Developing a culture of allyship is essential to significantly improve diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in your organization. Allies build empathy for their colleagues and then take action to create a work environment where colleagues of all identities can thrive. While DEI and learning and development (L&D) can lead the change, everyone has a vital role in improving DEI.

Change Catalyst research shows that when people have at least one ally in their workplace, they are 81% more likely to feel like they belong, 79% more likely to be satisfied with their workplace culture, and 94% more likely to be satisfied with their job. Allies also improve our productivity, engagement, psychological safety and overall happiness at work.

Many practitioners set out to move people from apathy to activists immediately through awareness-building or unconscious bias training. But what we know from behavioral science is that people go through stages of change over time. While training is essential for allies to grow, you must meet people where they are at each stage of the process. The Stages of Allyship is a behavior change model we developed at Change Catalyst, which outlines the steps that most people take along their allyship journey — and how people move from one step to the next. Let’s take a closer look.

The Stages of Allyship

Stage 1: Denier

Most people start as passive Deniers, meaning that they are not yet aware of the need for allyship nor how to take action as an ally. Just three percent of people are active Deniers, which is defined as people actively opposed to allyship once they understand the concept and why it’s important.

We found that just 10% of people become aware of the need for allyship through training — training for a Denier can backfire, especially mandatory training. Another 20% of people first learn about the need for allyship through their own experience. Yet, most people learn through hearing other people’s stories, such as from colleagues, friends, family members, people on social media and from people at events.

Rather than training, create moments for Deniers to build empathy and learn about their colleague’s experiences. Offer all-hands events that are low risk, for example, host panel discussions and fireside chats for them to encounter those stories in an informal environment. Create and enforce ground rules for these events so that active Deniers don’t cause harm with their words.

Stage 2: Observer

Observers are aware of and are testing their new understanding of allyship. They need to tap into their motivation and learn how DEI benefits them personally. We often tout the business case for DEI, but our research shows most people are not motivated by business success. The top motivation for being an ally is fairness and justice, followed by wanting to be a good leader, paying it forward, and supporting colleagues as well as next generation. Knowing that their leaders and teams care about DEI can also help Observers move forward.

Stage 3: Learner

Learners are soaking in new information, building a deeper understanding of people outside their close networks, reading and participating in events. While they may take some small actions to dip their toe in the water, they aren’t active allies yet.

We found that lack of skills, knowledge, or confidence is the top challenge to being an ally across regions, demographics, and seniority levels. Learners might benefit from foundational training covering DEI foundations, ways that inequities and exclusion emerge in the workplace, and strategies for reducing biases and microaggressions. They could use role models who show them what allyship in action looks like. Also, invite them to join an employee resource group (ERG) or to an activity where they can learn how to be a better ally.

Stage 4: Ally

Someone in the ally stage is activated: They are reducing unintentional harm from biases and microaggressions, intervening when they see these occurring and becoming a champion for their colleagues. Training for allies can deepen their allyship actions over time, leading to increased allyship, advocacy, empathy and emotional intelligence. Training on microaggressions and how to be a mentor can also be helpful. It’s important to give allies ways to take action and step into advocacy roles like mentorship and sponsorship programs.

Shame is one of the worst motivators for behavior change. Observers, Learners and Allies might step out if they make a mistake and are publicly shamed. As you are building a culture of allyship, eliminate shaming and focus on engagement and growth.

Stage 5: Advocate

Advocates lead the change: They advocate for underrepresented and marginalized colleagues whether or not they are in the room, stand up for what’s right by intervening and work to correct inequity. While anyone can be an advocate, it’s especially important that leaders are.

Advocacy is a skill, so training is essential. Especially beneficial for leaders are building inclusive teams, inclusive leadership skills, and sponsorship training. Ask leaders to build allyship across their teams, develop team and individual goals, and provide regular feedback. Allow people to organize DEI committees and ERGs (if you don’t yet have them) and invite leaders to champion those groups.

We also need Accomplices and Activists to create systemic change. An Accomplice dismantles inequitable structures, taking personal and sometimes professional risks to improve justice and equity. An Activist dedicates their life and career — or a large portion of it — to creating change. Their work is often difficult and tiresome, so Accomplices and Activists need outlets to process toxicity and trauma and regenerate. Pay them well for their expertise, give them time off to rejuvenate and recognize their hard work.

Training Matters

When organizations offer DEI training, people are most likely to be in the Advocate stage or further. When their organizations don’t offer training, people are most likely to be in the Observer and Ally stages and almost three times more likely to be Deniers. The type of training also matters — when organizations specifically offer allyship training, just one percent are in the Denial stage, compared to 10% Deniers in companies that don’t provide training.

From Observers through Activists, our research shows that most people are interested in learning to be a better ally through interactive workshops and self-guided online courses. L&D should help individuals learn skills to reduce and interrupt biases and microaggressions and increase advocacy over time. Additionally, L&D should engage leaders and equip them with the skills and confidence to cultivate continuous learning across their teams that moves beyond training into team meetings, regular feedback, processes and systems.

From executive leadership to frontline managers to independent contributors, we found most people want their company to do more to encourage allyship. And interestingly, when allyship is encouraged in the workplace, people tend to want more allyship encouragement.