Dr. Victoria Mattingly

The events of the past several weeks have brought topics of racial inequality and allyship to the forefront of many people’s minds. More than ever, many of us are asking what role we can play as allies, both as an individual and company-wide.

My work focuses on the topics of inclusion and allyship in the workplace. I help companies move beyond meeting diversity goals and look for ways to promote inclusion and allyship at the behavioral and individual level. When developing these initiatives, I’ve been guided by two main questions: 

In this article, we’ll explore a few tactics you and your employees can try out to promote allyship and inclusion at your organization. For a more in-depth discussion of these topics, be sure to check out my course, Ally Up: Using Allyship to Advance Diversity & Inclusion

I’d like to note that while my work (and the content of my Udemy course) takes an intersectional approach to allyship, it doesn’t only discuss race, but also gender, sexual orientation, and other aspects of diversity and identity that matter in the context of workplace inclusion.  

Ally Up: How to Build and Activate Ally Partnerships

Last Updated May 2023

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Connecting across different identities to build a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace and world — together | By Victoria Mattingly, Sertrice Grice

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What is “allyship”?

Allyship is a relationship between an ally and their partner, working together toward the shared goal of fairness, equity, and social justice. Someone shouldn’t call themselves an ally, though. Only the person who benefits from an ally’s work should award this designation. Consider the word ally to be a verb. It’s not who someone is, but what they do.

To be more specific, an ally is someone who:

  1. Uses their power and status…
  2. To support and advocate for…
  3. Someone who doesn’t share a key part of their identity, for example:

I also think it’s important to distinguish between “Big A” allyship and “Little a” allyship, as I do in the image below. “Big A” allyship usually involves greater risk or cost to the ally, but also has the potential for a much bigger payoff for the partner and/or the community to which they belong.

It’s important to distinguish between “Big A” Allyship and “Little a” allyship.

“Big A” allyship refers to larger steps like sponsoring and activism while “Little a” allyship involves smaller steps like inviting others in and being intentional about micro-affirmations. You may have heard of micro-aggressions — small actions like interrupting someone or questioning their judgment — which make people feel uncomfortable or dismissed. Micro-affirmations, on the other hand, are positive actions that make someone feel seen and supported. 

4 ways to build allyship in your organization

1. Understand the roles in allyship

I mentioned earlier that no one should refer to themselves as an ally — this is a title that should be awarded by someone else. But we can all take steps that increase our likelihood of being seen as an ally by others. 

The first step is to understand that allyship is a dyadic relationship between two individuals. The image below illustrates the key qualities of both allies and their partners.

Allyship is a dyadic relationship that relies on both an ally and a partner.

If you and your employees are hoping to promote allyship in your organization, it’s important to recognize this relationship. Potential allies will need to think about how they can build partnerships across dimensions of difference. And individuals who could benefit from allyship should similarly think about potential allies to partner with.

2. Do the inner work

As an aspirational ally, it’s important for you and your employees to consider your own biases. I know this can be tough — many people find it challenging to confront their own limitations this way. I find NYU business school professor Dolly Chugh’s book, The Person You Mean to Be, to be helpful with this. She writes about the idea of being a “good-ish” person, someone who’s striving to do the right thing while acknowledging we can always do better. Rather than getting stuck in the mindset being a “GOOD person” who is incapable of doing bad things, identifying as a “good-ish” person helps us accept that everyone is biased. This allows us to take steps to confront that bias rather than pretending it doesn’t exist and solving nothing as a result. 

In order to be able to do this, a growth mindset is essential. As humans, we’re multifaceted and intersectional — we need to be okay with making mistakes and not seeing the world in binary terms such as right or wrong or black or white. This means that we may sometimes find ourselves in the role of partner and sometimes in the role of ally. These different elements of intersectionality make us both good partners and allies depending on the situation. But we need to do the inner work and have the right mindset to know when and how to use allyship to benefit ourselves and others.

3. Have the awkward conversations

After we’ve done some significant self-reflection, we can begin to engage in conversations as a duo. The focus should be on creating a safe space, setting ground rules, listening to the partner, sharing in a transparent, honest way, and recognizing that we’re treading into a messy place. These awkward conversations can’t take place without two key elements: consent and gratitude.

The ally will need to be open enough to accept tough feedback from their partner. This can be tricky because this is where defensiveness tends to creep in. It can be hard to hear that we may have contributed to someone feeling unwelcome, unappreciated, or worse. And this is why developing a growth mindset is so important. To get past ego-centric defensiveness and bridge important gaps in these difficult — yet transformative — conversations.

4. Plan the actions you’ll take

The conversations between allies and partners will likely lead to important revelations, like the impact our micro-aggressions have on those around us. The partner can share their experience and help the ally to become more aware of subtle things they don’t usually see (but are detrimental to others) because of the difference in power. 

For getting started, I recommend choosing one low-hanging fruit that the partner and ally can work on changing right away. For example, maybe the partner feels that they’re often interrupted in meetings because and suspect they’re not taken as seriously as colleagues with more power. If that’s the case, the ally can commit to interrupting their own interruptions and holding others accountable to do the same. Or perhaps the partner is always assigned to do “office housework” like taking notes or managing the calendar. The ally can step in and make sure other people rotate taking on these tasks, too.

As you and your employees begin to build this culture of inclusion and allyship, I encourage you to reinforce positive behaviors whenever you see them. Any time you see someone act as an ally, be sure to let them know you noticed and thank them for making that effort. By taking these steps on the individual level, I truly believe we can ultimately create a culture of allyship at the organizational level. One ally action at a time. 

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Page Last Updated: June 2020