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What Is Allyship? Your Questions Answered

What is Allyship? Your Questions Answered

In our work to advance equity, diversity, and inclusion within organizations and communities, we’ve found many leaders asking us, “How can I serve as an ally for these important causes?” And more fundamentally, “What is allyship?

To help answer this question, we hosted a webinar, Introspection Into Action: Becoming an Ally in Times of Racial UnrestWe used that platform as an opportunity to share some of CCL’s current thinking about the topic of allyship and the role that leadership plays when working through issues of racial inequity within our organizations and beyond.

As we shared about our approach to allyship during the webinar, our audience members submitted a number of questions to learn more about the topic. We’d like to take this opportunity to share a few of the questions we received, along with answers we hope are helpful. In sharing our approach to these responses, we also hold space as 2 facilitators with different racial identities — Joanne identifies as South Asian; Jayke is White.

So, What Is Allyship?

Allyship refers to the actions, behaviors, and practices that leaders take to support, amplify, and advocate with others, especially with individuals who don’t belong to the same social identity groups as themselves. (We say “advocate with…” rather than “advocate for…” because advocacy should be done in partnership with those we intend to serve.)

At CCL, our approach to this work has been less about answering the question “What is allyship?” and more about reframing that question into “How do we act as an ally?” Fundamentally, when we’re working on allyship, we’re talking about a verb and not a noun: we’re talking about actions and behaviors that make an impact, rather than a label or a title that gives someone moral credibility or social capital.

As a side note, some BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) leaders have been calling for an adoption of new language to describe the role of an “ally” in terms such as “co-conspirators” or “accomplices.” In some cases, leaders of racial equity work have stopped using the term “ally” altogether to prioritize language beyond positional titles that better reflects the actions, behaviors, and practices that leaders are being increasingly called on to play in society. We choose to use the term “ally” for now as a more familiar point-of-entry to difficult conversations related to racial inequity, with an awareness and acknowledgement that it’s an imperfect term.

Access Our Webinar!

Watch our webinar, Introspection Into Action: Becoming an Ally in a Time of Racial Unrest, and learn immediate actions you can take towards becoming a better leader and ally and creating an inclusive environment.

How Can I Become a Better Ally?

Allyship is not a single action, rather it is ongoing action itself, with a focus on other people, not on yourself. That being said, allyship needs to start with an examination of self, to better understand the power, privilege, and access available to you as an individual, as a result of the different identity groups to which you belong.

It also requires deep education about the communities that you’re interested in demonstrating allyship towards. Educational sources are readily available through a multitude of platforms (e.g., local libraries, advocacy websites and media accounts, and local and national organizations, among others). We recommend the approach of educating ourselves through the avenues available first, before reaching out or leaning on others to teach us.

Building a strong foundation of knowledge and awareness is the best way to turn allyship from a buzzword into actual, sustainable behaviors that create inclusive environments. Once you’re more fully aware of the power and access that you have available to you, in relation to the groups you aspire to serve, you’ll be in a much better position to leverage those privileges to advocate with others.

An example is the selection process for teams within organizations. Often, when senior leaders pull together a task force to deal with a challenge, they lean on those who they know best and may unintentionally overlook others. As an ally, you can advocate with someone who doesn’t get tapped on the shoulder to join the team to ensure that other leaders are aware of that individual’s unique and valuable talents.

A common misconception of allyship is that it requires big, public action or loud proclamations of beliefs and values. To the contrary, allyship is available in every interpersonal interaction and can be very powerful when demonstrated through quiet, private action.

Infographic: What is Allyship? 4 Common Misconceptions

What Happens if I Try to Be an Ally & I Get It Wrong?

If we are treating allyship as an ongoing, constant set of practices, we are going to get it wrong, eventually. Mistakes are going to happen. Regardless of where you are on your allyship journey, right now is the time to get used to the idea that allyship is an inherently uncomfortable thing to do. It takes courage, vulnerability, and humility — both to put ourselves out there, but also when we realize we’ve gotten it wrong.

Allyship mistakes happen by those who are even the most well-intended: We may intend to speak out for someone who we think is being treated unfairly, and then later learn they found it offensive that we didn’t let them speak for themselves. We may think we’re giving an affirming compliment to someone’s cultural identity, only to find that the impact was that they thought the comment was insulting.

Our intent and the impact we have on others are often different, but it doesn’t mean that we give up trying to do what’s right. Leaders learn from their mistakes, no matter how difficult the lesson. In the words of Maya Angelou, “Then when you know better, do better.”

While the impact we have as leaders and allies is ultimately what matters, the failure of leaders to even act on their positive intentions out of the fear of perfection is what we find most often holds them back from being strong allies. Many leaders never “get it wrong” because they’ve never really tried to “get it right,” and have avoided difficult allyship practices such as engaging in tough conversations. Failing to engage out of the fear of perfection has the same consequences as failing to engage out of apathy: conversations don’t happen, mindsets don’t shift, and systems don’t change.

