DEI & Belonging

The deep dive: how to build lasting allyship within your organisation

Hannah Keal
Hannah Keal 4 min

We each hold power within our organisations, even if we don’t always feel able to stand in that power - and, as anyone who’s seen Spiderman knows - with great power comes great responsibility. 

Part of the responsibility we hold both as managers and team members is to play an active role in creating an inclusive culture. One that invites in rather than gatekeeps and helps our colleagues show up authentically and perform at their best. 

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There are many ways to play your part, but one of the most impactful is to understand allyship. As a new company, at tyllr we are committed to showing up for one another. We wanted to take a deep dive into this important subject to help expand our own knowledge and share our learnings with our community - something we’ll continue to do openly as we grow.

In this article, we’ll hear from inclusion experts and explore a variety of different ways to show up and start building a culture of allyship within your organisation.

What is allyship?

In a nutshell, allyship is about having someone’s back. The term emerged from social justice movements, in particular from groups like PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) who stood in solidarity with queer people advocating for their rights in the 1970’s.

Digging deeper, allyship is an ongoing personal commitment to understand the relative level of privilege you hold and leverage it to create meaningful structural change through actions such as: 

+ Speaking up when you observe inequities and discrimination; 

+ Amplifying and championing the voices of colleagues that are minoritised within your organisation; 

+ Listening deeply to others when they choose to share their life experiences and experiences of your workplace, which may be very different to your own;

+ Working in partnership and coalition with others to challenge bias when it shows up in processes; in the products you build or in decision-making.

Why does creating a culture of allyship matter?

Research shows us that in organisations with a strong culture of allyship, team members report greater happiness and are more likely to expend discretionary effort for their employers. They are also 50% less likely to leave - and a whopping 167% more likely to recommend their organisation as a great place to work. 

So where do we start?

Allyship is active not passive. Being an ally starts with intention - but allyship is lived and breathed when we step up and close the gap between our intentions and our actions. 

“It's important to connect allyship to your values in order to make lasting change. It's easy for people to self-identify as allies -but it's crucial that people understand that the title is not only earned, but it has to be bestowed by members of the community you're seeking to be an ally to.

Aubrey Blanche-Sarellano - VP of Equitable Operations at Culture Amp & Founder of The Mathpath

...The way to create true buy-in is to help individuals connect allyship to their personal values: helping them see how engaging in active allyship is a part of the person that they want to be.”

Allyship is about getting curious

Allyship is a long term, generative process which invites us to broaden our perspective and explore. 

This includes getting curious about ourselves and our own power and privilege. 

“I always start with encouraging the exploration of self identity, understanding our own experiences within the context of belonging (and lack thereof), building an awareness of the harmful norms we may uphold and the impact that might have on others. ” 

Pavneet Khurana, Organisational Psychologist + Inclusion Expert

There are many resources out there to help you examine your own identity. One you might want to check out is the wheel of power/privilege, a powerful illustration to help you reflect on the lens you’re looking out at the world from and how that impacts your ability to navigate certain spaces.

In most cases, exploring your privilege and the historical and social context of the inequities it arises from means going well beyond what we’ve been taught growing up. Often, the history shared with us in school is revisionist, designed more to paint our countries in glory rather than be honest about where systems of oppression come from. 

Allyship asks us to grow our knowledge of these systems by reading, watching, listening and talking about lived experience outside of our own. We have so much knowledge at our fingertips - it’s about finding a way of tapping into it that works for you. You don’t have to start with hefty history tomes if that’s not your thing - podcasts, fiction and art can all help deepen your knowledge and empathy for others with identities outside of your own. 

Educating yourself in order to deepen your allyship is a lifelong process. As Pavneet says, “It’s important to not to see allyship as an isolated action, and develop an understanding of why it’s important. Actions that occur without this level of thought can come across as performative and lacking depth.”

We can’t possibly fully comprehend the rich details and intersections of identity that make up how someone else experiences life - but staying open to learning more is a joyful thing. Allyship is not just about getting curious, it’s staying there. 

Allies WAIT and see

If we want to show up for our colleagues, we need to consciously think about our day-to-day role in the spaces we inhabit at work. Allies prioritise both listening and inviting people into the conversation. This means being aware of when your voice - or others in the room - are dominating, at the expense of including everyone who might have valuable insight to share. 

It can be challenging to take a step back and observe these patterns of behaviour, so if you’re unsure, you could experiment with using a platform such as Butter, which allows you to track how much time each participant in a meeting spends talking. The aim of a tool like this is not to get to a place where everyone takes up the same amount of space; this should vary based on both the topics being discussed and people’s natural communication preferences. Rather, it’s one tool you can experiment with to uncover blind spots and start a conversation about how you can make meetings you’re a part of more accessible.

