Latest From the Lab: When the Intent and Impact of Allyship Don’t Align


In this recurring series, we bring you the latest research on a subject that’s top of mind in the workplace today. 

It’s been nearly two years since the murder of George Floyd, when a vast majority of white people realized Black people still encounter inequitable treatment in many places, including at work. Many companies said they would actively foster inclusion and formulate plans to fast-track efforts to increase diversity in their ranks, especially at senior leadership levels.

Companies and individuals alike publicly proclaimed that Black lives matter and identified themselves as champions of allyship. Considered a behavior that increases inclusion, allyship is when someone is aware of and uses their advantaged position to actively include and support people in less-advantaged positions. Given the plethora of good intentions to increase diversity and inclusion in organizations, and to act as allies in the workplace, have we seen a measurable positive impact? If a number of key surveys reflect reality, the answer, sadly, is no.

2020 survey on allyship* revealed that more than  80% of white employees viewed themselves as allies to people of color in their workplace. On the flip side, 55% of Latinas and 45% of Black women felt they had strong allies at work. When asked who their strongest allies in the workplace were, only 19% of Latinas and 10% of Black women identified white people as their strongest allies. Thus, there appears to be a discrepancy between the intent of white employees in the workplace and the impact of their actions—or inactions.

The impact of having strong allies in the workplace is profound. A 2021 survey revealed that employees who have strong allies at work are 65% more likely to be happy with their job, 86% more likely to suggest their organization as a great place to work, 40% less likely to feel burned out, and 53% less likely to contemplate leaving their organization. What’s more, according to one study, having just one ally on a team can offset the negative effects of exclusion — a feeling that can lead to a 25% reduction in productivity. If this is how feeling excluded can impact someone’s behavior, how can this feeling impact someone’s brain?

In a clever and well-cited study, a group of neuroscience researchers observed that when people felt excluded, their brains showed activation in the dorsal portion of the anterior cingulate cortex. This is the neural region involved with the emotional distress that accompanies physical pain. In other words, social exclusion, quite literally, hurts.

Knowing the detrimental effects of exclusion — and the positive impact of inclusion — makes the fact that the majority of white employees view themselves as allies to people of color even more troubling. So what could account for this gap between intent and impact?

To begin, many people don’t understand how to act as allies in a way that’s actually impactful. Before even trying to act as an ally, you need to educate yourself to understand the real challenges people face because aspects of their identity put them in an historically-disadvantaged position.

One of the biggest mistakes aspiring allies can make is to try to poke holes in someone’s story or try to relate to being treated unfairly. Relatedness is a powerful tool, but not when it is used to make you feel more comfortable or less guilty. It’s only powerful when you remember that being an ally isn’t about you, but instead about asking questions that challenge your thinking or beliefs. It could be as simple as, “I didn’t know that. Would you mind telling me more?” Or, “I’ve read a lot about this issue. If you’re comfortable, would you mind sharing with me how this has affected you?”

If the person doesn’t want to share with you, understand that hesitancy likely comes from past experiences that didn’t leave them feeling valued, respected, heard, and understood. When people don’t feel understood, they experience a negative emotional response and areas of the brain associated with social pain light up. Because we tend to avoid situations that cause us pain, if we’re reminded of a situation that formerly caused us social pain, we tend to avoid new situations that we suspect might do the same.

That’s why it’s important to reappraise or mindfully accept a situation like this to lessen the potential blow to your ego. Continue to remind yourself of your intent: to use your advantaged position to actively support and include people in your workplace who are in less-advantaged positions. Allyship is a journey that provides us an opportunity to learn and grow, even if we feel uncomfortable along the way. And the rewards are immense: By building trust and relatedness, allyship not only increases inclusion, it also increases equity.

It’s also crucial to also ask people what allyship behaviors are most important to them. Survey data revealed a discrepancy between allyship behaviors women of color perceive to be significant and impactful to them and those allies perceive to be significant and impactful to women of color. For example, in a 2021 Women in the Workplace survey, women of color indicated that promoting equitable opportunities for them was the allyship behavior most impactful, whereas white employees saidspeaking out against discrimination toward women of color was most critical. And while white employees ranked serving as mentors or sponsors to women of color as the lowest priority for women of color, women of color ranked it higher.

To that end, if our earnest intent is to be allies to our coworkers, we need to educate ourselves; build relatedness; seek feedback; and ask those we’re striving to support and include how we can best serve as allies. Through this process we’re constantly aligning our actions with our intent, and therefore increasing our impact. By doing this, at some point in the near future, surveys will hopefully show that we’ve lessened the gap between intent and impact.

*In the survey, allyship was defined as “using one’s power or position to support or advocate for coworkers with less power or status.”

Author: Michaela Simpson, PhD

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