When you do choose to engage, you’ll likely find yourself feeling “called out” by someone, eventually, for something you said or did. In these moments, it’s more important than ever to keep trying, choose not to give up, and avoid getting discouraged to the point of checking out. This hard work is part of the process, but often a necessary one for us to learn.

Whether you agree with the feedback or not, we recommend first recognizing the courage it took for someone to give you that feedback, and to use it as an opportunity for reflection and growth. Misunderstandings happen, and there may be opportunity to have a follow up conversation later. However, leaders set themselves up for failure when they react to being called out by getting defensive, dismissive, angry, or upset to the point that it becomes about managing your own response to the neglect of the feelings of the person who gave the feedback.

If you are truly well-intended with your actions, the feedback (regardless of whether you fully agree with all of it or not) is worth learning from to have a better impact the next time. Remember: Don’t give up!

What’s the Best Way to Help the Senior Leadership Team Understand the Importance of Allyship?

Although the need for more equitable and inclusive environments has existed for as long as organizations have, 2020 put a laser focus on the fact that organizations are not as close to having diverse, inclusive, and equitable environments as they might have believed.

In addition to understanding the business case for having diverse perspectives, there’s also a strong likelihood that the benefits of a diverse and inclusive organizational environment are already reflected in your organization’s mission statement and values. Most often, we find that linking to the business and moral imperatives helps to bring leaders on board.

At CCL, we utilize our REAL™ framework to help organizations and leaders reveal and understand the relevant opportunities that are available to them through elevating equity, activating diversity, and leading inclusively. We typically find that by revealing relevant opportunities, the need and value of true allyship is uncovered as it relates to your organization’s unique culture and values.

We can partner with your organization to shift mindsets, behaviors, and practices towards a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive culture. Learn more about our Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion practice and solutions.

How Does Allyship for Racial Equity Take Place in an Organization That’s Mostly Homogenous?

For leaders who do operate in mostly homogeneous spaces, this is a common question and challenge that comes up. In the U.S., homogeneity typically refers to predominantly White organizations, but extends to other identity groups who often make up the majority of employees and tend to hold the most positional power within organizations, such as cisgender men, able-bodied and neurotypical individuals, people who are heterosexual, and people of Christian faith. We’re intentionally framing this response with White audience members in mind, who we argue are ultimately responsible for the practices of allyship, especially within predominantly White organizations.

There is no better space or opportunity for White employees to serve as an ally and advocate for racial equity than there is within a homogenous organization. Period.

For White people, allyship isn’t just about supporting BIPOC colleagues while they’re in the room. It’s more about the often-behind-the-scenes work helping all of our colleagues, specifically those in power, to better understand the systems in place that make equity, diversity, and inclusion necessary for our other colleagues. Even when it’s difficult, or even when it feels like a risk to name it.

It’s about helping other White leaders understand why equity is an organizational value worth investing in. It’s helping team members to understand why a diversity of perspectives and identities will add incredible value to your team. It’s about helping other White leaders to examine why the organization is homogeneous in the first place, and identifying relevant opportunities to change that.

We’re big believers in the “If not you, then who?” approach in this regard. Serving as an ally isn’t just about managing the interpersonal dimensions of diversity and inclusion, but about helping to facilitate greater equity across the systems, policies, and practices in which we operate – even and especially when it’s difficult. Every system, including homogeneous ones, will benefit from that form of allyship.

Effective Allyship: Moving Beyond Awareness Into Action

To answer the question “What is allyship?” we must look beyond a definition or awareness of the concept, and instead identify how we can move into action. Individual behavior is key, but for real change to take effect, groups must commit to making shifts collectively.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Help your organization move beyond awareness of allyship toward taking meaningful actions with our Beyond Bias™ solutions, designed to equip your team to recognize, address, and overcome unconscious bias and create a more inclusive organizational culture.


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February 19, 2021
Joanne Dias
About the Author(s)
Joanne Dias
Joanne serves as a senior faculty member for CCL’s Global Markets custom work based in Greensboro, NC. Her focus is designing and delivering customized leadership programs for managers and executives within global organizations. Joanne utilizes her knowledge of organizational behavior, I/O psychology, and business expertise to develop program designs tailored to each organization’s unique needs. Joanne applies her passion for diversity and development to her work with organizations and their leaders in order to enable them to fulfill their potential in an ever-changing global marketplace.
Jayke Hamill
Jayke (they/them) is a designer for much of our equity, diversity, and inclusion work with nonprofits, foundations, and other social sector organizations, and is particularly vested in growing the field of leadership development to be more accessible and inclusive of all leaders — including individuals with disabilities, neurodiverse learners, LGBTQ folx, first-generation college students, and beyond.

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