The use – or misuse – of Power in DE&I

Using power is different from showing leadership in DE&I and both are key to successfully driving change. Traction, however, can also be reduced – or limited – depending on how power is used. This often happens unintentionally or when a leader is not aware of the side-effects of their ‘powerful’ decisions.

DE&I 2023 Trilogy (part 3)

I often hear that people expect DE&I-related changes to start with big, powerful decisions including setting priorities, providing resources or implementing new rules. All these activities require authority, possibility and ability to direct and control behaviours in an organisation. They reflect and rest upon the power that was granted to a person while leadership is required as an additional attitudinal element. In this article, I describe how power can have supportive or obstructive effects depending on how it is used, or misused, in certain areas including

  • Power to set a focus and frame perceptions – and subsequent discussions and actions
  • Power to amplify messages or actions – or steer attention away from certain areas
  • Power to invite – or exclude – stakeholders – and hence widen or limit the dialogue
  • Power to take impactful decisions including on resources – with large symbolic power either way

This third part of the 2023 DE&I Trilogy discusses these potential blockades of DE&I progress while the previous parts looked at how to deal with opposing opinions and at the dynamics of activism in DE&I in the same context.

Power vs. Leadership

In the situations mentioned above, people may consider DE&I leadership to be the decisive factor while power can be regarded as a structural aid. Comparing the two concepts shows that leadership is understood to be about sense-making and role-modelling as inspirational and motivational ways to influence people in an area like DE&I. Leadership can hence create certain forms of power, e.g., related to activism where followers are key.

Power, on the other side, focuses on setting frameworks, conditions or rules, and channelling and controlling behaviours. This perception of ‘command and control’ may well be a reason why power tends to have negative connotations, particularly in participatory contexts. Using power deliberately – and purposefully – can nonetheless be a key addition to DE&I leadership.

However, when a leader uses their power, this may have the intended (supportive) effect on DE&I, or it can have additional, unwanted and even harmful side-effects. The following four examples serve as illustrations and inspiration for these overlooked dynamics.

The Power to define what is considered (in the first place)

The way a leader frames D&I determines the potential scope, perception and engagement. It happens by choosing a certain context, using a certain language and examples, or by selecting facts, adding evaluations and raising questions. While it might appear obvious, individuals are not always aware of the many micro-messages they send, and they might not even be aware of why they chose a certain framing or the effects this has. Here is a list of choices leaders make in positioning D&I:

  • Talking about D&I on IWD versus in a monthly management meeting …
  • Using sports or military examples versus offering travelling, cooking or family affairs as analogies …
  • Citing a generic ‘famous’ study versus quoting a new empirical insight with specific relevance …
  • Sharing mainly praise (awards etc.) versus acknowledging gaps or showing room for improvement …
  • Raising questions about practicalities versus shedding light on unexplained gaps or missing root-causes …

I keep observing vastly different effects related to how D&I is framed in these respects. Sometimes the effect is intended while sometimes it is not. Today, leaders need acute awareness of the symbolic powers that even small aspects of their behaviour have, how these are perceived and which alternatives they should consider – regardless of whether they address D&I once a year or once a month.

Read about making DE&I a purpose that creates buy-in 

The Power to celebrate what is valuable

Recognise and reward behaviour or a piece of information is a core leadership task. Yet, being in the powerful position to amplify what you consider particularly relevant is a privilege of few in each organisation. Using this power determines to a large extend which information your audience will read and share or, as a result, which behaviour they will mimic. Amplifying messages or behaviours comes with two risks:

  1. It can be prone to filter bubble and groupthink dynamics – both are questionable in relation to D&I
  2. It can run the risk of tokenism, singling out or exoticise difference

Therefore, using power to highlight and promote information, individuals or intervention has to balance

  • Previously marginalised perspectives and previously dominant ones that might still be relevant
  • The inspiring impetus of difference on one side and meeting people’s readiness, needs and possibilities on the other
  • The implicit value (or preference) that amplification can give to difference versus the ongoing recognition of people identifying as ‘mainstream’ or ‘majorities’

Unlike in the past, our audiences today closely observe the use of power including when a leader shares information. In other words: the symbolic content and implicit message have become more important, and context and coherence must hence be carefully factored in. This applies for all stakeholders including activists whose activities are more critically followed as well.

Read about the (arguable) value of being different and the previous part of this trilogy focusing on activism 

The Power to decide who gets heard

(re)Considering representation is probably the oldest approach in D&I, and it appears to be a no-brainer that in every decision-making group, a mix of perspectives should be included. People in powerful positions have the ability to open doors and offer seats at the table to those whose voices were not considered in the past. However, the growing body of evidence shows that not every type of diversity is relevant in each context. And even fairness-driven considerations question if the entire societal diversity must be represented in every business setting.

