Updated: May 21, 2021
By Dr. Victoria Mattingly
So, what is an ally?
An ally is someone who uses their power and status to advocate and support for someone who is different from them in some meaningful way. Like male allies for women, white allies for People of Color, straight allies for the LGBTQ+ community, and so on.
Allyship in its truest form is an ongoing relationship between a partner and ally. However, allyship can take many different forms. One example could be on-the-spot allyship in a meeting where someone is getting interrupted, by stepping in to make sure their voice is hear. It could also be as simple as sharing a random act of kindness like smiling toward a stranger passing by who may otherwise be down and out.
Not only do I fully believe, but my research also supports, that ANYONE can learn the communication skills and emotional intelligence tools that enable successful ally partnerships. However, there are certain characteristics that you can leverage or develop that will especially help you be more successful in your ally and partner roles.
Let’s start with the characteristics of allies. The best allies are curious, humble, and courageous.
Allies are curious. They are open minded and are willing to challenge their own beliefs to better understand how the world REALLY works around them. They ask good questions and actively listen. This means they really try to understand the answers they hear. Curiosity is a key tool that allows anyone to connect across difference.
Next, allies are humble. They’re willing to admit their mistakes, owning their commitment to doing better in the future. They choose to learn, and grow, and not make that same mistake again. They understand that their perspective isn’t the ONLY perspective and they have the ability to center others rather than keep all the focus on themselves. They can put their ego aside for the greater good.
Finally, allies are courageous. They’re willing to take risks on behalf of others. They put themselves on the line for the sake of the greater good. They walk the walk. They are bravely authentic and stay true to their values. They also deal with the consequences of their actions.
Characteristics of an ally and a partner that makes a good ally partnership
For partners, there are certain personality characteristics that make for more effective ally partnerships. Partners are self-aware, trusting, and have a strong bias for action.
Not only are there a lot of personal and professional benefits partners will get from being more self-aware, trusting, and action-oriented, but these characteristics also have a compounded, or bonus effect by also reinforcing and encouraging complimentary characteristics of allies.
Take self-awareness for example. The best partners are self-aware. They know what they want from their career, where they want to be in life. They understand and can articulate the unique challenges they face in getting there especially barriers that are systemic to certain aspects of their identity. They can articulate what they need from others to help them overcome those barriers.
Self-awareness in and of itself is a really valuable skill to have but a self-aware partner is that much MORE helpful to a CURIOUS ally. Imagine an ally is asking a partner about their career goals or trying to figure out the best way to help by asking about challenges the partner faces. That conversation would go much better if the partner had the self-awareness coming into that conversation, already having those answers.
Similarly, partners are trusting not only because trust leads to higher quality relationships and increased well-being but also, trusting partners can more easily create a safe space that encourages allies to be vulnerable and admit their shortcomings and mistakes. This then allows them to change their behavior and be even better allies to you and your community as a result. Allies should not forget, though, that trust needs to be EARNED. So take the first step in being vulnerable, providing value, and giving time and space necessary to build trust with your partner.
Finally, the best partners in allyship have a very strong bias for action. Think about it: even the fact you're investing in your personal development by reading this blog and taking the time and energy to LEARN how to better partner with an ally to overcome the barriers you face...if that’s not bias for action, I don’t know what is.
Partners' strong bias for action maps on nicely to the courageous acts your ally is going to do for you. For example, say your ally volunteers YOUR name among upper leadership during a meeting where they were assembling a special task force. This means the type of high visibility could eventually lead to a future win in your career. Use your bias for action to proudly step into that role and take advantage of the opportunity. You earned it!
Ideally, both people in any ally partnership will BOTH have some degree of all six characteristics mentioned above— curious, humble, courageous, self-aware, trusting, and have a strong bias for action.
When it comes to developing yourself, though, sometimes it’s best to start with one goal at a time. Now, where should YOU start?