5 powerful steps to becoming a better ally

May 25, 2021 - 24 min read

"A social movement that only moves people is merely a revolt. A movement that changes both people and institutions is a revolution." - Martin Luther King Jr.

A Black woman at work

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On May 25th, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man was murdered in Minneapolis, Minnesota by his arresting officer. His crime? Allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill.  Within days, the footage of his death had spread like wildfire, broadcast on social media and TV stations around the world. Millions watched in horror, the graphic image of a white police officer kneeling on his neck, while Floyd pleaded for mercy — and onlookers begged the officer to stop.

Disbelief and sorrow exploded into outrage and protests all over the world. On top of the trauma of the pandemic, which had already stretched many to the breaking point, this was the final straw. The Black community had had enough. 

What this event unmasked for white onlookers was the stark reality that systemic racism still exists — and still claims lives. For Black people who watched it, the moment represented an accumulation of individual and institutional failures to root out complicit behaviour that contributes to injustice in our culture today. Many Black people turned up at work the next day with a heavy heart. They did not know if the pain of what had happened would be felt and acknowledged by their colleagues and leaders of their organisations.

What became clear was that the Black community could no longer try to change individuals and institutions all on their own. For too long, individuals and leaders from majority groups have helped to uphold the status quo by denying racism and avoiding uncomfortable or controversial conversations. However, while silence and apathy are all too normal, they can no longer be accepted as the standard.

Why is it essential to become an ally of marginalized groups at your workplace?

As human beings, we all have the power to stand up for the rights of others. We all have the power to make positive change. And in order for real change to occur, the majority must help support and advocate for the minority. Therefore, the need for allyship to be ingrained in our corporate culture is greater than ever. We need a movement that is able to inspire sustainable change.

So the million-dollar question is “What can I do to help?” Here are 5 powerful steps which include insights and stories to inspire and guide you.

  1. Embrace what it means to become a true, actionable ally
  2. Be human first — lead with empathy, make it personal and be open to change
  3. Get comfortable being uncomfortable
  4. Educate yourself in order to begin to recognise and name what needs to change
  5. Start to stand up and take action!
 

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Embrace what it means to become a true and actionable ally

In order to become a true ally, it is first of all important to understand and fully embrace what that means. What is an ally? Simply put, an ally is anyone who supports or empowers another person or group

The word ally comes from the Latin word “alligare” which means “to bind to.” It is defined as an individual, country, or organization that unites with another in a mutually beneficial friendship.  If you have an ally, you have someone who is on your side, stands up for you, and fights for you. Like a couple who gets married or nations in wartime, they will act together and protect one another.

It's often easier to think that being an ally requires big-picture thinking, like planning an event or starting a new project.  However, becoming a true and effective ally often requires people to act and speak out in consistently, day-to-day. It's all about becoming an actionable ally — someone who ensures that their words and actions are in sync.  This means taking smaller, individual acts that, over time, help to promote a more inclusive environment. By changing the environment, these acts of allyship can have a significant impact. These opportunities are “peppered throughout our work and personal lives”. 

Equally important, recognize that allyship isn’t a one-off event. It takes consistent work over time and is:

  • a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people
  • not self-defined — work and efforts must be recognized by those you are seeking to ally with
  • an opportunity to grow and learn about ourselves, while building confidence in others

Ways to become a better ally

Ultimately, everyone has the ability to be an ally and use their privilege to support someone whose voice — or experience — might be otherwise stifled.

What does true allyship look like in action, and how can you get started? Here are some tips to get started and make a difference.

Be human first — lead with empathy, make it personal and be open to change

“It is not the job of only Black people to continuously speak against all forms of racism across all industries and all niches — be it institutional, casual, consciously, or unconsciously. If you are human, this should deeply trigger and concern you irrespective of your race. It is a dagger at humanity.” 

 Being an ally is not just an intellectual matter. It is a heart matter first and requires a well-developed empathy muscle.  Empathy refers to: the practice of honoring and valuing someone else’s struggle as if it were your own, even if you haven’t been there yourself.

 When I consider the best way to characterise allyship, the first example that comes to mind is Brene Brown's description of empathy.

Empathy is connecting with people so we know we’re not alone when we’re in struggle.  Empathy is a way to connect to the emotion another person is experiencing; it doesn’t require that we have experienced the same situation they are going through”.

 Now reread the description above and replace the word "empathy" with "allyship". This allows you to simplify things and realise that, at the end of the day, being an ally is about being a person first. It is to see and interact with another person's humanity, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or colour.

A true ally is motivated by the moral imperative that arises from empathy for another's plight, not by the title or praise.  When it comes to allyship in particular, “support” must be provided with care and humility.

