How To Build Allies In Your Workplace
In Episode 68, Melinda Briana Epler, Founder and CEO of Change Catalyst, talks us through how we can build allies in the workplace by understanding the Stages of Allyship and people’s motivations for being allies. She explains the behavioral science behind moving people toward action, addresses how we can convince people who don’t want to be convinced, and shares how we can grow allyship across our teams, organizations, and communities.
View this episode’s accompanying infographic at ally.cc/EP68Graphic.
- Get a copy of the book, “How to Be an Ally: Actions You Can Take for a Stronger, Happier Workplace” by Melinda Briana Epler
- Download the “State of Allyship Report: The Key to Workplace Inclusion”
- Learn more about our training by visiting our Change Catalyst website or Contact Us
- Watch or listen to Melinda’s TED talk “3 ways to be a better ally in the workplace”
- Watch this episode on YouTube
- Watch or listen to Ep 52: “Recognizing & Overcoming Microaggressions – Part 2”
- Watch or listen to Ep 51: “Recognizing & Overcoming Microaggressions – Part 1 With Melinda Briana Epler”
This videocast is made accessible thanks to Interpreter-Now. Learn more about our show sponsor Interpreter-Now at www.interpreter-now.com
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MELINDA: Welcome to Leading With Empathy & Allyship, where we have deep, real conversations to build empathy for one another, and take action to be more inclusive, and lead the change in our workplaces and communities.
I’m Melinda Briana Epler, founder and CEO of Change Catalyst and author of How To Be An Ally. I’m a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion speaker, advocate, and advisor. You can learn more about my work and sign up to join us for a live recording at ally.cc.
All right, let’s dive in.
MELINDA: Hello, everyone. Happy 2022! Welcome to our first episode of Season 6. I am sending lots of love to anyone who’s experiencing COVID or other illnesses, pain, and trauma. I know many of us are going through a lot of emotions during these times. So, sending much love to you.
I wanted to start this season with a topic that a lot of people ask me about—how to build allies. So, we’ll focus specifically on allyship in the workplace here, but a lot of those can be applied outside of the workplace as well.
In the last episode, I covered a lot of FAQs. I mentioned that one of our most frequent FAQ is “How do I convince people who can’t be convinced?” We’ll answer that today. We’ll also answer many questions around “How do we grow allyship across our teams, our organizations, and our communities?”
And so, this episode is for managers, for leaders looking to build more allyship across their teams. It’s for HR, for people teams, for DEI folks, for ERG members and leaders, for advocates, for activists, and anyone looking to develop more allyship across teams and across their organizations, and across the workplace.
One last thing before we get started too is if you’re listening via the podcast, there are visuals that can be helpful for you. We’ll link to the YouTube version of this episode, as well as a PDF visual in the show notes. You can find those on our website at ally.cc.
On-screen, our ASL interpreters today. We’ll have both Dean and Ruby from InterpreterNow, our accessibility partners. You can find out more about them at www.Interpreter-Now.com.
Okay. Let’s do this.
So, as you all know, I am Melinda Briana Epler. I’m the founder and CEO of Change Catalyst. I am a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion speaker, writer, and author of How To Be An Ally. The tools I use to do my work are human systems design, storytelling, community building, and behavioral science.
Here’s our agenda for the session. We will start by just a little bit of an introduction introducing the business case for allyship and the Stages of Allyship model that we use. Then, we’ll walk through each of those Stages of Allyship with tangible ways that you can move people from one stage to the next. I’ll be sharing some research along the way as well.
This episode is drawing upon two resources. The first is my new book, How To Be An Ally with McGraw Hill. You can find it at MelindaBrianaEpler.com. You can learn more about allyship there. I spent two and a half years researching and writing the book. I analyzed 300 books and articles and synthesized all I’ve learned over the many years of working with leaders to build empathy and allyship.
The second resource is that my team at Change Catalyst and I have been facilitating conversations and learning and development programs on allyship since 2015. We released a report recently, which is a culmination of all that vast learning about allyship over the years as well as our research survey. You can find the comprehensive report at ally.cc/report.
All right. So, first, we’ve mentioned this in a previous episode, but it’s worth repeating. We’re incredibly excited that our report showed what we knew to be true, which is that just as there is a business case for diversity, equity and inclusion, there’s a strong business case for allyship. So, we found that people with at least one ally in their workplace are twice as likely to feel they belong in their organization, to be satisfied with their workplace culture, and to be satisfied with their job. And that likelihood rises the more allies people have in the workplace.
