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Research: what effective allies do differently

December 17, 2022
Diversity & Inclusion

Over the past few years, many people have sought to understand how to be an ally to coworkers from historically marginalized groups. Several experts have offered useful pieces of advice on educating oneself, accepting feedback, paying attention to patterns of inequality in one’s workplace, and recognizing one’s own privilege. However, over time, piecemeal advice can feel simplistic, overwhelming, and confusing. For example, should allies shut up and listen, speak up against prejudice, or both? How do you decide which suggestion applies to your situation? What if the latest advice has changed? Importantly, how do you go beyond one-off tips and create a comprehensive and meaningful vision for developing yourself as an ally?

Our research with thousands of working adults from the U.S. and Canada shows that well-intentioned people often worry about choosing wrongly. They fear that their allyship could inadvertently expose marginalized co-workers to backlash, that their actions could be unwelcome by the people they strive to support, and they question whether they are falling into the social traps of “performativeness” (insincere allyship to boost one’s own social status) or backsliding into the roles of “white saviors” or “knights in shining armor.”

In a fraught context such as allyship, how can you sustainably and systematically develop into a strong and effective ally?

In a recent study published in the Journal of Business Ethics, we searched for an answer to this question. Our work led us to examine how certain character strengths and virtues — which we define as “positive human qualities” — can lay the groundwork for becoming an effective ally.

We also wanted to talk to people who were recognized by their peers as effective allies to understand which virtues make them successful. To identify these people, we used a rigorous nomination process: Allies were recommended to us by social justice experts based on 10 strict criteria, including the ally’s expression of moral principles in supporting marginalized groups and their willingness to risk self-interest for the sake of those principles. We then conducted in-depth, 1.5- to 2-hour interviews with 25 allyship exemplars (culminating in over 1,000 pages of data) employed in industries ranging from construction, to theater, to IT, to mining.

Through our research, we created the EThIC Model of allyship development, which charts a pathway people can use to grow as allies. This model comprises of four stages: Energize your psychological investment by acknowledging inequities; think through how inequities play out and learn allyship strategies that can be effective in your situation; take initiative to support and regulate your allyship action; and engage in commitment and long-term dedication to allyship. Each of these stages are fueled by specific virtues, as described below.

Stage 1: Energize Your Psychological Investment
Key virtues: Compassion, fairness

In the first stage, allies can use compassion and fairness to identify problems of social injustice, acknowledge the suffering that it causes, and prompt responses that can alleviate it.

For example, attorney Justin King, a leader in race relations work in Oklahoma City, shared how his life had changed while listening to a Black police lieutenant talk about police violence toward Black people. “It really broke my heart…realizing I’m hearing from a guy who’s my age,” he shared. “He’s had such a different experience in life, and he’s been through a lot that I didn’t have to go through, and it’s only because my skin color is white. So that started me down this path.”

When our allyship is tied to compassion and fairness, we limit the chance for “performative” motives to gain foothold because we remain connected to those virtues. Compassion and fairness not only motivate an aspiring ally, but also help them sustain energy for allyship during the upcoming stages.

Stage 2: Think Through Inequities and Allyship Strategies
Key virtues: Humility, perspective-taking

These virtues help motivate people to seek out further knowledge about others’ experiences and to learn new allyship strategies.

For instance, Paul Hewins, president and chief executive officer of Skanska USA, one of the largest construction companies in that country, was also the executive sponsor of its women’s network. He shared how as an emerging ally, he fell short in sufficiently taking the perspectives of both his female colleague and the executive team.

“We had an issue around safety,” he explained, and wanted to boost the profile of a new national director of environmental health and safety. He told his executive team he was going to put her on the calendar to explain the issue and offer assistance. “It was a terrible call,” he noted. “It wasn’t set up right. They weren’t prepared for it. She fumbled a little bit with it. At the end of the day, it had exactly the wrong impact and actually moved her to a place where she didn’t want to take risks anymore. … She failed and I looked stupid by doing it.”

Hewins used that experience as a moment of humility, recognizing that his initial allyship strategy was not working and changing course. In crafting a new strategy, he put the perspectives of others ahead of his own. “Now that I understand, [I think about] how can we put a message around [the situation] that shows there’s value. Then, I start to pre-sell [the issue] so, when [she] comes in the room, [she’s] not hitting them cold,” he said. “Let me take the risk in front of the group. Then, bring her in when she has a platform to be successful.”

It is worth noting that, while they are particularly important for stage two, humility and perspective-taking usually remain active throughout the developmental journey. One exemplar, educator and equity consultant Paul Gorski, noted that allies stagnate if they do not have the humility to continuously learn. And our research on allyship strategies shows that there are plenty of skills to develop and refine over time, from interpersonal skills that build relationships to visible advocacy skills that publicly promote marginalized groups.

Stage 3: Take Initiative to Support and Regulate Your Actions
Key virtues: Prudence, moral courage, honesty

The next step is to take the initiative of transforming your learnings into action using prudence, moral courage, and honesty.

Billy Bennett, an associate partner at the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company at the time the research was conducted, focused on these virtues to avoid taking on a “white savior” role while still finding ways to enact allyship in the teams that he supervised. Specifically, he shared what goes through his mind when he’s tempted to speak up on someone’s behalf when an issue of bias presents itself: “To what degree does that person want to be looked out for?” He then asks a follow-up question: “To what degree do I want to do this because it is what I believe and is the environment and culture I want to set in this group or team?”

He shared that the answers to these questions are not often in sync. This requires him to be honest with himself and problem-solve, balancing prudence with moral courage depending on the situation. “If the signal is that they don’t want to be protected but I need to do this because I feel uncomfortable [not doing anything], then the question is ‘how,’” he continued. “Do I say something different in front of the group? Do I say it in front of one individual and not the other? What tone should I use? … Every situation is different, but I have to think about these things before I act.”

Stage 4: Commitment and Long-term Dedication
Key virtues: Perseverance, patience

Allyship is a complex skill that requires practice, effort, and feedback to gradually develop expertise over time. It is a marathon; not a sprint, and allies must overcome obstacles that inevitably surface. Having perseverance and patience can help.

For instance, our exemplars practiced patience with their own learning process, the slow change of institutions, and with co-workers who behaved poorly. As Philippe Lepage, a director in potash mining, a male-dominated setting in which men represented 98% of their underground mining workforce, reflected, “You can’t lose your patience because people are resistant to change. It takes time to move them from that unconscious bias to actually knowing what they’re seeing and doing.” He thinks that most people want to go in that direction but aren’t sure how to get there, “so you have to be patient with the bumps in the road. You’ll see things that will make you angry and upset, and you have to take a step back and say, ‘Okay, this isn’t the end, and let’s keep moving forward while making some positive changes.’”

In workplace settings where allies must preserve relationships with colleagues and remain on good terms with the organization, allies may need to practice wise self-restraint and patience while maintaining a steady perseverance to pursue long-term and sustainable change.

. . .
The EThIC model illustrates how aspiring allies can leverage key virtues in the service of promoting the well-being of co-workers from marginalized groups. Doing so not only addresses many of the common “what ifs” that paralyze allyship action, but also gives people the internal motivation they need in their journey towards social justice. It’s not always an easy road, and sometimes you’ll get it wrong. But by repeatedly applying your virtues through allyship, you’re more likely to make a positive impact over the long-term.

by Meg A. Warren and Michael T. Warren


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