What do we mean when we say someone is an ally? At NLI, we define an allies as someone who realizes their advantaged position in a particular context and intentionally leverages that advantage to help people in less-advantaged positions.
Being an ally means being an active and consistent advocate for minimizing bias, increasing inclusion, and advancing equity in situations where they can directly impact people. Allies are important because corporate policies, however well-intentioned, can only go so far. In the end, the workplace is shaped by the ways people interact with other people. That’s where allies come in. An individual has the ability to do what organizational policies may not.
Why promote equity?
When people feel that circumstances at work are more equitable, they are more likely to feel that they belong. Research reveals that a sense of belonging positively affects job performance, absenteeism, and attrition.
So what does allyship look like in everyday life?
Acts of allyship generally fall into one of three categories: speaking up, extending opportunities, and challenging the status quo.
Allies can speak up for someone who’s being treated unfairly or dismissively by advocating for them or by amplifying underappreciated perspectives and contributions.
Allies also can give people opportunities by helping them access learning, leadership roles, or professional or social networks.
Finally, allyship can mean working to make your team’s everyday systems and processes—its decisions, meetings, and communications—fairer and more equitable.
Let’s look at some examples of people standing up as allies.
Speak Up: Adam and Maria
Adam was a project manager at a nonprofit organization that helps people living with a certain challenging medical condition. Adam’s organization typically worked directly with medical professionals to support those patients. Adam had an idea: his organization should start supporting not just medical professionals, but also the caregivers—the family members and friends who care for patients on a day-to-day basis.
But the other people at the organization didn’t seem interested in Adam’s idea. “I brought up the idea of serving this group in weekly huddles and monthly all-team meetings over several months. Every time, individuals more senior than myself would shut down my suggestion.”
After months of proposing the same idea, one of those more senior team members, Bob, offered an idea suspiciously similar to the one Adam had been suggesting and this time, everyone loved it. Adam was stunned. This was his idea—and here was Bob, taking credit for it. Just as Adam was thinking about updating his resume, another senior team member, Maria, spoke up. “That’s what Adam has been talking about all year, right? We all got into this work to make a difference. Adam’s idea could help us make a bigger difference.”
Maria was speaking up as an ally, amplifying Adam’s idea and giving him credit for being the first to suggest it. So why did it take Maria so long to speak up as an ally to advocate for Adam?
Because she was afraid of being regarded as an outsider. Maria said, “I liked his idea, but I didn’t want to be the only one agreeing with Adam. I had been through that low-key hazing before they started taking me seriously, so now it was his turn. When you first start there, you’re this outsider who has to fall in line. Adam was definitely an outsider, being pretty new, and a person of color. His persistence kinda proved he was an outsider, so agreeing with him would make me an outsider too.”
It can be scary to be an ally. For months, Maria’s worry about losing her insider position prevented her from speaking out. Once she realized she could actually show that Adam was also an insider, she was able to recognize the right time to speak out. “It makes sense for us to find ways to better serve patients, and Adam deserves the credit for finding one way. Plus, if the idea was good enough for Bob to try to claim it, I wasn’t the only one who thought Adam’s idea was a good one.” Bob’s agreement made speaking out less risky.
When Maria eventually did act as an ally, the way she went about it was smart.
People have an innate tendency to divide others into us and them. By pointing out that Adam’s idea fit right into the organization’s mission, she showed that Adam was one of us, not an outsider. And by treating Bob’s remarks as a reminder, not stolen property, she helped ensure Bob’s status wasn’t threatened.
Extend Opportunity: Donna and Michelle
Michelle was “an educator of educators” in a suburban public school district, assigned to assess whether Donna, a new teacher, was a bad hire. Donna was new to the school, but a very experienced teacher. She’d had a long career in another school system, and relocated to be closer to family.
Michelle was confused about the reason she was asked to assess Donna. “I didn’t see a problem. Donna was great in the classroom. She wasn’t familiar with the software we used, but her plans and instruction were solid.”
When Michelle asked why the school leadership thought Donna might have been a bad hire, they told her their reasoning. “They doubted Donna’s computer skills could be improved. Since she had taught for so long in a rural, under-resourced school district, and was older, they figured she wasn’t capable of learning the technical skills she needed.”
Michelle wasn’t sure Donna was being regarded fairly. So she took a stand in a non-confrontational way: she proposed they provide Donna the training she needed before making an official assessment. The school’s leadership agreed.
In a model of allyship, Michelle used her advantaged position to help ensure Donna had the opportunity to be evaluated fairly and equitably. “When someone hasn’t learned something, it doesn’t mean they can’t learn it. We had to see whether she could learn it, not assume she couldn’t.” Michelle wanted the school’s leadership to evaluate Donna with a growth mindset about her abilities.
Change Systems: Nicholas and Mark
When a marketing company’s higher-ups let each team choose for themselves where to work, Mark was proud that his team found the right mix of in-office time and remote-work time. For the most part, people could work wherever and whenever they worked best, and the team seemed stronger for it.
Mark was happy to see Nicholas in the office, and greeted him warmly. “Good to see you! This flexibility is really working out, isn’t it?” Mark was surprised Nicholas disagreed. “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. The people who are not physically at the conference table feel like they don’t get to contribute. In meetings where some are in person and some are on screen, the on-screen people feel like spectators.”
Mark had to think about that. He’d been so happy to finally work with people face-to-face, he hadn’t really thought about people who weren’t face-to-face with him. That was exactly the point Nicholas was making.
Nicholas was part of a message group of remote workers. “Out of sight, out of mind” had become a theme of their conversations, so Nicholas asked the group how to bring it up to Mark. Since it seemed on-screen participants were forgotten after the initial greetings, they decided to ask whether they could follow the Hellos.
Nicholas was glad Mark agreed to make it a practice to include remote workers. Mark wrote in his notebook the new system: “In meetings, call on remote attendees first. Let them present first. Ask for their feedback first.”
Having Mark agree to implement a new system may not seem like an act of allyship. But among his remote colleagues, Nicholas had an advantaged position: his was a voice Mark really valued. They’d worked together for a very long time.
Leveraging advantage to change systems and increase equity is indeed allyship.
Equitable ever after?
Maybe. Allyship requires sustained practice. We can’t know whether the organization in the first story made a practice of including new voices, but Adam did secure funding to expand his organization’s outreach. Neither do we know whether the school in the second example made a practice of evaluating prospects and employees equitably, but we do know Donna received the technical training, and a positive assessment.
We do know Mark at the marketing company adopted the system of starting meetings with remote workers first, a practice that has made the team more inclusive, cohesive, and productive. We also know they’re in uncharted territory and they must be vigilant to remain equitable.
Working to build and maintain an equitable workplace, where employees have a strong sense of belonging, is a worthwhile pursuit. Research shows that a sense of belonging pays off in improved job performance and potentially reduced absenteeism and attrition.
Allyship is not a badge earned after one action. Allyship is a practice of using your advantage to increase equity. But practices have to start somewhere. Where can you start?