Our data also shows that an ally can significantly increase engagement, feelings of overall happiness, improved productivity, a greater sense of belonging, increased psychological safety, and then also reduce turnover and stress. And, of course, allyship creates greater opportunities for career advancement as well.
A word cloud of adjectives people use to describe good allies. While allyship can feel complex above all, people describe good allies as being trustworthy, helpful, honest, supportive, loyal, caring, kind, and good listeners. Allyship is empathy in action. Allies really learn to show empathy and take action on somebody else’s behalf.
In my book, I walked through seven steps you can take to be an ally. In abbreviated form they are, learning unlearning, relearning, doing no harm, advocating for people, interrupting biases, and microaggressions and leading the change in our companies and across our communities and industries.
So, looking at what people want from allies, we found 17 different themes over the years. When we ask people to prioritize, however, overwhelmingly, people want their allies to trust me, to give me confidence or courage, and to mentor me. That was followed by recommending me for an opportunity, taking action when somebody says or does something harmful to me, and amplifying my voice or ideas.
It’s important to note that when someone has experienced discrimination in their career, which is disproportionately people with underrepresented identities, their priorities tend to change. They tend to want allies to help build their confidence and take action when somebody says or does something harmful to them.
It also varies a bit by gender and quite a bit by race. Asian and White people prioritize, “trust me,” Latinx folks, “give me confidence and courage.” Mina folks, “amplify my voice and ideas.” Minas, Middle East, and North African. Indigenous People want their allies to take action when they have been harmed. And Black respondents in the US are more likely to prioritize that their allies learn about their biases, followed closely by taking action when somebody does or says something harmful to them.
And what our research also shows is that allyship has deep results. For instance, when people have allies, Black people in the United States are 67% more likely to feel safe in the workplace. And that number grows again the more allies people have. LGBTQIA+ folks are 71% more likely to feel safe when they have allies. Women are 117% more likely to feel safe. People with disabilities are 137% more likely to feel safe when they have allies in their workplace.
Let’s take a look at how to build allies in the workplace. The Stages of Allyship is a behavioral model we’ve developed at Change Catalyst. I mentioned that in a couple of episodes in the past. It shows the steps that most people take on their allyship journey. And what we found from working with companies and leaders on diversity, equity, inclusion, we found talking with and working with HR and DEI practitioners that many people are working to move people from apathy or denial straight to activists immediately. But what we know from behavioral science is that people go through a series of stages of change over time. This is a behavioral change model for allyship.
So really briefly, most people start as Deniers. I did. There are certainly many passive Deniers who are not yet aware of the need for allyship or how to take action as an Ally. Those folks need ways to become aware of inequity, injustice, and exclusion through stories, data, and personal connections that build empathy.
An Observer tests their new understanding. Is this real? Does this apply to me? A Learner is soaking in new information. They’re allowing the information to challenge their assumptions and biases. They haven’t yet taken much action yet as an Ally, but they’re learning. An Ally is activated, they’re reducing unintentional harm, and they’re intervening when they see harm being done. They may take small steps at first and then gradually bigger steps as their fear is reduced and they get more comfortable with being a little uncomfortable.
An Advocate needs to change using their power and their influence so that everyone can thrive. We’ll talk more about each of these in detail, by the way. This is kind of an overview. An Accomplice breaks the rules to help dismantle inequitable structures for the benefit of other people. An Activist dedicates their life and their career to creating change.
In our study, we find an Activist as at least spending a few hours a week on allyship or allyship being a full-time job, or diversity, equity, and inclusion being a full-time job. So, once people become aware of allyship, there’s a ball curve, essentially, where fewer people are Deniers on one end and Activists on the other, and the rest are distributed across Observers, Learners, Allies, and Advocates. So, just 3% of people are active Deniers. Those are people who are actively opposed to allyship once they learn about the concept. There are certainly more passive Deniers, people who aren’t yet aware, but once they learn, it’s just 3% of people they’re actively opposed. They might be really loud in voicing their views and sometimes really toxic too, but they aren’t a large percentage of our workplace population. So, it’s really important when you’re thinking about where do you want to spend your energy.
Forty percent of workplace populations are activated at all, where there may be Deniers, Observers, or Learners. People can remain here forever if you don’t activate them. So, when you’re thinking about how do you build allies, really, one of the things to do is to move these Observers and Learners, particularly into Allies, Advocates, Activists.
I will say we didn’t measure Accomplices in our study, but most Accomplices also take Activist actions. One more note here is it’s important to note that this is self-reported. So, what we know from other research around allyship is that people tend to overestimate their allyship actions. So, just take that with a grain of salt.