If you know you have a tendency to speak up frequently, one tongue in cheek but nonetheless helpful reminder to pass the mic is the WAIT acronym - why am I talking? 

This question is also a helpful one to reflect on when it comes to the distinction between speaking for and speaking with. Allyship can become performative when we learn the language of social justice but don’t actually take action to transfer the power that comes with our privilege. 

Allies WAIT and see

According to Abi Adamson, Founder of The Diversity Partnership “being an ally is not some superhero cape that you put on to go off and save people - it’s not about saving people at all. It’s really about being able to say as a man, or as someone who is able-bodied, or as somebody who is straight or white, I can navigate certain spaces a lot easier than others who do not fall into this identity bracket.” 

For example - say you’re part of the team that organises offsites within your organisation and want to ensure the venues and activities you choose work for teammates with disabilities. Raising the issue is a start - but it’s important to take tangible next steps that involve platforming and addressing the actual needs of your colleagues. Your role as an ally could then be to ensure that recommendations surfaced from your disabled colleagues are actually taken into account when planning the schedule - not speaking for them, but standing shoulder to shoulder with them to ensure the offsite is accessible. 

Returning to Abi “being an ally also means understanding that at times, you need to do things that make you feel uncomfortable, things that mean putting your reputation, your social capital, your business capital on the line. There will be times where you might need to give up a seat at the table - one that you’ve worked hard for - in order to let someone else who doesn’t have the same identity privileges you have to rise up.”

“Allyship is a bit like brushing your teeth or building muscle - you need to build your capacity to see outside of your own experience and ask yourself whose voice needs to be amplified today?”

Allyship means defaulting to transparency

Allyship thrives in organisations that commit to openness and welcome different perspectives. We can all encourage this behaviour by asking our employers to be clear about policies and practices so everyone knows - and can challenge - the ‘rules of the game’.

We can also contribute to a culture of allyship within our organisations by encouraging our leaders and People teams to partner and co-design rather than relying on ‘best practice’. As an example - let’s say your company’s approach to parental leave is woefully out of date.

You could encourage your People team to seek out feedback from both existing parents within the organisation and more broadly to ensure you design for inclusion - not just heteronormativity.

Allyship means defaulting to transparency

If you’re someone who is responsible for designing practices, processes or products then actively seeking feedback can be a tool to increase your impact, leading you to surface unexpected insights and redirect attention to where it’s needed - e.g. with supporting parents back to work after leave - something that’s often overlooked. 

The way you receive feedback also matters - whether it’s in relation to an organisational practice you have influence over, or on your personal behaviour. When issues are surfaced, it can be easy to get defensive and respond from a place of guilt or shame. If you feel these emotions coming up - thank the person for their feedback and take the time to reflect on what you’ve heard before responding. Fear can be a powerful blocker to growth and true allyship. 

Allyship means building collective power

Allyship is always more powerful when you are able to recruit - well, allies. 

One way to do this is by creating a shared language to talk to your team about inclusion. This could be as simple as making a habit of asking things like ‘whose perspective are we missing?’

Leaders also have an important role to play, according to Ally Monk, People Director at Bright Network “if the CEO or your exec team don’t get it - it shows. The more that leadership set the tone for an allyship culture, the better. There’s small things they can do - all of our C-levels at Bright have their pronouns in their zoom names for example. But it’s about making sure leaders champion allyship across the organisation and ensure it’s embedded in key processes - from recruitment to manager training.”

If you’re part of processes that are prone to bias, such as hiring - you can help embed a culture of allyship. Try talking with the others on your hiring team about the biases you’re each personally prone to (e.g. leaning towards candidates with a similar academic background) or sharing resources on the types of bias that commonly show up during recruitment. Then commit to holding one another accountable when they do, inevitably, show up. 

Working in partnership with others in this way to build inclusive norms will, over time, lessen the barriers to ‘calling in’ with compassion. If allyship truly feels like everyone’s responsibility, then it becomes normal to gently remind people to open the circle within a team discussion or to use the correct pronouns, thereby reducing the feelings of guilt and shame that can come up when we (inevitably, because we’re human) say or do the wrong thing. 

The less these small moments of inclusion feel like a big deal, the more we focus on contributing to a culture of belonging, rather than centering either ourselves, or putting individuals impacted by harms like microaggressions in the spotlight in a way that exacerbates pain. 

Bringing it all together

It’s easy to feel powerless within our organisations, but the truth is, we are all capable of  building safety for others. A sense of belonging is felt and experienced when people’s individual needs are considered and their voices are heard. 

Building a culture of allyship is something that happens over time. When multiple people across your organisation stop asking the question ‘what can I do to build a more inclusive culture?’ and get on and do it. 

So what are you waiting for? We have work to do. 

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