Learning how to be an ally at work is an under-appreciated skill for many young people entering the workforce. But in a way, it’s a more important task than most anything else we will devote our individual and collective labors to. If you have confusion or curiosity about this concept, this is the article for you. We’ll walk you through what’s meant by the term and how to be an ally.
What Is an Ally?
“What is an ally?” In short, an ally is someone who is not a member of an under-represented group, but takes action to support that group. To understand what it means to be an ally, we must begin by looking at the context in which the term ally gains meaning. Ally-ship emerges from the context of centuries of colonialist and post-colonial oppression that has taken many forms. From literal enslavement to systematic economic disenfranchisement, racially targeted environmental violence, and police oppression, there are many underlying reasons why individuals today face hidden challenges. Allies can be needed for reasons having to do with culture, gender, economics, and others.
Being an Ally
Being an ally can be as simple as noticing when a person of a different gender, culture, or perspective is being left behind or misunderstood, and devising strategies for helping that person succeed. This is the context in which it is necessary to be an ally: one in which whole peoples are excluded from prosperity and protection. To be an ally means to occupy a position of influence or power within an unjust system and to use your position to help others. To be an ally in the context of the Western business world means using your position in the system to help those people the system does not naturally uplift.
Some examples of being an ally: supporting someone from a different culture who you notice is talented, but too deferential. It could also involve consciously supporting the work efforts of a young mother trying to balance professional life with a family. Perhaps you know a talented, but extremely, introverted person on your team. That person may need an ally to help them succeed in a culture that values extroversion. In sum, being an ally starts with attempting to understand what types of individuals may need allies at work, and then being that person of support for them.
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How to Be an Ally to Minorities
If you’re interested in how to be an ally to minorities, then it’s not just enough to have a deeply informed systems-level view of injustice, inequality, and oppression. You must also inform your perspective on what it’s like to live as a minority in various social and professional contexts. Seek out media that emerges from and speaks to the contemporary experiences of minorities in our world.
Further, pay attention to the people around you. Are there unconscious (or merely unspoken) prejudices defining the situation in front of you? Is inequality being perpetuated in a way you can – by being an ally – help to mitigate or resolve? Are jokes being made that seem harmless to you, but perhaps are not to others in the room? Once you start to see how subtly the forces of oppression can manifest themselves, you appreciate how difficult it is to articulate and combat them. This is why allies are essential. Minorities and oppressed peoples – even if they work in integrated or “diverse” offices–are often excluded from the ability to name or respond to small acts of injustice. Allies, who have some relative influence or power under the status quo, use their position to help others less powerful than they are.
Consulting Firm Politics and Developing Allies
Consulting firms are unique places. They are defined by an up or out culture, and typically housed with young people fresh out of college. As you move from Analyst to Manager to Principal, everyone seems to get progressively a little older. There are not many 35-year-old analysts at Bain, McKinsey, etc. Firms replenish their ranks each year with graduates from elite colleges and universities who come from advantaged socio-economic backgrounds. After the first few years, consulting firms tend to become male dominated. For working mothers, it’s difficult to raise a family while traveling 3+ nights per week. It can be tough to be a woman in consulting, yet some have found consulting to be a great industry for women.
Beyond demographics, there is typically a heavy bias toward analytical capabilities and the ability to express strong opinions. It might be easy for a graduate of Yale with a background in data analytics to feel comfortable making points and raising issues in meetings. The overall culture of a firm just fits this person. This creates a positive feedback loop in which that individual gets a reputation for doing the job well.
Imagine this firm also has a black graduate from a less competitive school, hired off cycle a few years out of school. This person is married, and has a young child. She is also quiet, and her strengths lie in logic and written and verbal communication, but not in data analysis. Or, imagine another off cycle hire. It’s a white man in his late 30s pursuing a career change. He was interested in functioning as an analyst, un-phased by the fact that most analysts are in their early 20s at this firm. Fifteen years is a big gap, but this person brings over a decade of deep analytical and project management experience, as well as general business acumen.
In both cases, you can imagine how these individuals need allies. They need others at the firm to account for their diverse backgrounds and unique skill sets in assessing their performance and granting them opportunities.
Being an ally means focusing on the wellbeing of someone you and the system you’re in would conventionally consider an “Other.” That often begins with listening. If we can learn to ask questions instead of assuming, we can be a part of not just surviving the world, but helping to heal it. It can also look like cultivating ally-ship among colleagues who are not minorities. If you are in a position of influence inside your place of work, you have an opportunity to be an ally. We can all make a personal commitment to building a better world – beginning with ourselves. Here’s to ally-ship at work!
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