Let’s go deeper into each of these. Deniers. Most Deniers in your workplace just haven’t had that aha moment yet. They don’t know that they might be causing harm. People might need them to be an ally. Also, they might be opposed to the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Those are those active Deniers. Or it just hasn’t hit home yet. It just hasn’t resonated with them. They haven’t really had that aha moment. So with Deniers, you can’t make them aware. We often want to, but you can’t make them aware. You can’t train awareness into them. Training at this point will often backfire, especially if it’s mandatory training. So, make sure that any DEI training that you offer is not mandatory.
Progress around diversity, equity, and inclusion might feel like a loss to them. Like, you’re giving some people privilege over them ironically. Remember that these folks aren’t a huge percentage of your population. All you can do really is to provide access points for them to have those awareness moments, those aha moments.
Something that might be helpful is knowing how people learn about the need for allyship. Twenty percent of people have a negative experience themselves. Most of the rest learn it through other people’s stories, through their colleagues, friends, family members, people on social media, people at events. So, think about what stories you can tell about your own experiences, about experiences that you’ve heard other people have. Just 10% learn initially through training. So, that aha moment doesn’t happen very often through training. Training comes later.
White men are less likely to learn about the need for allyship based on their own personal negative experiences. They’re much more likely than other genders, races, and ethnicities to learn about an experience on an event through training or via social media, news, or book. So, you might have all-hands events that are low risk, hosts panel discussions and Fireside Chats for them to learn these stories, for them to hear stories firsthand, and make sure that you are monitoring the chat and the Q&A so active Deniers don’t cause harm with their words. Make sure you’re creating ground rules for events and enforcing those ground rules.
An Observer has had an aha moment and is testing their new understanding. Their motivation for taking action is becoming clear. They might be uncomfortable, they might feel still excluded from DEI conversations, or like they’re part of the outgroup, not a part of the in-group, that’s working together to create change, but they’re starting to understand why it’s important.
So, Observers need to develop empathy, really create a space for team members to get to know each other and build empathy for each other. Knowing their leaders care about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and allyship can make a big difference. So, if the team is focused on building empathy and allyship together, that collective vision and goals can help move Observers to become Learners. They also need to feel like diversity, equity, and inclusion work will benefit them. Not from a business perspective necessarily, though that sometimes that can help but mostly from a personal and interpersonal perspective.
For example, it will make them good leaders, help their teams thrive. It will reduce turnover. It might help for them to know that someone on their team is really not able to show up because of microaggressions that they’re experiencing. That’s not fair. So that fairness can appeal to fairness and social justice. They might step out of allyship if they take a small risk and they aren’t acknowledged for it, or worse, they make a mistake, and they’re publicly shamed.
We’ve talked a little bit about shaming and cancel culture here. It is really important that you’re building a culture of allyship and making sure that shaming is not a part of that culture. Instead, it’s about learning and growth. It’s about calling people in. It’s about working together to learn and grow. Observers need to find their motivation for becoming an ally. That personal and emotional connection can make a big difference for them.
What are the motivations for allyship? The top motivation for allyship is fairness and justice, followed by wanting to be a good leader, paying it forward, my colleagues and the next generation, my kids, my grandkids. We see that consistently in the training that I do with leaders. People across organizations see the same thing over and over again. That is fairness and justice wanting to be a good leader, paying it forward. These are the top motivations for many people. And note that business success is pretty far down on that list. It’s not what motivates most people to change. It’s really those emotional connections.
So, Learners. Learners are soaking in new information. They’re looking out server-side, their normal avenues of learning. They might participate in events, looking to expand their network. And they might take some small actions to dip their toe in the water, but they’re not very active as allies yet. So, with Observers, you can invite them to ERG events, or allyship events, or other activities where it’s focused on allyship. They don’t have to do very much yet where they can really learn, safely learn, or feel like they’re safe to learn.
Show them the data. They might still need to see some proof that people are being excluded actively. They might need to know how Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion can help them again. They might benefit from seeing inequity data across pay and promotions, for example. So, really provide ways for them to learn through multiple avenues, both publicly and privately. A lot of people want to learn initially privately. They might also benefit from foundational Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion knowledge so training can start to come into play when people are Learners.
Learning the language, basic ways that biases and microaggressions come out in the workplace, and strategies for ensuring that they’re not unintentionally harming people through their actions. And then, later stage Learners, in particular, can start to learn more about those strategies, making sure that they’re interrupting their own biases and microaggressions. They need role models, so they need to see that allyship in action, what it looks like. They want to understand what it looks like, what it feels like, and how they might do it themselves.
