I grew up in North Carolina in a happy family, by all conventional definitions. My parents were college-educated and had jobs that afforded their two kids the opportunity to attend universities. All four of us were (still are) White, straight, healthy, and able-bodied. Although these aspects of our identity were surely important in helping us gain and sustain opportunities (and they still are), a related phenomenon was never having to talk about these identities at the dinner table. There was rarely a life event that even reminded any of us that we had those identities. By extension, this meant that we never had to talk about what it could mean to not come from these backgrounds. And yet sometimes we did.
In college, I continued these conversations by majoring in Psychology and Sociology, with emphasis on courses that covered individual and systemic biases. Throughout graduate school, I researched Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) in organizations, and ultimately wrote my dissertation on this subject. Despite coming from a privileged background that in many ways lacked how we typically define “diversity,” I have always sought to keep these reflections and conversations active in my life.
While this sometimes takes the form of partnering with clients to architect D&I strategy, this work can also involve guiding individual leaders as allies; essentially, “what can you do personally to make an impact on D&I in your organizations?” Allies use their privilege or position to advocate on behalf of those who do not hold that same standing. Allyship in leaders is integral to achieving D&I success in organizations, but requires a careful balance of self-reflection and action in support of others.
June is Pride Month, a celebration of identity, self-affirmation, and visibility for the LGBTQ+ community. The global pandemic of COVID-19 has forced entire nations to shelter and avoid larger gatherings, resulting in the indefinite postponement of several annual Pride celebrations (e.g. New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles).
Allies should be aware that many employees’ celebrations of identity are likely significantly changed this year. This difficult reality may be amplified by the convergence of home and work. Many LGBTQ+ employees navigate their identity strategically between these two contexts, which creates uncharted territory as living rooms become offices. While many organizations strive for a sense of Belonging (employees bringing their true selves to work), demonstrating support throughout Pride 2020 may serve as a challenge and opportunity for allies in leadership positions. Allies should carefully consider how to strategically support others during this time.
Reflect (on yourself):
Our Inclusive Leadership model emphasizes self-reflection as a necessary first step, and this could not be more true for allies. It can be tempting to rush to action, but approaching D&I topics that do not reflect our own experiences can leave us with blind spots. Allies need to self-reflect on their own motivations for involvement and take time to understand specific groups that they aim to support. Remember that no individual coworker or friend should be the primary (or secondary) source of education. Instead, D&I practitioners, researchers, and organizations often have resources (e.g. books, articles, podcasts) that can provide a strong foundation for learning. As an example, the Human Rights Campaign has resources for LGBTQ+ allies on how best to make an impact. Allies should embrace the journey to better understand their own identities and the identities of those they support.
Reach out (to others):
As allies become educated, they should seek to become comfortable discussing these topics with others. Know this can be an intimidating experience; at times, we can all fear saying something insensitive or offensive in front of others. To lean in with security, embrace these interactions as the listener. Allies must continue to build their understanding by letting others share their experiences and creating safe spaces for these exchanges. It is important to signal your commitment to creating cultures of inclusion while also reinforcing a sense of humility: “we want to help, but we don’t know it all.” Remember that these interactions will only occur if built on trust and patience. In time, allies should shift these discussions from the safer “one-on-one” settings to more courageous dialogue in larger groups. In turn, they should continue seeking feedback from trusted colleagues. While we historically have rewarded leaders who are predominantly bold and outspoken, this is where leaders who can be both “quiet” and “loud” will shine.
Rewire (the systems):
Finally, allies must recognize they often hold privilege and power to influence larger systems. While they can (and should) do their part to help individuals in the workplace, the greatest leverage may be impacting larger systems at work that inhibit inclusive cultures from the top-down. Allies are often in the unique position to challenge poor behaviors among their peers and spark change in hiring or promotion systems that systemically reduce opportunity for diverse talent. Our research on some of the strategic, systemic levers that can activate LGBTQ+ inclusion can be a helpful guide.
Allyship is critical to the success of D&I in the workplace, and I’ve enjoyed identifying how this can take shape for me throughout my education and career. To be honest, I continue to navigate this journey daily. I encourage all leaders who consider themselves allies to use Pride 2020 as an opportunity for self-reflection and self-education, thoughtful (albeit virtual) engagement with coworkers, and “rewiring” existing systems in their organizations that may inhibit LGBTQ+ inclusion.