Ally Skills: People Leadership Skills for the New Economy

By Alex Brown




Have you heard the term “ally” in the context of diverse workplaces and communities? Even if you have, the word “ally” means many things to different people. In my own diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) learning and teaching, an “ally” is a member of some majority social group who consistently stands alongside and sponsors members of minority social groups


Andrea Ayvazian, drawing on the writings of many people of color and women, coined the term "allied behavior" to refer to actions that address exclusion of minority social group members. This can be as simple as a man who notices fewer women participating in a meeting and then takes steps to open the conversation to everyone. Another example is if you’re a white person who, in performance review calibration meetings, insists that vague feedback for employees of color be reframed to specifically reflect predetermined criteria. Or perhaps you’re in a product design meeting and push the team to include user personae that reflect the actual range of your users’ abilities (as Kat Holmes has suggested in her recently published book Mismatch).


While “diversity” is perhaps a common buzzword these days, people leaders have to actively address challenges to belonging in order to unleash the power of diverse teams and organizations. If this sounds out of reach for you personally, here is a non-exhaustive list of ally skills that may already be in your toolkit. And if they’re new to you, all the better to up-level your people leadership towards addressing belonging challenges in a diverse workplace!


Belonging challenge: Again and again in many meetings, majority group members overshadow members of minority groups. For example, research has shown that men interrupt women more often than women interrupt men, and ideas from women of color are especially unlikely to be correctly attributed. When these patterns play out on your team, it can decrease feelings of belonging and precipitate conflict on your team.

Solution: Add more structure to your meetings to elicit input from all team members and promote belonging. For example, institute a “one mic” protocol where only one person can speak at a time and interruption is discouraged. Ask for clarification to make sure every person’s idea is being understood and to avoid unnecessary conflict. Lead your team or workgroup to create working agreements to be upheld by a facilitator at every meeting.


Belonging challenge: Our implicit biases lead us to believe that we have more knowledge of others’ experiences and mental states than we actually do. This illusion of transparency can be especially harmful when members of majority groups act on the assumption that they “totally understand” the experiences of minority groups.

Solution: Listen. No, really…listen carefully and with empathy to reduce misunderstanding. This is especially important when you’re talking to someone whose social background is different from your own. And if you’re a member of a majority social group, you might have to start by increasing your ratio of listening to speaking. Are you able to listen so well to someone that you can paraphrase aloud what you literally just heard? If you answered “yes,” are you sure? Try it out the next time someone needs your full attention, and you might discover how much more there is to understand than you initially thought.


Belonging challenge: Members of majority social groups sometimes feel uncomfortable giving performance-related feedback to those in a minority group.

Solution: Be sure you are offering and coaching others to offer specific, actionable feedback to ALL members of your team based on predetermined criteria for success. This is true even when one person is in a social majority group and the other is in a minority group. Also offer feedback to team members, particularly fellow majority-group members, when their behavior undermines others’ sense of inclusion or belonging. Being on a diverse team can lead those in majority groups to experience emotions ranging from fear or anger to guilt and shame as they confront their unearned social advantage or even social difference itself for the first time. And yet, contrary to what many of us might have learned, ignoring social differences isn’t good for our workplaces. You can and should process your very real, uncomfortable feelings--but without burdening someone else’s career growth and advancement.


You may have noticed that the skills outlined here involve both outward actions as well as introspection and reflection. For even more actionable outward steps, check out this post from Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research. Introspection is a hard sell for busy professionals, but it’s a worthwhile investment in your ally skills and effective people leadership in the new economy where savvy leaders understand the business value of diversity.



Jumpstart your introspection by journaling and reflecting honestly on these questions:
  • What are some of the messages you’ve learned about engaging with or ignoring social differences like race, gender, ability, or sexual orientation?

  • Which ideas are totally new to you and what is your plan to learn more?

  • What is one skill or practice in this article you could try out tomorrow?

  • Which skills are more challenging and who could support you to take action on them soon?


Author: Alex Brown (Pronouns: he/him/his/himself) is a learning and development professional working in tech in San Francisco. He is the founder of Include DEI and holds a Masters of Arts from Cornell University. Previously he served as the Assistant Director of the Intergroup Dialogue Project at Cornell University.


This article was written by Alex Brown exclusively for LADIES iN FINTECH.

© LADIES iN FINTECH 2018. All Rights Reserved.

#allyship #stanforduniversity #cornelluniversity #sanfrancisco #diversity #bias #inclusion #intergroupdialogueproject #introspection #belonging #empathy #leadership


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