Above all, people are interested in learning about allyship through interactive training and self-guided online courses. We found it far and away from its training and online courses. So, training pays off. We also found that 93% of people working at companies that provided training have at least one ally in the workplace. And 97% of people who work in companies that offer allyship training, in particular, have allies. So, allyship training, in particular, makes a big difference.
I will say if you’re interested in learning more about training, talk to us at Change Catalyst. Feel free to reach out to me directly. We offer training of various types. And if we don’t have what you need, we’re well connected and can likely help someone. We can help recommend somebody that would be right for you.
All right. So, what holds people back? We found that lack of skills, knowledge, and confidence is the top challenge to being an ally across every region, demographic, and seniority level. So, something to think about is sometimes our biggest allies or other allies who mentor us. How can you help somebody else learn to be a better ally?
Secondly, lack of time, patience, and priority. That comes in second for all groups except LGBTQIA+ folks whose top answer is actually not in a supportive workplace for allyship to feel safe or encouraged. Far lower percentage-wise is a trust deficit between people struggling to build empathy and not feeling like you have power or influence, which we have talked about in the episodes before that you have power and influence no matter what your role is. So, make sure you know that and walk through life knowing that you have the power and influence to create change.
Something interesting here is Deniers. They’re one exception to those. The top two are the same for every stage of allyship, except Deniers. Deniers have a perceived lack of need and a trust deficit. So, some of you need to build some trust, and they need to understand the need.
Someone in the Ally stage is activated. They’re taking action to reduce unintentional harm from biases and microaggressions. They’re learning to intervene when they see them. They’re stepping up to be a champion for their colleagues. People here in the Allyship stage gradually increase their Allyship actions over time. And they can slip if they’re not recognized, if they’re not feeling good about allyship, if they haven’t really connected to their motivation. Or, again, if they’re shamed for making a mistake. So again, learning and growth are our key ways to make sure that you’re reducing that shaming.
People in the Ally stage need to have reminders and regular ways to engage: training, allyship training, empathy, emotional intelligence, microaggressions. For managers, building inclusive teams can be great. For leaders, leading with empathy and allyship, inclusive leadership skills can all be really beneficial. And also, here in the Allyship stage, often, people have one demographic that they’ve really focused on. Their kind of entry point into Allyship might be women, Black people, for example, especially in the last couple of years.
One of the things you can do here is to expand their understanding of what allyship looks like for people with other underrepresented identities, other races, ethnicities, other genders, people with disabilities, age, and so on, and religious minorities. So really, it worked to expand that allyship.
Give them ways to take action and step into advocacy roles. That might be mentorship and sponsorship programs, for example. We looked at the impact of allyship on safety, belonging, and job satisfaction in our allyship report. Basically, when people don’t have allies, they aren’t very satisfied, they don’t feel very safe, nor do they feel like they belong. Once you have even one ally, that changes considerably, and it keeps getting better the more allies that you have.
This is where you want all leaders and where you hope other people will do this across the organization as well. Advocates lead the change from wherever they are. They’re using their power and their influence so that everyone can thrive. They push for systemic change across their company, their industry, and society. They advocate for people whether or not they’re in the room, standing up for what’s right to intervene and using their power and their influence to correct the inequity.
So, advocacy is a skill. Offer training for leaders. In particular, inclusive leadership and management training are super important. Allow them time to organize Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committees if there isn’t one, as well as ERGs. If you already have DEI committees and ERGs, invite them. And even invite people to be leaders or sponsors of those ERGs to really activate that advocacy.
Provide programs for people to mentor, sponsor, volunteer. Ask leaders to help build a culture of allyship to share what they are learning and to be role models. And then, ask them also to build allyship across their teams. Leaders really should be your top Advocates in the organization. And training makes a big difference in moving people along the Stages of Allyship. Again, in organizations that offer training of any type, the average person is in the Advocate and Activist stages of their allyship journey.
In organizations that don’t offer training, people are more likely to be in the Observer and Ally stages of their allyship journey. They are almost three times more likely to be Deniers. It really makes a big difference. Training makes a huge difference on where people are generally across your organization around the Stages of Allyship.
The type of training also matters. In organizations that specifically offer allyship training, just 1% are in the Denial stage. That’s active Deniers compared to 10% of Deniers in companies that don’t offer training. So allyship training again. When a company is offering mentor training or inclusive leadership training, people are more likely to be Advocates. So, when you activate the advocacy skills and really teach people how to be Advocates, they’re more likely to be Advocates.
