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Using Power for Greater Punch: How Leaders Can Unlock More Effective Allyship

The presence of allies in the workplace is not new. But, research from the Tuck School of Business’ Dr. Karren Knowlton shows how to unlock new levels of understanding to improve workplace relationships and equity and inclusion in organizations.

Dr. Knowlton, the Guarini Dean’s Postdoctoral Fellow in Organizational Behavior at Tuck, noticed a lack of intersectional work regarding allies and marginalized groups. That is, past research has tended to focus on either allies or marginalized group members, rather than both perspectives concurrently. She and her co-authors, Andrew Carton and Adam Grant, dive into that intersection in their recent article, Help (Un)wanted: Why the most powerful allies are the most likely to stumble — and when they fulfill their potential (2022). 

At the crux of this research, Knowlton and colleagues show how trust functions as a central issue of allyship, and how power differentials – also central to allyship – can undermine this sense of trust if leaders aren’t careful. For example, leaders can often fall into what scholars call “system justification beliefs,” a cognitive bias in which even those who want to change systems around them are subconsciously influenced toward supporting the current systems. Another trap leaders may unintentionally fall into is existence bias, in which people believe that because an institution or practice has existed for a longer time, it is more legitimate, regardless of the rules and principles these things were originally built on. This equates tenure with legitimacy, allowing behavior that perpetuates inequity to continue, sometimes unnoticed, as it is the way things always have been done. However, by enacting certain tactics, leaders can become more aware of their biases and blind spots, allowing them to become more effective and trustworthy allies. . 

“You’re never going to understand if what you’re doing is actually helping people or the effect that it’s having on them if you’re not getting that feedback.”

Knowlton and colleagues describe three key behaviors for leaders who wish to be more successful allies in their organizations.

  • Before: Asking for Advice: Power gives leaders the potential to be allies, but because of the biases that power exacerbates, they may not fully understand how to be most helpful to those whom they are trying to champion. Leaders can start off on the right foot by asking for advice, from those they’re aiming to benefit on how best to help. By shifting influence to those whom an initiative is trying to empower, leaders can join forces with marginalized individuals to craft a more effective strategy. A tactical example of this strategy would be to go to marginalized individuals in an organization and ask for input on a planned initiative, such as how they could change the initiative to better serve the interests of marginalized groups while also solving the problem at hand. 
  • During: Spotlight and Backstaging: Allies should take care not to monopolize the credit for a successful initiative, or to spotlight their own ally behavior. Instead, it’s important to strike a balance between wielding their influence to rally additional allies and resources while also amplifying the voices of, and spotlighting the contributions of, marginalized group members. A tactical example of this strategy might be for a CEO, rather than introducing an initiative on their own, to identify an employee from the underrepresented group who made significant contributions to the initiative and tap that person to introduce it, while making their support clear. 
  • After: Seeking Feedback: Measurement of success must take into account feedback of the people the initiatives are designed to help. Inviting feedback also signals trust and can establish positive relationships.The research finds that implementation of these findings requires increased dialogue, both informal and formal, though  establishing formal channels sets the stage for greater long-term success. There is a spectrum of preferences when it comes to involvement, and by keeping dialogue open, organizational leaders can improve their feedback opportunities for future initiatives. 

“Inviting them to give that feedback can make a huge difference both through signaling trust and being able to adjust what you’re doing to be effective.”

In addition to its core findings, the research also identifies areas for future research and discourse around:

  • How dominant group members can incorporate marginalized individuals’ perspectives and voices into the process of allyship in a way that minimizes the emotional labor required on the part of marginalized group members,
  • Why and how prospective allies may seek to engage with marginalized groups outside of their immediate context, and
  • The relationship between an ally’s social status, trustworthiness, and effectiveness.

Looking forward, Dr. Knowlton plans to continue to dig into the complexities of allyship as an ongoing process and how it can be made more successful. In one paper, currently under peer review, she is looking into the process of giving allies feedback when their actions are less helpful or miss the mark. This happens frequently, yet because allyship can be a sensitive topic, it’s hard to know how to give feedback that won’t offend someone or lead them to disengage from allyship in the future. Knowlton’s study will delve into performative allyship versus intrinsic motivation to invest more and do better, when and why feedback might cause allies to withdraw, and how feedback might be harnessed to improve allyship. 

If you are interested in learning more about allyship and how to be a better ally in your organization, see the links below for additional academic research on the topic.

Wiley, S., Park, J. W., & Catalina, N. (2023). Women evaluate ally men less positively and are less willing to work with them for gender equality when men deny their male privilege. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 13684302231162042.

Chu, C., & Ashburn-Nardo, L. (2022). Black Americans’ perspectives on ally confrontations of racial prejudice. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 101, 104337.

Chen, J. M., Joel, S., & Castro Lingl, D. (2023). Antecedents and consequences of LGBT individuals’ perceptions of straight allyship. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Fa-Kaji, N. M., & Monin, B. (2022). The confronter’s quandary: Mapping out strategies for managers to address offensive remarks at work. Research in Organizational Behavior, 100166.

Vorauer, J. D., & Petsnik, C. (2023). The disempowering implications for members of marginalized groups of imposing a focus on personal experiences in discussions of intergroup issues. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9.

Hussain, I., Tangirala, S., & Sherf, E. N. (2022). Signaling Legitimacy: Why Mixed-Gender Coalitions Outperform Single-Gender Coalitions in Advocating for Gender Equity. Academy of Management Journal, (ja).