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March 1, 2022

Are You an Active Ally? – #MTtalk Roundup

Sarah Harvey


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©© GettyImages/101Cats

An active ally is someone who believes in and acts to advance equality. Someone who calls out discrimination and bias when they hear or see it.

Sarah Harvey Mind Tools
Sarah Harvey

The bad news is that while there has been so much positive progress to combat discrimination in all its forms, bias and discrimination still exist within workplaces and societies across the world.

The good news is that anyone can become an active ally, regardless of ethnic background, sexual orientation, disability, sex, or age. It requires no special skills, just the right attitude and a willingness to listen, learn and act.

Stepping Up as an Active Ally

In my experience, allyship needs to operate on both an individual and collective level for it to have deep impact. Organizationally, it's about creating a workplace culture where people bring their whole selves to work. This has to be a good thing, not only for businesses but for society.

Workshops can be used to develop understanding, advocate more-inclusive behaviors, and highlight the benefits of a more-inclusive culture. And they give colleagues greater confidence to challenge negative behavior when they see it.

But creating an active allyship culture isn't really about workshops, policies and initiatives. Sometimes it's the simple things that make the biggest difference and allow people to feel comfortable and accepted as part of a diverse and inclusive workplace.

Using appropriate language and understanding terminologies both go a long way toward making people feel welcomed, and help to promote a sense of genuine belonging.

Active Ally Influencers

While it's important for allies to exist throughout an organization, allyship can be particularly influential when it's adopted by people at senior levels. This is about putting people at the heart of the business.

Without the right workplace culture, if people feel they can't be themselves they'll lack confidence and become less motivated. They may feel unable to do their best work, and be uneasy about using personal experiences to develop creative solutions.

Mind Tools coach Mike Barzacchini believes allyship is an undervalued leadership skill. He said, "Being an ally as a leader creates confidence, builds trust, and helps your colleagues and your team create a more human culture."

How to Be an Active Ally

On an individual level, being an active ally means demonstrating support when it's needed in both formal and informal ways.

Listening to individuals' day-to-day experiences of discrimination allows for better appreciation of the challenges and bias experienced.

That can help you to relate with empathy, and allow those who've been discriminated against to feel seen and heard.

Microaggression, Massive Impact

Somewhat counterintuitively, perhaps, blatant discrimination can be relatively straightforward to deal with. We see it, others see it, and we can challenge it for what it is. On the other hand, so-called "microaggressions" can be much trickier to call out.

These are the intentional or unintentional commonplace behaviors and language that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative attitudes toward particular groups.

We may worry that if we call out such "microaggressions" we'll be accused of being overly sensitive, or the comments will be passed off as a joke or banter.

We may be concerned that we'll get into an argument, or that it will affect our relationships with colleagues, and this stops us speaking up. These are all natural concerns, so how do we overcome them?

Wrong Steps, Right Direction

Three important questions inform my allyship and help overcome any fears that may prevent me from actively speaking out:

It's helpful to remember that, as an active ally, we may not always get it right. We may not always say the right thing, in the right way, at the right time. But what we can do is be committed to continuously listening and learning.

We can be committed to remaining respectful, diplomatic, empathic, and assertive. And know that people are forgiving of our mistakes when they know we're being genuinely supportive and authentic, and that we've "got their backs."

So, if you want to be an active ally what should you do?

  • Be an active and visible ally.
  • Use your voice to actively promote equity for all.
  • Never be a bystander to harassment or bullying, bias, or negative language.
  • Challenge inappropriate behavior.
  • Celebrate the uniqueness and diversity of your colleagues.

"Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better."

Maya Angelou, American poet, author, actor

Being an active ally could be the most important role you ever have.

About This Week's "Active Ally" Chat

It's easy to say, "I don't want to get involved" and walk away, but that's not helping anybody. During Friday's #MTtalk Twitter chat, we discussed what it means to be an active ally and why it's important. Here are all the questions we asked, and some of the best responses:

Q1. What's the difference between being an ally and being an active ally?

@TheTomGReid An ally might share your belief, but only an active ally will take positive action in support of the cause.

@MikeB_MT An active ally implies action. Am I taking action to support my ally? If so, I'm an active ally. There are also elements of courage, risk, voice that go into being an active ally.

Q2. When is it important to be an active ally?

