Do you feel awkward and unsure when it comes to being an ally for marginalized groups at work?  Do you have the best of intentions but lack the confidence to support people from diverse backgrounds without causing offense?  Is your lack of confidence translating into a lack of action?  If so, you’re not alone.

“There is an assumption that if one is a good person or if one has good intentions, it will translate into good allyship and inclusive behavior, but that’s not necessarily true,” explained Dr. Meg Warren, Assistant Professor of Management at Western Washington University, when I interviewed her recently.  “The distance between intention and any action at all is quite large, as all of our socialization and our experiences have been designed not to acknowledge the suffering of marginalized groups, in order to maintain the status quo.”

Why do we find it so hard to put our intentions into effective action?

“When we do realize that some action is required, there aren’t a lot of precedences.  We don’t have many role models to emulate, and we have very little practice ourselves,” said Meg.  “Also, people from marginalized groups are exhausted and frustrated trying to teach and be patient, which creates a space where you see tentative, relatively-unskilled efforts met with frustration.”

So how can we become better allies?

When we can understand our relative privilege compared to someone else, we are one step closer to being an ally.  A privileged group is one that systemically has more power than another, in a particular context, because of their identity.  For example, while some groups may be marginalized in some contexts (e.g., women in the boardroom), they might find that when in a different context (e.g., white women sitting amongst women of color), they are the group of relative privilege.  Relative privilege is the recognition that in some spaces, you may have more power than in others.

Allyship occurs when someone from a group of relative privilege provides visible support and advocacy for those in marginalized or less privileged groups.  It is important that these behaviors are grounded in knowledge about the marginalized group and knowledge about how to be an ally, so they lead to informed action.  Recent studies have suggested that creating a sense of allyship within workplaces is an effective way to create a more harmonious and diverse workforce.

Meg suggested the following ways to become a good ally to others at work:

  • Highlight the strengths of marginalized groups – If you want to be a better ally, try publicly highlighting the achievements of people from marginalized groups.  This is effective in two ways:
    • It makes you keenly attuned to the strengths marginalized group members bring to the organization.   This helps you understand your own unconscious bias and helps you make better decisions to support diversity and inclusion.
    • You validate the unique benefit the marginalized group brings to the organization, which is empowering for them and others in your organization.
  • Move on from confrontation as your only tool – In situations where discrimination might have occurred, too often, the only way people know how to resolve things is through confrontation.  While it may be appropriate in some situations, it isn’t the only tool available to you.  If you can create a culture of allyship, whereby marginalized groups are advocated for, their strengths are highlighted, and their contributions to the organization are recognized, it can be less polarizing.  This results in a culture that is more inclusive, even of those who may have unintentionally offended someone, and also helps to improve the wellbeing of those in the marginalized group.
  • Recognize your limitations – Allyship differs from “saviorism” as it doesn’t create an unrealistic expectation that one person can save another.  Allyship avoids the implied arrogance of saviorism and is far more respectful of marginalized groups.  While you might be able to help someone in a marginalized group, you need to recognize that you can’t save people from a system of disadvantage.  It takes a lot more than one person to dismantle such a system, and you can only play a small, but important, role with your contribution.

How can you listen with humility to the experiences of marginalized groups in order to be a better ally?

To discover more evidence-based practices to help people thrive at work, check out the Making Positive Psychology Work Podcast.