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Ground Up Allyship for Cultural Change

Updated: Jun 26, 2019

This is the scenario: a senior executive wishes to understand why women aren’t progressing in his organisation and seeks out a sole high performing woman. Upon learning the experience of a specific dazzling outlier they then apply the knowledge gained to all women, assuming that everyone in this marginalized workplace group faces exactly the same challenges. Subsequently, the executive uses their privilege to advocate for the creation of sponsorship for high performing women and then sits back and waits. He waits and he waits but the intention of bringing more women through the ranks does not seem to materialise. What went wrong? Why didn’t his Allyship work?

Real Allyship is not jumping on a single assumption around progress or the more general business case bandwagon. Rather it is much simpler everyday actions that accumulate into a culture of trust and respect; where people can genuinely feel they can enter and most importantly progress barrier free. Allyship is a journey to be adopted from the ground up. Only then can you really place on top of it processes and programs that help people define their version of success.

What is Allyship and why is it important?

I think there are very few people who don’t want a better, more innovative and inclusive world and to work in environments that reflect these ideals. While everyone wants progress we are genuinely reluctant to change ourselves because change is something that we are a hard coded to avoid. A link between fossil fuels and the current climate crisis has been known since 1850 but in a study in 2018 only 70% of Americans agree there is a link, of which only 40% think it directly impacts them and an even smaller 30% are willing to have conversations about it with their friends and family. The business case for diversity and inclusion has been increasingly articulated over the past 30 years, and as with fossil fuels and single use plastics the business case alone has not led to the change we need.

We only naturally move to something new if we perceive it as having an overriding benefit, we feel it will increase our safety or is a shortcut towards an outcome we prefer. Knowing the business case simply gives everyone permission to start the conversation to move the tanker of cultural change. Placing on top of the business case obligatory training and courses to ‘fix’ the perceived failings of marginalized groups does not lead to real change either. What has been proven to lead to the positive outcomes highlighted in the diversity and inclusion business case is when the change becomes something we prefer because we realise the existing status quo is not fit for purpose for those around us - otherwise known as Allyship.

Allyship is a series of mundane and ordinary actions by the individuals that make up a company and wider society stepping across from the known into the unknown in support of others.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of Allyship relies on people at all levels being willing to risk supporting cultural change through their own everyday actions– never an easy ask, especially for those working in larger organisations whose risk profile is somewhat limited.

Transforming a desire for change into action

People who want to be genuine allies need to be more comfortable with the change that is being asked of them and one way to do that is to get to know your Reticular Activating System or RAS. Your RAS is a critical brain function that controls your situational awareness. Its purpose is to filter out information unrelated to your safety or your current focus. The word focus is key. Your RAS allows you hear in a crowd full of people your name being called or your specific child crying. This is because your RAS takes what you focus on and creates a filter for it and then applies further reinforces that focus.

Until I became an active Ally for my LGBT colleagues I genuinely had never noticed that when asked about their weekend certain colleagues filter their language by using gender non specific pronouns to talk about their partner, in case they accidentally ‘outed’ themselves. Once they told me about it I activated my RAS to focus on it and now notice it more.

So, imagine if you could refocus your RAS to become more aware of the bias and structural inequalities that exist around you, such as in your own workplace. It is this re-focus or growth in awareness that will allow you to become a genuinely powerful and effective ally.

Ground Up Allyship

One way to engage your RAS is via ground up Allyship. Ground up Allyship is re-focusing your brain as part of a personal journey enabling you to champion change for the greater good. This person journey creates what is known as the IKEA effect. This is the concept that people value something more if they have helped create it, no matter how small their contribution. By engaging in ground up Allyship you are part of creating the new culture you are seeking and more deeply and actively engage with change required for real inclusion, which is where the business case magic really happens.

Stage 1: Recognise that imbalance in opportunity and experience exists

If you do nothing else as an Ally the simple act of recognising that opportunity and experience imbalance exists will begin the process of retraining your RAS. Understanding that the existing homogeneity in many industries is not due to lack of confidence, lack of skills, lack of desire of minority groups but rather due to the fact not everyone has started from the same point and that for many a linear progression has not been the norm. I am a single mother with two children with conditions that require continuous professional support. I am not going to be able to work till 11pm in the office each and every night and I may need to take time off to attend appointments for my children. Compared to a male colleague who has a stay at home wife I am already in a disadvantaged place before I even begin my work day. By simply acknowledging inequality of opportunity and experience, you are creating the building blocks for the second stage in your Allyship journey.

