Creating a Culture of Allyship at Work | CareerMetis.com

A 2018 study from global staffing firm Robert Half found that two in five Canadian employees would pass on a perfect job if the corporate culture was not a fit.  Today’s professional is looking for a lot more than a paycheck, they’re looking for healthy workplace culture, one that aligns with their values and principles and allows them to authentically bring all of themselves to their work.

How many times have we heard statements like “People leave managers, not companies”, or Peter Drucker’s now infamous phrase; “culture eats strategy for breakfast”?

Dakota Murphy, in her 2018 CareerMetis.com post, titled What is Driving the Change in Corporate Company Culture?, offers: “CEOs, leaders and supporting executives are realizing that corporate culture is not merely a catchphrase. It is the backbone of a company’s overall performance.  Increasingly, businesses understand now that success relies heavily on getting the company culture right.”

The fact of the matter is that with the growing awareness of the costly impact of exclusive policies and processes, whether it be the continuous exodus of employees, or the legal costs of defending against human rights and occupational health and safety violations, versus the accelerative and innovative value that comes from a workplace culture that is underpinned by inclusive and equitable policies and procedures (check out The Inclusion Dividend for more on this), it simply doesn’t make sense for companies to allow old boys’ clubs, meritocracies, or inequitable policies and procedures that contribute to traditionally exclusive workplace cultures, to remain status quo.

While it may be true that the overarching power to create inclusive workplace cultures ultimately rests with company leadership, Hassibudin Ahmed writes, in a 2017 post on CareerMetis.com, about 5 Ways to Create a More Inclusive and Supportive Workplace, that the passion of building an inclusive workplace should not be limited only to HR.

Here’s where allyship comes in. Deloitte’s 2019 State of Inclusion Survey describes allyship as supporting individuals or groups that one does not directly identify with.  Allyship promotes empathy, authenticity, and courage, and encourages embracing people for the intersectional identities, experiences, and dimensions they bring to the table.

Allyship is something each and every single one of us can, and need, to practice. Not only at work, but especially at work. We all own a particular set of powers and privileges that temper our ability to influence people, groups, and outcomes – how are we using our power and privilege for good?

“Allies may be the missing link: they’re part of the team meetings, the casual conversations by the coffee machine, the decisions on whom to staff or promote”2019 State of Inclusion Survey, Deloitte

Sky Mihaylo and Joan Williams write, in a recent Harvard Business Review article, in How the Best Bosses Interrupt Bias on their Teams, about the four distinct ways that bias plays out in everyday work interactions:

 (1) Prove it again: Some groups have to prove themselves more than others do.

(2) Tightrope: A narrower range of behaviors is accepted from some groups than from others.

(3) Maternal wall: Women with children see their commitment and competence questioned or face disapproval for being too career-focused.

(4) Tug-of-war: Disadvantaged groups find themselves pitted against one another because of differing strategies for assimilating—or refusing to do so.

Do these dynamics seem new to you? Have you experienced some of these first-hand? What can you do to help interrupt patterns like these that are likely playing out at work? Here are a few tips to get you moving in the right direction:

1) Authentically recognize the value of inclusion and model inclusive behavior.

There is no shortage of resources out there that can build your inclusion awareness, to help you understand the inherent value of inclusive and diverse spaces. Start with the resources cited in this piece, and research the ideas and language the surfaces.

Do the work, do the analysis, for yourself, don’t just take someone else’s word for it. That way you can begin to critically analyze the spaces around you and to notice for yourself how you or colleagues on your team may be experiencing bias. Be curious about who is benefiting from this bias and who isn’t.

The thing about bias is that once you start to see it, it’s hard to “unsee” it.


2) Check your assumptions and notice your own biases, conscious or unconscious, as well as your prejudices.

Explicit and unconscious bias plays out every day around us and permeates our thinking, our choices, and our behaviors.

Dr. Dionne Poulton, author of It’s Not Always Racist, But Sometimes It Is: Reshaping How We Think About Racism, has spent her career illuminating unconscious bias, with an emphasis on the word unconscious.

She talks about an equation she adapted and shares in her book, “racism equals prejudice plus power, plus intent. “If you are in a position of power and you choose to stop someone from achieving progress and you do it because of the prejudice of race, then that is racism,” she says.

She defines prejudice as “a judgment of someone or a group prior to having full knowledge of who they are.”

The key is to start noticing when our own bias is showing up.  When someone irks you or rubs you the wrong way, check-in with yourself to better understand why.  Teaching ourselves to be curious about our own opinions and assumptions, and catching ourselves when we’re moving from our assumptions rather than our curiosity takes practice and intention.