@lg217 It is important to be an active ally when you can help take the burden off of someone. It is a necessity to work as a team. Don't make the person think and do everything. Doing nothing makes a terrible ally.

@Dwyka_Consult Whenever and wherever you see an injustice, or where someone's voice isn't just not heard, but actively "drowned out" by those in power for whatever reason.

Q3. Why get involved if you're not a victim? What difference can an active ally make that a victim can't?

@MarkC_Avgi Being a victim of anything is not by choice. Many times victims have no choice in what is happening to them. Thus they need someone who has the ability, or is in a position, to provide a choice or support.

Q4. When shouldn't you be an active ally?

@MindTools You shouldn't be an active ally if you're doing it just to be seen and not because you're truly devoted to the cause.

@SarahH_MT Perhaps if doing so would step on the toes of a victim, humiliate them or disempower them to act for themselves? But that's not really about not being an active ally, it's more about being an emotionally intelligent active ally.

Q5. How has an active ally helped you during your career?

@SoniaH_MT Someone whom I never considered an ally actually was. In late 1998 when I was between jobs, a former local org president connected me with a resource that enabled me to take continuing education classes (in my field) at no charge. I've been wanting to thank her a second time.

@Yolande_MT An active ally helped raise my awareness about racism to such an extent that it influenced my career path.

Q6. What fears may hold you back from speaking up?

@MikeB_MT That my actions may be misread either by the person I'm trying to be an ally to, or by others. That my actions may be too much or not enough.

@SoniaH_MT Some fears that may hold me back from speaking up as an active ally are: if there's a quirky area about the cause where I'm lacking enough education to adequately defend the victim; if intervening would jeopardize my life AND I'm not equipped to protect us both.

Q7. What skills or attributes do you need to be an active ally?

@lg217 Logical thinking, organizing as well being honest and someone dedicated in the task are key skills as well as traits to have to be a successful ally!!

Q8. What should an active ally avoid doing?

@MindTools An active ally should always avoid taking a victim's voice away. Don't speak for them unless they've asked you to do so.

@MarkC_Avgi They should avoid becoming confrontational and losing control emotionally. Being passionate and compassionate is one thing but one must always remain under control when becoming active.

Q9. How can you be an active ally in the face of potential harm to your career or person?

@Dwyka_Consult With wisdom. Pick your battles. Use your influence rather than direct confrontation (if that's at all possible and will be helpful).

@SarahH_MT All you can do is tune in to your core values and let them guide what you say and do. That way you will stay true to yourself and, if there are consequences to your career, you will be willing to accept them because you did the right thing. Easier said than done?

Q10. How can you encourage others to be an active ally?

@SoniaH_MT You can encourage others to be an #ActiveAlly THROUGH your consistent actions. Introduce them to the idea, show them, and let them decide to participate. No need to force-feed anyone.

@Yolande_MT Role-model using your voice and privilege for the greater good. Use it to be the best for the world, not the best in the world.

To read all the tweets, have a look at this chat over here.

Coming Up

There are times when, in hindsight, you realize you could have done better. However, the next time the same situation rolls around you don't do anything differently.

Next time on #MTtalk, we're going to discuss lessons identified vs lessons learned. In our Twitter poll this week, we asked in which area of your life have you most often identified a lesson, but not learned it? See the results here.

"Active Ally" Resources

Note that you will need to be a Mind Tools Club or Corporate member to see all of the resources in full.

What is Psychological Capital?

How to Keep Your Allies at Work Video

The Influence Model

Avoiding Unconscious Bias at Work

Minority Influence Strategy

Standing Up for Your People

Finding Your Allies

5 Ways to Support Your LGBTQ+ Colleagues

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2 comments on “Are You an Active Ally? – #MTtalk Roundup”

  1. Enjoyed this, Sarah! (Wow, I feel like I just went through the #MTtalk chat! LOL) One key thing that stood out to me was that allies should have a "willingness to listen, learn and act." No need to wear a sign or say, "I'm An Ally"; just get educated on the cause and take action.

    Mind Tools Coach

  2. Thanks Sonia.

    I'm looking forward to hearing other people's views and experiences during the #MTtalk.

    Mind Tools Coach

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Now, 24 million learners globally benefit from our extensive Content Library, development tools, and custom learning experiences. See how Mind Tools for Business can help develop your managers and leaders.
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