Stage 2: Get uncomfortable with the status quo

By acknowledging inequality exists you will hopefully begin re-focusing your attention and more specifically your RAS to actively notice bias and microaggressions that may be impacting others in your workplace. You may start to walk into a meeting room full of men and notice that there is only one woman present and feel uncomfortable with that fact – in a way that you may not have actively noticed before. At this stage I’m not asking you to do anything about the situation but rather undertake the simple act of getting uncomfortable with the status quo. The more often you feel unsettled the more your RAS will hopefully start identify similar situations, creating a virtuous circle of getting you increasingly uncomfortable with the status quo.

Stage 3: Learn about others lived experiences

The BAME rower turned cyclist Ywende Adesida explains quite succinctly the importance of this stage. When asked about the value of promoting diversity in cycling she said; “I think some people – because they are not affected personally and don’t know what my and other people’s experiences are like – failed to see how important it was”.

Actively seeking to understanding the lived experiences of others, in particular everyday biases and structural inequalities they may experience, is vital. The first step of this stage is not to start by asking individuals from marginalized groups to explain their individual experience and then extrapolate that as if they are spokespeople for their entire gender and race. Everyone is different and my lived experiences don’t speak for an entire community. Instead start by educating yourself. Some ways you can do this include;

  • Do your research. The internet is full of information on the lived experiences of marginalized groups and how it has impacted them. Alternatively read an article or book or go see a movie about a culture different from your background.

  • Attend events hosted by those from a different culture, race or lived experience. Be curious and ask questions but don’t start with getting them to explain their lived experience first – educate yourself and then ask to add clarity.

By simply learning about others lived experiences you will be able to more clearly understand the implicit bias and systemic privilege that may already exists around you and how it is impacting others. This is turn will further reinforce your RAS refocus getting you even more uncomfortable with the status quo leading you to stage 4 which is all about action.

Stage 4: Be increasingly willing to take a risk

Now is the time to start making personal changes, start small and work out of your comfort zone. A good place to begin is with a single microaggression or bias you regularly witness, now that your RAS has been activated by stages 1-3. Think about how you might be able to start calling out the microaggression out on a regular basis. Prepare what you might say in advance and start with a low-pressure situation first to build up your confidence.

When I first began calling out microaggressions I started with calling out the use of the word ‘girl’ instead of woman by the colleagues who sit near me. Every time someone would say “the girl in accounts” or “you know the girl on the third floor” I would respond with “I didn’t know we had a hiring policy of employing under-aged staff”. By infusing my call-out with humour it stopped my colleague in their tracks and got them to reconsider their actions. In the last year I haven’t heard the use of the word girl in my department, except in its proper context.

Stage 5: Be willing to use your privilege create structural cultural change

The final and most important stage of ground up Allyship is to use your privilege to impact the structural inequalities that may exist within your organisation. You can start, as I did, by modelling the correct language when it comes to talking to and about your colleagues.

The next phase is to become a visible ally for affinity groups which support marginalized colleagues. This could be by attending their open meetings, visibly contributing during those events and advocating for others to attend.

Next, if you are ready and have sufficient seniority, you could also act as a more visible champion of change. You can actively advocate for structural adjustments to support others. Doing so publicly allows others, especially middle managers, to get comfortable with the changes required to better support all colleagues. This is often known as the multiplier effect. It is very important that senior Allies don’t simply jump into doing this but have actually gone through stages 1-3 to find their personal ‘why’ of their Allyship journey .

Finally, for those at the very top of organisations, a key form of Allyship is to actively sponsor colleagues from marginalized groups. But, the focus should not simply be on perceived high performers but instead on high potential outliers for whom imbalance in opportunity has limited their progression or forced them to stall their careers.

Ground up Allyship involves a genuine understanding of the need for culture change combined with a willingness to change yourself. By retraining your RAS you are allowing yourself to find your personal epiphany about why the change being asked for is so important. That journey will allow you to take more personal risk to help everyone in your organisation achieve their goals. By starting small you allow yourself to set a pace that you feel comfortable with towards full ground up Allyship - which is where the inclusion magic really happens.

If you enjoyed this post please check out my blog here, including post focused on the time-trap of non-promotable tasks and damage that the ideal worker model is having on all of us.

All opinions are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.


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