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Power and Diversity
by Richard T. Alpert, Ph.D.


To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the demise of the diversity movement have been largely exaggerated. However, before we get carried away with how far diversity has come and is likely to go it is time to take a look at its relationship to power. It is this relationship, as much as anything, that will determine the long term viability of the diversity movement. 

As political scientists like to remind us, power has two dimensions: how it is distributed and how much of it there is. The distributive aspect of power is captured in the classical formulation of the one, the few, and the many, roughly corresponding to dictatorship, where power is concentrated in a single individual, to oligarchy where it is concentrated in a small group, or democracy, where power is shared among many different groups and interests. 

The degree of power, however, is also important. After all, there are weak dictatorships and strong democracies and vice versa. Power is not something to be found lying around; it is something that needs to be created, mobilized, developed, organized, and directed. 

One of the quickest ways to tell how seriously an organization is about diversity is to ask where in the organization's structure responsibility for diversity is located and how much power lies behind the diversity effort. In thinking about this issue, it is useful to locate the diversity effort along an imaginary continuum that goes from very close to the key sources of power on one end to very far from those sources at the other end. In addition, having a high degree of power would show the diversity effort with a capacity to command and direct significant organizational resources. A powerful effort would be linked to powerful offices and individuals with clear mandates and the budgets to carry them out. On the other end, a weak effort, would be more of an employee committee charged with a vague mandate such as “creating more awareness around diversity issues” and a relatively small budget. 

The following matrix may give you an idea about your “power quotient” depending on where the diversity effort is located in the organization and the degree of power that exists for developing and implementing diversity policies and programs. 

Likelihood of Long-Term Success of Diversity Efforts
Distance From Source of Power
Very Close Very Far
Degree of
Very High
Very Low
Dead in the Water


As pointed out in the matrix, the best situation is for diversity responsibilities to be both close to the sources of power and to have a high degree of power. In most organizations, these two aspects go together. An example would be for the person responsible for diversity to report directly to the chief executive officer or chairman of the board and to have as high an organizational rank as others with the same reporting relationship. Diversity in this case would be embodied in an office with a significant staff, budget, and a broad strategic mandate. The person in charge would be involved in all major strategic organizational meetings and decisions and would be expected to bring a diversity perspective to virtually everything that occurs in the organization. 

Although it is unlikely that diversity would be located far from the sources of power, but still have a great deal of influence in the organization, this may occur in organizations where legal compliance and governmental regulation are key driving forces behind the diversity efforts. In the short term, this may give diversity a great deal of influence across a fairly broad range of the organization's activities, but it leaves the effort extremely vulnerable to changes in the legal and regulatory environment. 

For those who are not in the highest quadrant, what are some of the things you can do to increase your power? 

Shape perceptions: You can gain power by increasing the extent to which others perceive that your efforts will be helpful to them and to their interests. In this sense, you must learn to use information strategically and persuasively to make your interests seem compatible and even essential for the accomplishment of the interests and goals of others. 

Influence the agendas of others: Although one's initial mandate may be narrow, you can build power by finding ways to shape or influence the agendas of other groups in the organization. The compliance and legal aspects of diversity may be a base to do this initially, but it is important to find more operational issues to which to link diversity concerns. 

Capitalize on areas of uncertainty: Narrowing the areas of uncertainty in an organization can be a strong basis for building power. A rapidly changing worker profile, globalization of business, and new ethnic markets both domestic and foreign have increased the level of uncertainty and lowered the confidence with which almost all aspects of a business are now pursued. Bringing an expertise based on knowledge of how diversity influences the key areas of change for an organization can increase the power base from which diversity functions. 

Build alliances: In some ways, the easiest way to gain more power is to get some from those who already have it. However, make sure that those with whom you seek alliance have power to spare and that the result of aligning with your efforts is not a reduction in both your and your potential ally's power. The most obvious way to make such an alliance is by determining who you report to, who chairs and has membership on key diversity committees, and how much of a budget you have to use to support diversity efforts. 

Gain results: In political matters as well as many others, nothing succeeds like success. You gain power in some proportion to how effective your efforts are. In this sense, it is very important what goals you choose and priorities you set. You need success to be taken seriously, but to be taken seriously you need successes. The results you should key on are those that match and enhance the strategic goals of the organization. Get out of the human resource and staffing mind-set and look to marketing and sales as key areas where diversity can make a difference. This is the political importance of the growing emphasis on diversity as a business, bottom line issue. 

If you wonder, how much power there is behind your diversity efforts, ask this simple question? If the organization were to face significant cut-backs, how much of what I am now doing would survive? Then get to work. 


The Author


Richard T. Alpert, Ph.D. is founder and President of  Diversity Resources Inc., headquartered in Amherst, MA. Diversity Resources, Inc. specializes in electronic and print information for companies wishing to expand or begin efforts to encourage multicultural understanding among employees or of customers in a global economy. DR's Multicultural Calendar  is widely regarded as the preferred and most comprehensive calendar of its kind, containing over 600 entries of birthdays, historical/cultural events, days of religious observance, and public holidays for 35 cultures and religions in 85 countries.  Visit for more information.

Many more articles in Diversity in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2000 by Richard T. Alpert. All rights reserved.

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