The highest performing teams are ones where people feel safe and supported to speak up and bring their whole selves to work.

This means creating psychological safety, cultivating a sense of belonging and empowering every team member to make their best contribution.

An important part of this is to actively support your team members, especially those who might be new, on the “outside”, or in the minority group.

A practical step you can take to provide that support is by acting as an ally.

Ally (noun)
a person or group that provides assistance and support in an ongoing effort, activity, or struggle

Here are three ways to act as an ally for your colleagues and team members in the work context:

  • Provide opportunities
  • Use your voice
  • Get to know the person

Provide opportunities

People in the minority group aren’t looking for “handouts” but we do appreciate a “hand up” in the form of opportunities. Just like actors have stories about their first big break that changed everything in their careers, successful people who’ve beaten the odds often have those stories too.

Develop the skills to get recognized, promoted and paid more

For me, it was when my skip level boss saw me in action at a client pitch and was impressed enough to put me into a stretch assignment. He also paved the way for meetings with his bosses, including the division head and the president of the company. With his sponsorship, I was able to make the most of those opportunities, and this put my career on a fundamentally higher trajectory.

So when you’re in a position to recommend, promote or hire for an opening, consider candidates you can elevate beyond “the usual suspects”. The opportunity could be a project, a high visibility committee or an entirely new job.

For example, if there’s relocation or travel involved, don’t make assumptions about whether a female team member would want to do that – let her make the choice. Then, provide support to help her succeed in that opportunity, whether that’s budget, team members, the right title, a sales territory that has potential or simply your mentorship.

And the opportunity could also be to represent the organization at a conference or to have a presenting role in high level meeting. These opportunities to have visibility internally and externally are valuable to advancing people’s career.

Which brings us to the next way.

Use your voice

One of the subtle but harmful things that can hold people back is when small slights go unchecked. Like the wisecrack that someone makes in a meeting or the person who talks over or interrupts your colleague when she’s making a point.

What I hated the most was when I had finally gotten up enough courage to say something in our team meeting only to find no one acknowledged it. But then 10 minutes later, one of the guys on the team would make the exact same point and have it be celebrated as an excellent idea. It made me feel invisible and made it harder for me to speak up the next time.

When you notice these seemingly small things happening, it’s time to speak up. Or as they say, “be an upstander, not a bystander”.

It’s what you allow to happen that shapes the culture of the group.

So correct others when they repeat a point without giving credit. For example, “Thanks, John. That reminds me of what Carol said 10 minutes ago. Carol, let’s hear more of your thoughts on this.” And this gives Carol the opportunity to speak.

You can also be an ally by referring to your underrepresented colleague’s points. “I agree with Jamal’s point and would add XYZ” or “That’s a great idea Joya, can you say more about how that would work?”

While it’s entirely possible that there’s bad intent involved, it’s often unintentional – what I call a ‘think-o’ (as in “typo”) when people aren’t paying attention.

What matters is that you step in and help catch it, correct it and reinforce the culture of psychological safety that’s necessary for the team to function at its best.

There may also be times when you hear things that are inappropriate at work. For example, sweeping generalizations that aren’t true (“women aren’t cut out for XYZ roles”) or outdated terms that cause offense. When you’re “in the room” at these moments and feel safe to do so, it’s an opportunity to use your voice and set the tone for an inclusive work environment.

This takes us to the third way.

Get to know the person

Not all people of a group are the same. The more you can get to know and understand your colleague or client as a person, the more easily you’ll be able to be an effective ally.

Instead of assuming you know how someone else might think or feel, get information.

And as you have these conversations, come at it from the perspective of curiosity. Be open-minded to their feedback and don’t dismiss their lived experiences. This is an opportunity for you to learn from and gain insight into someone who has a different lens on the world.

For many team members, perhaps you as well, the struggle is real even if others don’t always see it. Unless you’re in the minority group yourself, some of the challenges your colleagues are facing daily will be invisible until you open your mind to look at things in a different way.

Not only will this make you a better ally, it will also enrich you as a person and improve your ability to relate to people who are different from you.

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But what if you’re not in a senior position?

You can be an ally from wherever you sit. Especially when you’re in the majority group. If you can’t give someone a job or project, you can still be an “upstander” and speak up or intervene. Give support and encouragement and be an open ear.

And being an ally who steps in and takes supportive action is a display of leadership. You’re demonstrating that you see the big picture, are looking to get the best from the team and have the confidence to speak up and navigate potentially difficult conversations.

So being that supportive ally can help you get to those more senior positions you aspire to. And it will hold you in good stead for the rest of your career and life.

Just don’t assume your actions are making the impact you want to make

Allyship is not something you can self-declare. It’s only when the people you’re looking to support feel your actions are truly supportive that you’re an ally.

So make sure you’re checking in with people on your team to find out whether you’re providing what they need to be successful. Get feedback on and how you can be most supportive, then act on that information. This is how you can take your best intentions and match them with making an impact as an ally.

As you go forward on your journey as an ally, remember to:

  • Provide opportunities – what people need is a hand up (not a handout) and support to make a success of it.
  • Use your voice – speak up in support of your colleague and create opportunities for them to speak as well.
  • Get to know the person – understanding how your colleague thinks and feels will help you be a better team member and ally.

What action will you take to be an ally for your team members and colleagues? And who might you share this with?

Leave a comment and let me know.