Four Ways to Be an Ally

A new study from McKinsey and Co (2017) found that companies with most ethnic and cultural diversity on their executive team were 43% more likely to experience higher profitability. Diversity has two-dimensions; inherent diversity (skin color, gender, age) and acquired diversity (relationships, religion, education, travel, experience). However, according to researchers Joseph Distefano and Martha Maznevski (2012) in their article, Creating Value with Diverse Teams in Global Management, merely making an organization more inherently diverse can actually lower performance. So how does business effectively and compassionately capitalize on diversity? Andres Tapia in his TedTalk, Why Diversity is Upside Down, explains, “Greater diversity, when managed well, leads to greater productivity and innovation.” To manage diversity well, Tapia suggests we need to know about the majority culture, as well as minority cultures. It is by learning about our culture as well as the culture of others that we develop intercultural competence. To learn about ourselves as well as others, we’ll want to ally ourselves with people of different cultures.

Four Ways to Ally

  1. Listen to experiences outside our own cultural identity. One of my first lessons was to realize my tendency to judge others. I wanted to offer a fix or answers for another person’s condition or situation. Now, I check my judgment at the door and work to be a learner rather than a knower, as illustrated in my blog, Leadership Upended. In his book, The Big Leap, Gay Hendricks says, “To prevent humiliating collisions with universe, I suggest we adopt an attitude of being open to learning in every moment of our relationships.” Adopting this posture of learning has not only enabled me to gain invaluable cultural understanding but also to listen deeply and affirm another’s experience. This, in turn, creates an environment of safety and belonging.
  2. Be okay with making mistakes. In our majority culture, it can be hard to admit when we’re wrong or don’t know the answer. It can even be embarrassing. However, I’ve discovered that people give me grace when I’m willing to admit I don’t know something, need help understanding, or apologize when I’ve made a mistake. I’ve not yet come across a person who hasn’t wanted to help me learn. Now, I actually work to create space for conversations where mistakes are valued as learning opportunities. Without having to “get it all right,” we can be real with people about what we’re learning. For me, this has ignited opportunities for new friendships that I’ve not encountered before. At work, this creates a more collaborative and productive environment.
  3. Have conversations about our majority culture in white spaces too. Expecting people of color to be the only ones speaking about racism or cultural differences is unkind, unfair and unjust. In the past, diversity-speak was learning about the “other” person’s culture. In a multi-cultural context, it’s about developing cultural self-awareness, as well as other-awareness. To create a culture of belonging in our organizations, it’s helpful to learn about majority cultural characteristics and their impact on minority people. Two books that helped me learn and talk about majority culture characteristics are Waking Up White by Debbie Irving and White Like Me by Tim Wise.
  4. Become aware of bias and how it influences our thoughts and actions. In the book Blindspot, Hidden Biases of Good People the authors Mazharin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald (2013) explain, “Hidden biases are bits of knowledge about social groups. These bits of knowledge are stored in our brains because we encounter them so frequently in our cultural environments. Once lodged in our minds, hidden biases can influence our behavior toward members of particular social groups, but we remain oblivious to their influence.” Banaji and Greenwald tell us that of the 1.5 million people that have taken the Harvard Implicit Bias Test, 75% of the people, and that includes people of color, prefer white faces. That can be shocking, especially for those of us who consider ourselves to be egalitarian. However, while we can’t help having our bias, working together, we can outsmart it. Banaji and Greenwald suggest that one of the largest contributing factors to the relative disadvantages of the already disadvantaged groups in America is “in-group favoritism.” Knowing this, we can watch for opportunities, personally and professionally, to share resources and create structures that honor the people and talents of various groups.

In order for businesses to effectively and compassionately capitalize on diversity, we’ll want to stop suppressing our cultural differences and inadvertently allowing them to be obstacles in our work and relationships. Thus, in our growing multi-cultural society, developing majority cultural self-awareness is just as important as developing cultural other-awareness. Working together, we can effectively ally and continue to develop our intercultural competence for greater collaboration, innovation and profit. -AN

To attract and retain top talent from diverse backgrounds, leaders need to create a culture of safety and belonging for everyone. With a PhD in Adult Education, Amy works with CEO’s, management teams and those who take the lead in organizations to effectively implement the tools for intercultural competence. To learn the tools in our 6-session Corporate Workshop Seriescontact Amy.