, develop internal leaders with a capability for creating and imbuing a compelling vision that can divert individuals from focusing primarily on self-interests instead of the collective entity. Convey expectations that they will use this capability and be rewarded for their success.

Finally, convey the expectation that the presence of diversity is no excuse for accepting compromise. Stress the importance of achieving the highest level of problem solving across diversity lines for all issues. This must be the norm in and out of crisis.

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 editor@diversity-executive.com.