3) Notice when bias is playing out around you and get comfortable interrupting bias when it’s happening.

Now that you’re beginning to notice biased interactions around you, as well as bias within, it’s important to get clear on your own values and principles. Is fairness a value for you? Equity? Respect?

If so, then you need to get rooted in these values.

Challenging existing practices, policies, and patterns that are biased or racist within a company culture is never easy. That’s why it’s also important to develop your community of support. Your own allied space.

Employee Resource Groups can be helpful in this respect, or people in your personal network who share similar values and principles. Having supportive spaces to help you debrief experiences, or plan future conversations is helpful and empowering.

From a practical place, some things to observe include considering how do people on your team talk about their peers and how do they behave in group settings? It’s well documented that men tend to interrupt women far more often than women interrupt men.  If a few people are dominating the conversation in a meeting, address it directly.

Mihaylo and Williams suggest creating and enforcing a policy for interruptions:

“Keep track of those who drown others out and talk with them privately about it, explaining that you think it’s important to hear everyone’s contributions.”

Similarly, when you see instances of “bropriating” or “whipeating”—that is, majority-group members taking or being given credit for ideas that women and people of color originally offered—call it out.

Ask questions about practices that are creating bias, even when it doesn’t benefit you personally. Show up and support colleagues on your team who are experiencing bias. Ask them about the experience and ask them how you can support them. Don’t assume you know they feel; it’s always better to check in with a colleague on something you observed and find out that they are ok, rather than holding back for fear of being wrong, and then find out that person could have used your help.  People ultimately appreciate having allies in these unsettling and vulnerable moments.

“Courageous Inclusion is more than a tagline –it’s a call to action. It’s about speaking up in support of someone when it might be easier to be quiet. It’s about developing a relationship with someone because they’re different, not because they’re the same. It’s about all of us. We all need to work at being braver and more courageous, in order to bring our whole selves to work and truly foster an environment that lets others do the same.” KPMG You Belong: Building Champions of Inclusion, 2019 Diversity & Inclusion Report

Creating a Culture of Allyship at Work | CareerMetis.com


4) Be curious about other people’s stories and experiences.

In her 2009 TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, Chimamanda Adichie talks about the human phenomenon of how, when we hear or read stories about a part of the world that we are not familiar with, these stories often become the dominant narrative we associate with that part of the world.

Adichie provides a personal example of when she heard the debates about immigration in the United States. Immigration in America became equal to Mexicans, Mexicans that were sneaking across the border. It was only when she was in Guadalajara that she realized the foolishness of the belief she had mistakenly adopted about Mexicans.

Adichie goes on to say, “Show people as one thing and one thing only over and over again and that is what they become.”  

People, cultures, lands are not monolithic. Regardless of the number of interactions you may have with people from a particular culture, it does not mean we’ve got everyone from that culture’s story figured out.


5) Plan and script some wording you can use when you find yourself in an uncomfortable conversation and need to challenge a biased statement or action.

We’ve all been there.  Those moments, in meetings, during watercooler conversations, or during team lunches, where an inappropriate comment is made. We’re stopped in our tracks by the impact of the comment and have no idea what to say at the moment. I can remember many a time, where, after the fact, I have replayed incidents like these in my mind and have the answer I wish I had offered.

Ritu Bhasin, Life Coach, Authenticity Advocate, and author of The Authenticity Principle, has created a fabulous Empower Pages series; a set of self-reflection tools to help readers become more empowered and confident in their work and personal life.  Bhasin recently created an Empower Page called Conquer Difficult Moments Through Scripting.  Use this tool to help you develop a narrative you can keep in the back of your mind the next time you are in a situation and see an opportunity to serve as an ally.

There’s no doubt that allyship is a journey; when we know better, we need to do better. It’s about a commitment to educating yourself, to be genuinely curious about the diverse experiences and narratives of people who are around you. Of embracing the fact that your story, your life experiences, your upbringing is only one of many experiences.

It’s a journey where you’ll often be forging a new path. You’ll face forks in the road where you’ll have to stop, really stop, to consider what the right thing to do is.

 And the good news is that you’ll find other allies on this journey, all working to be on the right side of this movement to create authentically inclusive spaces. It’s a journey worth taking, and one that all of us need to take.

Written By
Leena Sharma Sheth is Founder and Principal of Mending the Chasm, a firm providing inclusion coaching, consulting and training. She works with leaders in the community and in organizations to build inclusive cultures from the inside out.

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