Leaders who use their power to determine the make-up of a group hence face a dilemma: To what extend do they invite different people in order to

  • Fulfil expectations of clear, visible representation
  • Add meaningful perspectives in the respective business context

In many cases, both considerations overlap and create win-win situations. However, considering the ‘diversity of opinion’ movement on the one side and the strong aspect of ‘activism’ on the other side (c.f. parts 1 & 2 of this trilogy, respectively), a number of pitfalls are obviously ahead.

From my experience, and backed by research, a robust business-based reasoning will always be more effective in a management context than a fairness-based approach (‘the more diversity the better’). And I enjoy the discourses of this question .

Read more about business-based storylines 

The Power to allocate resources

“No ‘return’ without investment in DE&I” is my headline for the Business Case of Diversity and we finally see adequate D&I management structures established. Assigning substantial resources is one of the proof-points people use to check the credibility and consistency of powerful leaders. As companies today can spend excessive budgets (+ related resources) on DE&I initiatives, partnerships and tools – each with an ongoing/recurring price tags – the resource question includes the ‘how much’ as well as the ‘what for’. Obvious and less obvious aspects must be weighed in when using your power to allocate resources.

  • How to split the budget between internal resources (headcount, structures) and external programmes, tools and support?
  • How to mix partnerships across topic areas and purpose (image, publicity, networking, change impact)?
  • How to combine one-off and recurring activities, and the embedment of DE&I in existing structures?

In relation to both other topics of this trilogy, diversity of opinion and activism, allocating resources has become much more complex in recent years. Activists’ expectations will insist on ‘investment’ in each of their causes and can easily tie up budget (and many more resources) as can partnership programmes with think tanks or public campaigns. Beyond political and publicity partnerships, companies also want to achieve measurable and valuable progress in DE&I. The allocation of resources has become one of the most underrated challenges in driving DE&I related change.

Read more how to get from initiatives to impact 

Once in power …

The traditional DE&I narrative considers power and privilege to be connected and hence criticises ‘power’ both in structural and personal terms. Over time, more and more activists have reached powerful positions and now find themselves under pressure to take the decisions described above in the best possible ways. For many, this is an eye-opening experience – just like the famous ‘walking in somebody else’s moccasins’. The bottom-line often is

  • It is much easier to criticise than to make a difference
  • Being aware or in the know does equal changing behaviours
  • Doing things with best intentions does not guarantee the desired effect

When we started our university partnerships one of the first research tackled the ‘politics of power’ and how they related to DE&I. Since then, many things have changed but not the fact that depending on your organisational and personal context, power issues will unfold very differently. Both positive and negative perception prevail in regards to ‘power and DE&I’ – for many reasons. For in many organisations, some people misuse their power to control DE&I in a limiting way and hence create friction – and attrition. These dynamics are often difficult to identify because where there is shadow, there is also light – meaning that even limited, controlling support for DE&I still has an advancing effect.

Read the examples of Heidi Klum and the BlackRock CEO

Check if your company has a ‘power’ issue in DE&I

As a DE&I practitioner, you may wonder if any of the described issues exist within your organisation. As they might not be obvious the following check list assists in reflecting your situation. If you have recently noticed four or more of the following statements or reactions, we recommend you revisit how your stakeholders engage in DE&I.

  • “I am proud that our company engages in these societal activities – we show that we care!”
  • “When will we ever close these gender gaps – and look at other topics as well?”
  • “It is fascinating what our colleagues do to promote diversity in all these locations around the world!”
  • “What does it take to talk so eloquently like our new director who is a woman of colour?”
  • “Our executive council has a great representation of all relevant diversity groups – powerful role models!”
  • “Will our new diverse employer branding campaign still attract the best (white, male) talent that we (also) need?”
  • “I wish we had always supported all these diversity charities in the impact they have on society!”
  • “Will they take away more of our football sponsoring to promote special interest like female or disabled sports?”

These statements can be signs of misperceptions when they occur in multiple forms (not individually). Therefore, you should take them seriously, when four or more appear as they can be a sign of disconnect or a lack of consistency.


‘Power’ is a key component of change and hence DE&I. In today’s complex context it must be used in a reflected way, taking into account varying perceptions and potentially different reactions. Well-informed and intended powerful decisions can accelerate change or throw a spanner in the works and undermine engagement, dialogue or progress. This can happen when power is used to divert the focus only on achievements, to highlight ‘exotic’ exceptions, to create randomly diverse groups or to invest in partnerships that focus on external visibility and credibility. These elements are likely to reduce traction in DE&I and create cynicism and disengagement instead.

In addition to leadership, using power for DE&I aims at creating circumstances under which the topic can be further developed in the given organisational context and inclusive of relevant perspectives and partners. Fine-tuning the use of power is key to achieve this.


Previous articles of this trilogy:

Part 1

Part 2