Leaders can be true allies in the workplace

September 24, 2019 3:51 pm

No matter our position in our organization, each of us has the opportunity to be an ally. So what does that term mean? An ally is a trusted force for good.

It’s an earned distinction. Just as you can’t declare yourself a leader, you aren’t an ally unless others see you as such. Allyship is vital to workplace integrity, a concept we discussed in depth last month.

Here’s the good news: As I’ve worked with organizations to build stronger, more positive cultures, I’ve met many aspiring allies. They’re men who want to ensure a level playing field for women in their workplaces. They’re people of privilege who want to use their influence on behalf of those who have been underrepresented in their organizations.

They want to do the right thing, the right way. They don’t want to appear patronizing or disingenuous or condescending. They just want to help, and they appreciate guidance in doing so.

The key to success is the first word in that definition of ally: a trusted force for good. Earning trust requires that you prove, even in the face of risk, that you live up to the values you espouse. That you walk your talk.

How leaders can be true allies

These approaches help leaders be true allies and, in turn, foster positive and productive workplace environments.

Recognize how much you don’t know. Research shows that power can reduce our capacity for empathy. That may explain why whites are less likely than blacks to see racial discrimination as an obstacle to getting ahead and why men are less likely than women to see sexual harassment as a major workplace problem. There’s also evidence that managers have a rosier view of the workplace than their employees do.

Be willing to learn. Get smarter by reading up on challenges faced by women, people of color and LGBTQ staff in the workplace. Add to that foundation of knowledge by listening to your own staff. Listening tours can tell you a lot about what makes people feel they truly belong in your organization and have fair opportunities to thrive.

But also understand that no one is required to be your teacher, especially when it comes to recounting painful experiences with injustice. As one person said in a session about allyship that I led, “Your learning is my labor.” It’s up to each person to determine how much of a teacher to be.

The more you show good faith by engaging in independent learning, the more credible you are. If you’ve read and learned from the EEOC Select Task Force report on sexual harassment or the New York Times’sProject 1619” (or listened to the podcast), you may raise the likelihood that people will engage candidly with you.

Understand the dangers of unconscious bias. Your organization may be committed to fairness in hiring and promotion but bias still may creep in despite best efforts. It happens when people judge others in poorly defined ways or based on deep-seated assumptions.

For example, even if you ask the same questions of all job candidates, someone on your hiring team may say, “This person didn’t seem ambitious enough” or “This one seemed too ambitious.” Where did that perspective come from? What does it mean? And how might it be applied differently to men and women or to people of different backgrounds than ours? Along the same lines, what does “paying your dues” mean to you or to others who evaluate applicants? Is it based on old assumptions from your career that may be dated today?

Remember that research shows we’re drawn to people who remind us of … us. There’s comfort in hiring your clone. But that approach will never generate the proven benefits of diversity in your organization.

Understand that microaggressions aren’t that micro for those on the receiving end. Imagine people sticking you with a pin or needle as they walk by and doing it fairly frequently. It’s not a knife, right? But it causes enough pain to make you want to escape. That’s how microaggressions can drive good people away from an organization.

When people are talked over in meetings, when they are presumed to have little interest in a topic, when their names are repeatedly mispronounced, when others act surprised at their success, when they are described by their looks rather than their professional contributions, or when their faith, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation are treated by others as somehow “odd” or not the norm, it hurts. Allies step in to stop these things. They speak up and speak out. They amplify the voices that aren’t being heard.

Act both proactively and reactively. Reactively, you speak out in the moment — for example, when people credit the wrong person for an idea. (It often happens to women in meetings. They suggest something, there’s little response, then a male colleague’s similar or identical idea gets support.) Say something like, “I’m glad you brought that up again. Maria was spot on when she suggested it earlier. Maria, let’s dig deeper into your idea.”

Proactively, you look at your systems and practices to weed out embedded unfairness. This effort entails examining hiring, evaluations, promotions, meeting structures, team retreats, internships, training opportunities and pay practices. You measure what matters to you, including diversity and retention.

Be more than a mentor; be a sponsor. Mentors give advice, whereas sponsors put their reputations on the line to advocate for the success of others. They recommend others for jobs and promotions. It’s important to be transparent about what it takes for you to be that kind of sponsor. What threshold of performance do you expect?

Step out of your comfort zone. Allies are willing to be criticized by peers for challenging the status quo or changing old habits. They’re willing to hear candid concerns and critiques from the very people they hope to support. They apologize for their own mistakes, past and present. They use all those experiences to keep learning, because it will make a difference.

Organizations thrive when leaders act as true allies

There’s nothing better than working in an atmosphere of trust. Employees are more productive, creative, collaborative and collegial. They feel they can be both professional and authentic. Even when work becomes stressful, needless tension arising from strained relationships isn’t added. The organization builds a reputation as a forward-thinking place to work, attracting and retaining a high-performing workforce that more accurately reflects the communities it serves.

Workplace integrity isn’t about avoiding litigation or grievances. It isn’t about lofty slogans that don’t match the everyday reality. It’s about building cultures of respect and trust.

Allies are key to that success. They act without any expectation of praise or profit. Allies lead with humility: They’re not heroes, they’re helpers.


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