Communities come together every day in the context of the workplace, forming a culture that is continually created, revised, and implemented by its composite members.
When contemplating the creation of an inclusive work culture, I often think of feminist author and social activist bell hooks. “Beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference,” hooks writes, “but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world.” This notion, that we are constantly enacting how we live and who we are by the shape of our actions in the communities we participate in, reinforces the need for genuine allyship.
Allyship in the workplace is a central part of building and sustaining an inclusive work culture—which, in turn, can help improve retention, foster a sense of belonging, and encourage improved collaboration. Many organizations have some experience with diversity and inclusion efforts, but they struggle to implement significant policies and offer ongoing support. A recent Harvard Business Review article says that 40% of workers today feel isolated at work—despite the fact that, in the U.S. alone, “businesses spend nearly $8 billion each year on diversity and inclusion training.” Part of this dissatisfaction stems from instances of performative allyship.
The difference between genuine allyship and performative allyship results from differences in intent, action, and communication. Genuine allyship involves a sustained and deliberate commitment to dismantling systems of oppression, listening to members of marginalized communities, and redistributing power and resources to create a more equitable society. Performative allyship, by contrast, is often used to gain the favor of a set of employees or consumers by voicing solidarity and noncommittally supporting a given set of values, without taking concrete actions that will actually assist that community.
You may have seen examples of performative allyship in your daily life, through various advertisements, on social media accounts, or within your relationships. A common example is changing a company logo to incorporate the LGBTQ+ pride flag during the month of June, while taking no steps to offer resources for LGBTQ+ employees at the organization. In another example, team leaders may voice their support for issues such as mental healthcare without instituting any substantive policies, like paid time off or employee assistance programs. It is this gap, between values that are voiced publicly and actions that are taken (or not taken) privately, that causes a sort of cognitive dissonance for many employees.
To create a more authentic work environment, one in which employees genuinely feel supported, consider how performative allyship might function in your workplace, and what steps could be taken to reshape the culture to incorporate the organization’s values.
Starting with intent: consider why it feels important, both to you as an individual and to your organization, to speak up and share your support for various causes. Does it feel like an obligation motivated by societal pressure, or a strategic business strategy motivated by stakeholders? If you are not directly affected, consider that some of your employees or consumers really are directly affected by this socio-political issue and could offer insight on how best to communicate the organization’s values through action.
Setting the organization’s resources into action is a central part of genuine allyship. Once the intention has been established and sincere learning has taken place on the subject, consider how to best use your time and resources to support your organization’s values. Consider the above example of performative allyship, where a company wants to voice their support for the LGBTQ+ community. After identifying that the values of community support and allyship are central to the organization’s mission, take concrete actions, such as materially supporting LGBTQ+ causes year-round and uplifting LGBTQ+ employee resource groups, to effect change. In this instance as in so many others, it is far more important to “walk the walk” than to “talk the talk.”
Lastly, focus on effective and authentic communication. Incorporate voices that have direct experience with the topics at hand, and take steps to educate employees on issues of diversity, inclusion, and belonging. Recognize the ways in which the dominant culture is not inclusive, and consider how that affects the way employees are able to show up to the workplace. By identifying internal and external biases in ourselves, we can learn how to offer support through genuine allyship, and avoid the perils of performativity.