Inspiring Allyship: How to Engage the Bystanders In Your Team

When everyone is operating from a bystander mindset at the same time, nobody takes responsibility. Understanding what conditions are inhibiting allyship in your organization is the first step to remove barriers. This article gives practical advice on engaging the bystanders in your team.

In the same way that a chain is only as strong as the weakest link, inclusion is ultimately only as strong as the moral courage of each of your employees. 

Because being an ally requires individuals to be courageous in moments when it can feel hard to do so, empowering and training your workforce to overcome the hesitation to speak up is a critical step towards building a culture of inclusion. 

Why Allies Matter in Everyday Workplace Interactions

Both inclusion and exclusion are comprised by everyday interactions in the workplace. Inclusion is often taken for granted and invisible when experienced, while exclusion is more salient, immediately recognizable and recalled. 

When individuals regularly encounter negative experiences of exclusion, such as microaggressions, the cumulative effects of these harmful everyday interactions include major psychological distress, elevated cortisol levels, increases in depression and anxiety, and corroded confidence and self-esteem.

An ally engages in “everyday acts which challenge behavioral norms and support members of marginalized groups through an awareness of the issues being faced by others”. Allyship calls for a willingness to challenge discriminatory approaches and actions (most often unintentional) - to be an active bystander, or “upstander”, rather than a passive bystander.

While championing inclusion is key at the leadership level (top-down), inclusion only happens when it permeates interactions at every level in the workplace (bottom-up and middle-through). It’s impossible to establish inclusive norms in a culture if everyday acts of exclusion remain unchecked.

“Whatever those (desired) norms of behavior are, they need to be made very clear, and that needs to filter down through the whole organization,” says MIT Sloan’s Giardella, “If you see someone being shamed or belittled, or an inappropriate joke…, and nobody speaks up during or after that moment, even if it’s just a flash of a moment, you are literally building a new norm.”

Supporting and training employees to intervene as active bystanders disrupts toxic dynamics in the workplace and rewires the company culture. Research has also shown that training bystanders to recognize, intervene and show empathy improves awareness and attitudes, as well as encourages pre-emptive behaviors.

The Bystander Effect And Other Barriers to Allyship

The bystander effect is what happens when we witness something problematic happening, but assume another witness will step in to address it. The more people that are involved, the more we think someone else will do it, and the less likely we are to take responsibility ourselves. When everyone is operating from a bystander mindset at the same time, nobody takes responsibility. 

Whether in the workplace or in our broader culture, “this diffusion of responsibility can make well-intentioned people complicit in whatever acts of violence or discrimination they silently witness,” writes Ruth Terry in The New York Times. “To avoid that silent complicity, people can learn to become active bystanders: individuals who work to create cultures that actively reject harmful or discriminatory behavior through targeted interventions.”

However, subtle social barriers and thought patterns can also conspire against becoming an active bystander. One barrier is the conditioning that we should not get involved in a situation when it doesn’t directly involve us or that we don’t talk about race. People of privilege may also hesitate out of social fear of losing the standing they hold, or as a result of socialization, women may be less inclined to feel safe making waves. For persons of marginalized identities, the consequences of speaking out against the status quo can be greater. 

People also remain bystanders because they perceive the potential cost of participating as greater than the potential benefit of doing so. Costs such as time involvement, fear of retaliation, impact on reputation and weariness of emotional capacity come into play. Understanding what conditions are inhibiting allyship at the individual level can be a valuable exercise in removing barriers. 

Active bystanders help to set the tone for what behavior is acceptable or not within a culture. Beyond having courage and overriding barriers to taking responsibility, knowing what to do and how to intervene is also a real barrier for employees.

How To Motivate Bystanders Into Action

Active bystanders, or upstanders,  become first-line responders to addressing problematic cultural dynamics in an organization, as MIT Sloan points out. The ongoing training of active bystanders has the potential to initiate conversations in a pre-emptive and uncharged context; normalize talks about respectful behavior in the workplace and giving feedback on behavior; identify, diffuse and interrupt incidents as they arise in a manner more beneficial to learning for everyone; empower bystanders to seek out subtle ways of reporting behavior; and empower bystanders to become better supports to those who experience incidents of exclusion. 

It’s important to move employees from awareness to action as a bystander:

  • Awareness: make employees aware of what inclusive cultural behaviors look like and do not look like, which includes being aware of your own privilege and biases 
  • Attitudes: help employees understand their own barriers to allyship and the importance of breaking the silent collusion of being a passive bystander
  • Action: educate on useful actions that active bystanders can take when confronted with incidents of exclusion in the workplace

It’s important to emphasize that becoming an active bystander is a learning process for yourself that will involve enduring discomfort and making mistakes. But with practice, you build the leadership muscle of moral courage and catalyze others to strengthen theirs. 

Equally, it’s also important to address incidents as a learning process for everyone. Being an active bystander is not about judging or shaming others, as discriminatory actions are often unintentional, but holding the awareness to open the dialogue and shed light on behaviors - conscious and unconscious - that may not be supporting an environment in which everyone can feel safe, welcome and thrive. 

When you find yourself faced with an upstander opportunity, take a moment to pause and examine what is going on before you act. 

  • Consider what you are witnessing, check your own assumptions and approach the situation with empathy and curiosity. 
  • It’s often more beneficial to give the aggressor the benefit of the doubt because treating someone as though they meant well facilitates that they are less likely to respond with defensiveness, and more likely to open to rethink, reframe or consider their behavior. 
  • Decide whether it is best to address the problem in the moment or circle back with a private discussion later. 
  • Focus on the behavior itself (don’t make it about the person) to catalyze a productive discussion. 

Here are some examples of actions, depending largely on context and capacity, that can be taken by active bystanders:

  • Question/open dialogue - Question what was said in an openly clarifying manner (eg. What did you mean by that?) that requires more careful consideration of flippancy. Or question the assumption or relevance of a comment that feels off, calling attention to subtle stereotypes at play if needed.
  • Interrupt/distract - Change the subject, pivot the conversation, distract from the interaction, or pull the target aside to cut the harmful interaction short.
  • Diffuse/disrupt - Use humor to disapprove of the action clearly or another tactic to diffuse the energy in a heated situation. 
  • Redirect/affirm - Counter a negative comment with a counter viewpoint, positive comment or expression of support.
  • Confront - Directly express how you do not support the comment or feel it is inappropriate as a norm. Speaking for yourself, using I, not for the person to whom it was directed, and how specifically you feel about the comment or behavior.
  • Support - Check in with the individual who was the target of the problematic remark or behavior after the incident.
  • Circle back or Report - Circle back with someone about a behavior they exhibited that you felt was off, if you felt unable to address it in the moment. Or, raise your concern with senior managers or HR professionals when you hear an inappropriate behavior that went unchecked. 
  • De-escalate - Hold the tension of a person’s overall positive characteristics with the ignorance that may have been revealed in this one interaction, so as to make it about simply addressing the lack of awareness in one behavior, not the person. 

While there are many actions that bystanders can take, encouraging the awareness and knowledge to enable active bystanders is far better than normalizing passivity when it comes to building the core strength of inclusion in your culture. 

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