Thursday, April 18, 2024

The ‘power paradox’ that’s holding back workplace allies

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Active support of traditionally underrepresented groups (such as women, and members of the BIPOC, LBGTQ+, and disability communities), particularly by members of what is referred to as dominant social groups (such as men and white people), is on the rise. 

Although presently only 19% of workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs currently include allyship training, HR professionals are increasingly seeking to develop this key competency among employees. 

Encouraging allyship is a worthy goal. My recent research shows that members of dominant social groups who enjoy greater power and privilege play a critical role in helping marginalized individuals gain support for their concerns. 

The backing of dominant group members can render DEI issues seemingly more credible or legitimate, and thus worthy of support, resources, and attention from higher-ups. Moreover, without the support of dominant group allies, members of traditionally marginalized groups can encounter cynicism and lower support when protesting DEI issues, as they’re seen as being purely self-interested.

At the same time, that very same power of dominant group members that helps them bring attention to DEI issues can also undermine the extent to which they are seen as effective allies. For instance, male allies who try to exert a lot of influence in workplace advocacy groups created to advance women’s cause can encounter negative attitudes.

There are several reasons for this. For one, dominant group members can be seen as lacking “standing” to protest an issue that is not viewed as their own. They can also face suspicions about whether their allyship reflects genuine concern for the well-being of minority group members, or is merely performative.

Additionally, the psychological experience of power can insulate dominant group members from an authentic understanding of the perspectives of marginalized individuals. Although in more benign cases this can lead to small and potentially humorous faux pas, in some cases, it can lead to offers of help and advice that are patronizing and display inadvertently prejudiced attitudes.

Altogether, this creates what the Dartmouth College and University of Pennsylvania researchers describe as a “power paradox.” Power affords allies unique opportunities to champion change, but also creates obstacles to their being seen as trustworthy.

What can dominant group members do to engage more effectively as allies?

The researchers found that the answer lies in allies’ ability to demonstrate humility when getting involved. For instance, allies can demonstrate openness to understanding their own shortcomings and blind spots by seeking advice from marginalized group members about how best to help, rather than making assumptions. 

Allies can also use their structural power to amplify the voices of marginalized group members while playing a more subordinate role in joint presentations and meetingsAllies can further demonstrate their willingness to learn and course-correct from mistakes, by requesting marginalized group members for feedback and advice after instances of helping.

Together, these actions can enable allies to “stay in the game” when it comes to showing support–and avoid coming across as uninformed and overbearing. 

It’s important to note that while there’s much to be gained from allies’ demonstration of humility, openness to others’ ideas and opinions is a two-way street. Discussions about how to advance equity and inclusion are unlikely to be effective in absence of a psychologically safe environment where well-intentioned allies can expect to be met with sensitivity and compassion in return.

“Doing the work” requires taking interpersonal risks, and not everyone gets it right the first time. In an increasingly divided world, there is also too much at stake–jobs, reputations, and most importantly, the continual development of interpersonal understanding–to reflexively dismiss those who occasionally trip up when genuinely seeking to get involved.

Moving DEI issues forward entails patience and openness from everyone. To encourage allyship at work, it might be better to create an environment where people can fail rather than be too scared to help.

Insiya Hussain is an assistant professor of management at the University of Texas at Austin and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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