In the post-COVID, world organizations are experiencing The Great Resignation as retention and attraction of high calibre talent is becoming increasingly challenging. Employees are increasingly discerning about what kind of organization they want to work for and can see beyond the glossy marketing brochures, token gestures and social media posts.

Many organizations have reacted to events such as The Black Lives Matter movement and #MeToo by embracing the concept of allyship, which is when someone who is in a position of power or part of a privileged group actively supports and promotes the interests of those who are from marginalized groups. However, it is important to explore the difference between performative allyship and actionable allyship to drive real change.

What is Performative Allyship?

Performative allyship can exist and show up in different ways. It’s when an organization wants to be perceived as if they are supporting a cause, however, the reasons behind this public display of “support” are ultimately disingenuous and often superficial. In reality, there is a lack of genuine desire or impactful action to make a real difference. Instead, there is an outward display of social media posts supporting trending causes, slick marketing messages about celebrating differences and special days. Recruitment brochures might showcase diverse faces, yet when you look behind the curtain the scenario is very different, with a lack of diversity in senior roles and business as usual.

Performative allyship can be extremely damaging, as it can leave marginalized employees feeling cynical, betrayed and patronized. It also breaks down trust, does far more damage than good and ultimately exasperates a sense of frustration, disempowerment, lack of psychological safety and belonging.

In some circumstances, there are layers of leadership who are truly commitment to making a difference. However, this is met with other colleagues in position of power who only display performative allyship. Blocking and sabotage from within the ranks, their primary objective is to maintain the status quo through systemic inertia and same as always. Those from marginalized group may have been led to believe their organization wanted to make a difference only to experience microaggressions. This half-way house of some in positions of power who are performative allies and others are actionable allies is confusing and discombobulating.

What is Actionable Allyship?

Actionable allyship is intentional, requires longer term embedded systemic change across the whole organization with an open and willingness to make a real difference. To support this work, organizations need more than diversity of thought: They also need people with a diversity of lived experiences, power, influence and curiosity to actively shape the agenda going forward. Initiatives such as reverse mentoring, reciprocal mentoring and sponsorships can make a real, impactful difference if they are designed and delivered through a wider lens of inclusion, belonging and equity. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training shouldn’t only be a silo activity or something that’s tagged on at the end of a broader development program. The systemic lens of inclusion, belonging and equity should be embedded throughout the whole development experience. Cultures wont change simply by training leaders how to be more inclusive in a two-hour session.

Hiring diverse talent isn’t enough. If an organization doesn’t leverage its diverse mix of employees by understanding them, supporting them and inspiring them, the benefits are all but lost. Boosting inclusion by enabling equity, promoting openness and fostering belonging is a key driver of a successful workplace culture. To make progress in these areas, organizations will typically require a step change in the level of courage and boldness. They must also be ready to tackle sensitive topics around cultural norms, and to shine a spotlight on and apply consequences behavior, including to behavior exhibited by management and leadership. There is no room for someone who is “head of DEI” yet in reality is non-inclusive and privileged without using that privilege for good.

Coaching is another very powerful tool that can make a big difference in driving an equitable culture. However, to be effective, it must be fit for purpose. All coaches, both internal and external, must be trained on how to coach someone from a marginalized group whose lived experience has many complex and often hidden layers of not feeling seen, not feeling heard and feeling excluded from powerful in-groups. The systemic lens of inclusion, belonging and equity needs to be the golden thread which runs through the whole coaching experience. Coaches must be trained in and understand how to connect with someone’s whole system and how those challenges play out in the workplace and beyond.

Many leaders sincerely do want to make a difference but don’t know how and feel vulnerable and exposed. Blaming, shaming or guilt-tripping someone isn’t a productive way of making a change. We have to meet people where they are and accept not everyone will be on board as an actionable ally. Be curious and have compassion for leaders who are resisting change.

Ultimately, the most important difference between performative and actionable allyship is the willingness and ability to take action. Start by developing people who genuinely want to make a difference as allies, as well as those in positions of power. This may require taking bold decisions which may ruffle a few feathers. However, the long-term benefits of doing so are far reaching. It’s reminiscent of the 1980’s and ‘90s when organizations moved from paper-based systems to online systems. Those that didn’t make the step change were left behind, and those that did made progress faster and reaped the rewards.

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