Simon, a colleague, of mine demonstrated a great example of empathetic allyship shortly after the news of George Floyd broke. He wrote the following words in a group work chat:

“What a week! What a few weeks in fact -- but the last week since the murder of George Floyd, I have been so sad, in a state of disbelief at how parts of the world have been functioning. I see now that no-one is more privileged than me as a white man. I’ve started the work on understanding more about this (already it’s difficult) what I need to do more of to be shoulder to shoulder with all BIPOC humans on this planet -- actively working towards anti-racism and equality.  I can be silent no longer on this issue. That has been my privilege for too long.”

After a week of news reports, this was the first open acknowledgement in this group — and a powerful one at that.  As the only Black member in this group, I was touched and encouraged. His statement made me feel heard, understood, and like the realities of my life as a Black person mattered.

Simon’s openness and connection with his humanity also gave others in the group the courage to start speaking up. Someone else shared about their distress and feelings of guilt. Another shared about how their daughter had taken part in a panel discussion at her company on racism in the workplace. The group leaders admitted that they had been fearful of initiating a conversation because I was the only Black person in the group. 

Ultimately, Simon’s actions led to our group having an open and honest conversation about common racial issues in the workplace. It also provided the opportunity for me to share my experiences as a Black woman within the workplace.

As highlighted in the “The Guide to Allyship” by the writer Amelie Lamont, when you are empathetic as an ally, you are able to:

  • Take on the struggle as your own.
  • Transfer the benefits of your privilege to those who lack it.
  • Amplify voices of the oppressed before your own.
  • Acknowledge that even though you feel pain, the conversation is not about you.
  • Stand up, even when you feel scared.
  • Own your mistakes and de-centre yourself.
  • Understand that your education is up to you and no one else.

So as a colleague, how can this story encourage you to become an empathetic ally to your Black colleagues? The key takeaway lessons from this are:

  1. Own up to your privilege 
  2. Lend your voice and speak up in your own social circles
  3. Listen to people’s stories
  4. Listen and learn from your Black colleagues’ experiences
  5. Ask your Black colleagues “how are you doing” — and follow up!!
  6. Understand that no one wants to be pitied
 

At the end of the day, being an ally is about being a person first. It is to see and interact with another person's humanity, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or colour.

 

Get comfortable being uncomfortable

In a world where racial bias and microaggressions have been the norm, genuine allyship means courageously showing up where discrimination exists. In reality, this can be very uncomfortable. Defying the cultural standard often entails drawing unwanted attention, risking real consequences, and making sacrifices.

Although many white supporters have expressed personal support for Black Lives Matter, they often struggle to articulate that value and move from theory to action — especially in the workplace.  Instead, they find themselves trapped in performative antiracism.

For example, how many times have we tried to justify a company’s non-inclusive messaging by claiming that we're not in the marketing team? Or ignored the fact that the Chief Diversity Officer is the only Black person in executive leadership because we're so far down the hierarchical ladder? Or privately resented a director's disrespectful comments aimed at someone else but failed to speak up about it in public?  

The reality is that when we observe or learn about inequities, discrimination, prejudice, or just plain offensive behaviour in the workplace, it's easier to try and rationalise what we see and adopt a "not my business" attitude.

What is the main reason for this? Fear. The fear of confrontation and saying the wrong thing can prevent people from addressing issues of race in a constructive manner.

The majority of top leaders are eager for actionable frameworks and advice to create more inclusive cultures in the workplace. However, these leaders are also so terrified about messing up and saying the wrong thing to all their stakeholders that they’re often paralysed into inaction. As a result, they often acquiesce out of fear of confrontation.

In order to effectively tackle this challenge, it is important to recognise that being an ally is a skill. You build the capability over time, and have to be willing to make mistakes.

Take, for instance, my experience of coaching Tina, an Executive Director on the subject of race. She had originally issued a company statement in reaction to George Floyd’s death. However, because it was viewed as corporate and non-feeling, it caused a negative backlash. 

According to the feedback she got, her message wasn't specific about racism, it didn't recognise George Floyd as the individual who died, and it didn't acknowledge that people were speaking out about racism in the U.K. and other parts of the world — not just the U.S.

I sat down with her to help her sort through the issues that arose as a result. As she reflected, one thing that came to mind was how difficult it was for her to find the best words to express the organization's willingness to change for the better. She was well aware that, as a white middle-class woman, she didn't completely comprehend what people were going through. It was a major roadblock for her. Consequently, she had oversimplified and skewed her message out of fear of saying the wrong thing. 

One of the main pieces of advice I gave Tina was:

“The authenticity with which you show up is going to make the difference in giving people permission to fully show up themselves. It is once people start to connect with you, Tina, as a person, and your why, that they will start to really buy into the realness of this diversity and inclusion conversation about race, and want to contribute in order to make a real change.”

