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 i