In the past few years, many people have sought to understand how to be allies with co-workers from historically marginalized groups. Many experts offer useful pieces of advice self-educating, receiving feedback, DEAL on patterns of inequality in a workplace, and recognizing one’s own privilege. However, over time, piecemeal advice can feel simple, overwhelming, and confusing. For example, need an ally shut up and listen, speak out against prejudice, or both? How do you decide which proposal applies to your situation? What if the latest advice has changed? Importantly, how do you go beyond a tip and create a comprehensive and meaningful vision for developing yourself as an ally?
Our research with thousands of working adults from the US and Canada shows that well-intentioned people often worry about making the wrong choice. They fear that their allyship will inadvertently expose marginalized coworkers to criticism, that their actions may not be accepted by the people they are trying to support, and they question whether they have fallen into social disrepair. traps of “performativeness” (insincere ally to improve one’s own social status) or turning away from the roles of “white saviors” or “knights in shining armor.”
In such a fraught context as an ally, how can you maintain and systematically develop a strong and effective ally?
In a recent study published in Journal of Business Ethics, we are looking for an answer to this question. Our work has led us to examine how certain strengths and character traits – which we refer to as “positive human qualities” – can lay the groundwork for being an effective ally.
We also want to talk to people who are recognized by their peers as effective allies for understanding that qualities make them successful. To identify these people, we use a rigorous nomination process: Allies are recommended to us by social justice experts based on 10 strict criteria, including the ally’s expression of moral principles in support of those marginalized group and their willingness to risk self-interest for those principles. We conducted in-depth, 1.5- to 2-hour interviews with 25 ally examples (culminating in over 1,000 pages of data) used in industries ranging from construction, to theater, to IT, until mining.
Through our research, we created the EThIC Model of allyship development, which charts a path people can use to grow as allies. This model consists of four stages: Energize your psychological investment by recognizing injustices; think by how inequality plays out and learning ally strategies that can be effective in your situation; take iinitiative to support and regulate your allied actions; and participate in cdeletion and long-term dedication to the ally. Each of these stages is highlighted by specific attributes, as described below.
Stage 1: Energize your Psychological Investment
Main attributes: Mercy, justice
In the first stage, allies can use compassion and fairness to identify problems of social injustice, recognize the suffering it causes, and quick responses that alleviate it.
For example, attorney Justin King, a leader in race relations work in Oklahoma City, shared how his life changed while listening to a Black police lieutenant speak about police violence in Black people. “It really broke my heart…realizing I was hearing from a guy my age,” she shared. “He has a very different experience in life, and he has gone through a lot that I don’t have to go through, and that’s just because my skin is white. So I started down this path. “
When our ally is tied to compassion and fairness, we limit the opportunity for “performative” motives to gain a foothold because we remain connected to those virtues. Compassion and fairness can not only inspire an aspiring ally, but also help them maintain strength for the ally in future stages.
Stage 2: Think Through Inequities and Allyship Strategies
Main attributes: Humility, perspective taking
These qualities help motivate people to seek more knowledge about the experiences of others and to learn new ally strategies.
For example, Paul Hewins, president and chief executive officer of Skanska USA, one of the largest construction companies in that country, is also the executive sponsor of its women’s network. She shared how as a developing ally, she failed to adequately capture the perspectives of her female partner and the executive team.
“We have an issue about safety,” he explained, and wanted to raise the profile of a new national director of environmental health and safety. He told his executive team to put him on the calendar to explain the issue and provide assistance. “It was a terrible call,” he said. “It is not properly placed. They are not ready for it. He was a little surprised by this. At the end of the day, it had exactly the wrong effect and he actually moved to a place where he no longer wanted to risk it. … He failed and I felt like a fool for doing it.”
Hewins used that experience as a moment of humility, realizing that his initial ally strategy had not worked and changing course.. When creating a new strategy, he prioritized the views of others over his own. “Now that I understand, [I think about] how can we put a message around [the situation] which shows that there is value. Then, I started the pre-sell [the issue] so, when [she] go to the room, [she’s] they don’t get cold,” he said. “Let me take a risk in front of the group. Then, bring him in when he has the platform to succeed.
It is worth noting that, while they are especially important for the second stage, humility and perspective-taking usually remain active throughout the development journey. One example, teacher and equity consultant Paul Gorski, noted that partners give up if they don’t have the humility to keep learning. and our research on ally strategies shows that there are many skills to develop and refine over time, from interpersonal skills that build relationships to visible advocacy skills that publicly advocate for marginalized groups.
Stage 3: Acquisition Initiative to Support and Regulate Your Actions
Main attributes: Prudence, moral courage, honesty
The next step is to take the initiative to transform your learnings into action using vigilance, moral courage, and honesty.
Billy Bennett, an associate partner at the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company at the time the research was conducted, pointed to these qualities to avoid taking on a “white savior” role while still looking for ways to can be the ally of the teams he manages. Specifically, he shared what goes through his mind when he is tempted to speak up for someone when a bias issue presents itself: “At what level does the person want to be watched?” Then he asked a follow-up question: “To what degree do I want to do this because this is what I believe in and the environment and culture I want to put in this group or team?”
He shared that the answers to these questions don’t always sync up. 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 have to do it because I feel uncomfortable. [not doing anything], then the question is ‘how,’” he continued. “Did I say something different in front of the group? Did I say this in front of one person and not another? What tone should I use? … Every situation is different, but I have to think about these things before I act.”
Stage 4: ccommitment and Long-term Dedication
Main attributes: Patience, patience
Allyship is a complex skill that requires practice, effort, and feedback to gradually develop the skill over time. It’s a marathon; not a sprint, and the allies must overcome the obstacles that inevitably arise. Having persistence and patience will help.
For example, our examples practice patience in their own learning process, in slow changing institutions, and in misbehaving coworkers. As Philippe Lepage, a director of potash mining, an area dominated by men where men represent 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 see and do. He believes 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 make you angry and angry, and you have to you to step back and say, ‘Okay, this is not the end, and let’s keep moving forward while making some positive changes.’
In workplace situations where allies need to preserve relationships with colleagues and maintain good organizational relationships, allies must practice smart self-control and patience while maintaining a consistent perseverance to sustain long-term and sustainable change.
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The EThIC model illustrates how willing allies can use key service attributes to promote the well-being of coworkers from marginalized groups. Doing so not only answers many of the common “what ifs” that paralyze ally action, but also gives people the internal motivation they need on their journey toward social justice. It’s not always an easy road, and sometimes you make mistakes. But by repeatedly using your qualities through an ally, you are more likely to make a positive impact in the long term.