By challenging Tina to connect with her authenticity, she was able to deliver a more heartfelt message in a follow-up staff Q&A session. She clearly expressed her insecurities and fear of knowing how to address this topic justifiably. For Tina, being a true ally in that moment meant openly admitting her ignorance and fears in a vulnerable manner, as well as her desire to learn and make a change. The result was revolutionary. Not only did her address resonate a lot better with all of those in attendance, it also inspired others to start taking meaningful action across the organisation.

A key thing I learnt about allyship in that moment is that it involves creating a safe space for all of us to figure things out and voice what we’re really feeling — be it Black, white, Asian, etc. As leaders, we need to be able to create safe spaces for people to lean into their discomfort, have uncomfortable conversations, and ask thoughtful questions that help others break out of their paralysis. It is our duty to start the hard work of having these uncomfortable conversations with each other first. In doing so, we build the foundation of trust and openness that is needed to face things head on moving forward.

So as a leader, how can this story encourage you to become an actionable ally to the Black members of your organisation? The key takeaway points from this are:

  1. Welcome failure and learn from your mistakes
  2. Acknowledge that racism exists and that it is not ok
  3. Get out of your comfort zone and be intentional about what you say when you speak up
  4. Encourage more frequent discussions and create safe, non-judgemental spaces for open and transparent dialogue about race 
  5. Let go of some of the beliefs and value systems that you have in order to unlock a different way of being, thinking and behaving in the organisation
 
skills-high-performing-teams

Educate yourself in order to begin to recognise and name what needs to change

How do you motivate yourself to determine the appropriate course of action in your current situation? Educating yourself about the realities of racism and discrimination is a good place to start. Before you jump into action with any social justice campaign, it is important to first learn about the statistics and history behind the movement.

Being an ally extends beyond police brutality. Every aspect of society is impacted by systemic racism. For example, do you know how many Black people there are in your business, city, or country? Are you aware of the statistics on the racial wage disparity? Have you ever considered how your own actions and behaviours could have contributed to discrimination?

In order to effectively begin to see and call out what needs to improve, you must first educate and inform yourself as follows:

    1. Do your homework. Take the time to read, listen, watch and deepen your understanding.
    2. Learn from others about the struggles and obstacles they’ve faced. Ask permission first before you comment, question, or share.
    3. Approach asking questions with humility and a learning mindset. It is not anyone’s responsibility to teach you about racism.
    4. Ask for recommendations if you need them. There are phenomenal resources available that can provide insight into different aspects of systemic racism.
    5. Don't generalize the experiences of your Black co-workers. Recognise that not every member of an underrepresented community has the same experiences. When you get to know a lot of people, you'll notice that they all have different backgrounds and experiences, as well as unique perspectives and intersectional identities.

Start to stand up and take action!

Consider the following: As a man, how many times have you been in a meeting and realized that the woman across from you wanted to say something but wasn’t speaking up? As a white woman, how many highly qualified people of color have you known that haven’t put themselves forward for promotion because they’re afraid they won’t be considered? As an economically privileged person, how often do you attend a panel and notice how similar the panelists look?

It's important that people don't just sit on the sidelines in these and other similar situations. Instead, these are the places where you will become a useful ally. And, in order to do so, a vital term to keep in mind is the word "action."

In order to become an actionable ally, your words and actions must be in line. Words without deeds are detrimental and can suppress any organization's ability to improve its culture. If an allyship isn’t active, it’s really just sideline-cheerleading. Cheerleaders don’t move the ball closer to the goal. In order to make a change, it all comes down to matching your words to your behaviour and putting your money where your mouth is.

Here are some examples of how you can start to take action and create a positive change within your office environment:

 

1. Become a confidant

  • Establish trusting relationships with people of colour and let them know that they can confide in you about any prejudices they are facing or feelings they are experiencing.

2. See something, say something

  • Keep an eye out for racist or sexist remarks and actions, and then take swift and immediate action to shut them down.
  • When you witness discrimination, don’t approach the victim later to offer sympathy. Give him or her your immediate help and support in the moment.
  • Look out for gaslighting, a form of psychological abuse that causes victims of racist aggression to doubt their own memory and experience.
  • Intervene whether or not people of colour are in the room.

3. Lift others up by advocating

  • Amplify the voices and messages of Black colleagues. Many minorities in the office are familiar with having their ideas minimised, rejected, or ignored. Offer your clear support and encouragement by repeating their ideas, giving them credit, and offering your clear support.
  • Bring diversity to the table. Invite more colleagues from marginalised groups to influential gatherings and encourage them to speak up.
  • Share important stories and messages from key speakers and writers.  Promote other’s stories and avoid centering yourself in the conversation.

4. Provide your Black colleagues with opportunities, suggestions, encouragement and support

  • Mentor. Inquire about the work and aspirations of your Black employees. Sponsor marginalized coworkers. The possibilities of providing support in this manner are endless and doing so opens many doors and opportunities for others that would otherwise be closed to them.
Published May 25, 2021

Maureen Obatomi

BetterUp Fellow Coach

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