We found that just 14% of people in our survey have access to allyship training work. However, it makes a big difference. When allyship is encouraged, more people have allies. When allyship isn’t encouraged, people have far fewer allies. So, Activists and Accomplices are really important as well. I’m not going to spend too much time looking at these two, but an accomplice breaks the rules to help dismantle inequitable structures. Sometimes they’re called co-conspirators or abettors. They take personal and sometimes professional risks for justice and equity.
Internally in your company, we’ve talked a little bit about this in the past, but Accomplices can also dismantle processes like hiring processes, completely dismantle them and rebuild them in a more equitable way. You might look at pay and promotion structures as well and do the same, really dismantle those and rebuild them.
Activists dedicate their life and career or a large part of it to creating change. So, their primary or secondary job really focuses on diversity, equity, inclusion, allyship, advocacy, or activism. Often, this is difficult and toxic work too. So, accomplices and activists need to regenerate. They need outlets to process toxicity and trauma.
Noticing that many of my colleagues, many DEI practitioners leave this work after a few years because it’s so difficult because you’re constantly hitting barriers, you’re constantly trying to push through barriers, go under around atop those barriers, and along the way, you experienced some trauma and some toxicity. And so, pay people well for this work, because it is an expertise that is a skill. Give them time off, recognize this hard work. We don’t want to lose the expertise of so many DEI practitioners that have that expertise they’ve been building up over the years is so important. It’s really important to take care of each other; Accomplices and Activists are so necessary. So, make sure that as you’re building allies, that you’re making room for them to regenerate and become more resilient.
And yes, people want their workplaces to do more to encourage allyship. Sixty-five percent definitely do. Twenty percent are unsure. So, you have 85% of the population that’s pretty open to more allyship work. Companies often overlook managers when it comes to diversity, equity, inclusion programs. Yeah, they’re the most interested, with 70% of managers compared to entry and senior levels wanting their companies to do more to encourage allyship. So, managers want this. They want to learn more. They want you to spend more time limits.
And interestingly, when allyship is encouraged in the workplace through training, for example, people want more encouragement of allyship in the workplace—super important—training again, as well as online courses in terms of learning and growth for allies.
We’ve talked about what allies do for almost 70 episodes. Here are some quick additional ideas. Often, allyship acts are small acts that can make a big difference in people’s lives. A few examples here. We have thousands of these. You can find more in our allyship report. Actually, they’re kind of sprinkled throughout our report. So, supported my ideas and gave me confidence, stood up for fair pay, put in a good word for me, ensured I was recognized for my work, looked out for my well-being, mentored me on how to become a leader, supported paid parental leave. And here’s when I was new to my company as a project manager and a director from another department, chastised me in front of my project team, my ally stood up for me and acknowledged that I was treated poorly and hired me and gave me a chance.
Many of our remembrances of allyship actions in the past are focused on people who gave us a chance in our lives, put in a good word for us, hired me, gave me a promotion, took a chance to give us an opportunity. So, I just want to just go back here for a moment for those on YouTube to show you all of these again put together. So, Stages of Allyship. To begin, people start with being a Denier. Then move on hopefully to Observer, Learner, Ally, Advocate, Accomplice, and Activist.
Alright. I hope this has been helpful for you. Thank you all for all the work that you do in making the world a better place through allyship and empathy. My call to action for you this week is for you to find an opportunity to build allyship on your team, in your organization, or in your community. Where can you make a difference? How can you build an ally or two? How can you help somebody learn and move to the next stage of allyship?
And thank you to those of you who have reached out and let us know what actions you’re taking and how this podcast is impacting you and your work. We love these stories. Keep them coming. As I mentioned, this episode draws upon my new book How to Be an Ally: Actions You Can Take for a Stronger, Happier Workplace, which you can find at MelindaBrianaEpler.com, as well as our Change Catalyst State of Allyship Report, which you can find at ally.cc/report.
Alright, everyone. See you next week.
MELINDA: To learn more about this episode’s topic, visit ally.cc.
Allyship is a journey. It’s a journey of self-exploration, learning, unlearning, healing, and taking consistent action. The more we take action, the more we grow as leaders and transform our communities. So, what action will you take today? Please share your actions and learning with us by emailing podcast@ChangeCatalyst.co or on social media because we’d love to hear from you.
And thank you for listening. Please subscribe to the podcast and the YouTube channel and share this. Let’s keep building allies around the world.
Leading With Empathy & Allyship is an original show by Change Catalyst where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, and events. Appreciate you listening to our show and taking action as an ally.