In the early hours of June 12, 2016, a man visited unthinkable terror on Pulse, a gay nightclub, the city of Orlando, and our nation. As unsuspecting partiers celebrated Latin Night, Pride Month, and life itself, they could not have known that 53 people among them, having literally and figuratively seen a new day, would greet the dawn with blood spilled and tears flowing. They could not have imagined that another 49 would not live to see the dawn at all.
There were many questions asked in the wake of the tragedy, questions around policy, violence, sexuality… Many questions were asked. In the midst of the questioning and immense grief, a specific question emerged in the D&I consulting space:
How do I address this tragedy with colleagues who identify as members of the LGBTQ community?
People want to know what to do or, perhaps more importantly, what not to do. The challenge in answering the question is that there are as many answers as there are organizational cultures, team dynamics, and personal relationships. The true answer, then, has to go a level beyond a simplistic to-do list. The answer is not in what we need to do, but in who we need to be: Be an ally.
If our goal is to create inclusive cultures, organizational cultures that get the most out of every member of the community, we must learn to be allies for our colleagues.
What does it mean to be an ally?
Just as with national or business alliances, personal allies “stand together”. Driven by shared interests, shared goals or, simply, shared humanity, each of us can be an ally to our colleagues in difficult moments, moments of terror, sadness, anger, and grief. In the wake of the Orlando tragedy, those of us who wish to stand as allies, of course, ask different versions of “What should I do?”
If we ask, “Should I say something about the tragedy?” the answer is: Maybe.
If we ask, “Might calling out the tragedy be seen as singling someone out from the group?” the answer is: Maybe.
If we ask, “Should I do something?” the answer is: Maybe.
“Maybe” may not be the most comforting answer to our questions. However, it is the most accurate. The nuanced and, often, complicated truth is that there are no one size fits all strategies to being an effective ally, to making sure we get the most and best out of one another, even in the most trying moments.
To get to what we, as allies, should do, we must focus on who we should be. These are the 3 “Be’s” of Being an Effective Ally:
“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
An effective ally is present on multiple levels. First, allies literally and physically “show up”. There is an old maxim amongst sports coaches, “The greatest ability is availability.” That is true for allies. Make a conscious choice to “be there” for your colleagues. That could mean organizing a formal discussion, engaging in informal dialogue, or saying nothing at all. Read the proverbial room. Consider your organization’s culture and whether the moment calls for you to fit into it or disrupt it. Consider your relationship with your colleague. What do you know about them? Do they tend to be more reserved or expressive?
Be present, in the moment, and ask this question, “What can I do, in this moment, to be an ally?” Whether the answer is to lead, follow, or get out of the way, let the answer to the question guide the steps you take.
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.
The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
As our world and the business landscape have become exponentially more nuanced and complex, as we recognize and engage a lengthening list of diversity dimensions, it has become increasingly clear that we need to exhibit a heightened level of cultural competence. In order to exhibit that heightened level of cultural competence, we must first develop that level of cultural competence. And, as with any development process, any growth process, there will be some growing pains. As we learn, we will make mistakes. The effective ally accepts that risk.
The effective ally takes the social risk of standing with those individuals and groups that have traditionally been regarded as outsiders in our organizations and in our society, at large.
The effective ally must, when the moment calls for it, embrace ambiguity, dare to venture into the unknown, expanding both their understanding of the people around them and of themselves.
To be an effective ally is not to be superhuman, but to be supremely human, feeling fear, for any or all of these reasons, and triumphing over it.
“We are real people, having real conversations
about real issues to affect real change.”
The Kaleidoscope Group
To be an effective ally, we must be real.
Be honest, first with yourself. If you don’t know what to say, don’t pretend that you do. Being an ally is not about empty platitudes or the condescension of niceties. Being an ally is about genuine support, particularly in those moments when a person or group may be questioning most how much they count or if they count at all.
Don’t dodge discomfort. There are as many ways to dodge discomfort as there are moments we wish to avoid. Don’t do it. Don’t pivot to a tragedy you’ve known just to make the moment more accessible to you. We’ve all heard the one about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. Ironically, that sometimes requires that we sit still in the discomfort.
Ask tough questions. Does the event or situation shine a light on ways our organization may be falling short? What are some ways in which we could each be a better ally not just in the wake of an event, but every day?
Being an ally, though ultimately the path to being an inclusive leader and driver of high performance, can be challenging work. Be real about that. Standing up for “outsiders” in our organizations can be scary. Be real about that. Pushing for the tremendous benefits of real conversations about real issues can leave us feeling exhausted, vulnerable or, sometimes, both. Be real about that.
Here’s the thing, though: You can do it.
You can be present. You can be courageous. You can be real.
“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience
in which you really stop to look fear in the face.”
We can do it…
We can do it, by allowing what we do, from here forward, to emerge from who we’ll be, from here forward.
We can do it, standing with “outsiders”, from the reception desk to the C-suite, until the very definition of the term has been forever changed.
We can do it on a tragic Sunday morning as we all attempt to comprehend an incomprehensible outburst of hate, an unfathomably violent attack on people of color in the LGBTQ community.
We can do it. We can “really stop to look fear in the face” … standing together … as allies.
The Kaleidoscope Group
Senior Consultant & LGBTQ Practice Leader
The Kaleidoscope Group