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3 Cognitive Barriers to Allyship and How to Overcome Them

Allyship can be cognitively challenging. Here's why, and how to overcome it.

Key points

  • The concept and practice of allyship has been around for decades and is now finding its way into organizations.
  • There are some cognitive roadblocks that make practicing allyship difficult.
  • Understanding these barriers, and how to overcome them, is the key to scaling allyship at organizations.

Are you an ally? Do you even know if you are?

A survey from Deloitte reported that while 92 percent of employees see themselves as allies, only 29 percent actually speak up when they perceive bias. Another found that while more than 80 percent of White employees view themselves as allies to women of color at work, just 45 percent of Black women and 55 percent of Latinas say they have strong allies in the workplace.

So why don’t we act in allyship more often?

How can we explain this gap between believing oneself to be an ally and actually being one?

Milad Fakurian/Unsplash
The neuroscience of allyship.
Source: Milad Fakurian/Unsplash

Myths and misconceptions about allyship

The disconnect between believing oneself to be an ally and actually being one may stem from some common misconceptions about what allyship actually is. Like the idea that simply being aware of inequity is enough. (In reality, it needs to be coupled with action.) Or that allyship is synonymous with friendship. (Really, friendship is about creating connection, and allyship is about increasing equity.) Or that once you “become” an ally, you’re always an ally. (Actually, allyship is built over time, not attained.)

Obviously, misunderstanding what allyship is can severely hamper people from actually practicing it. At the NeuroLeadership Institute (NLI), we’ve defined an ally as someone who is aware of their advantaged position and uses it in a specific domain to actively support and include people in less advantaged positions.

With that understanding in mind, we can see that allyship is not merely a desire to help people from disadvantaged groups, nor is it the befriending of people in those groups. Rather, it is a practice that requires ongoing effort and action. It’s akin to improving at almost anything: It requires time, understanding, effort, action.

Difficulty in perspective-taking

The dearth of actual allyship compared to the abundance of believed allyship may also be due to our limited abilities in perspective-taking.

Perspective-taking is the ability to accurately infer the mental states of others—to understand their motivations, emotions, and intentions. This ability, also referred to as the theory of mind, allows us to understand that it’s possible for other people to have a different lived experience—and perspective—from our own.

Researchers have shown how a person’s perspective influences their emotions and behavior when they’re aware they’re in a better situation—in comparison with someone in a disadvantaged position.

In one study, researchers found that when people in an advantaged group viewed their advantage in terms of how it benefited their own group, and they believed their advantage to be fair and legitimate, they felt more pride about their group. Moreover, they allocated more financial resources to their own advantaged group.

By contrast, though, when people in the advantaged group viewed the unequal situation through the lens of those in the disadvantaged group and believed the disadvantage of the other group to be unfair and illegitimate, they felt more sympathy and allocated financial resources more equitably.

If we aspire to act as allies, it’s important to recognize when we’re in an advantaged position, take the perspective of those who are in a disadvantaged position, and consider the negative impact the unequal situation has on them. This isn’t easy, but it can be done with time and practiced self-awareness.

Lacking the critical habits

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, people may not act in allyship as often as they think (or would like, or would like to think) because they simply don’t know how. There isn’t enough practical guidance on how we can practice allyship day-to-day.

At the NeuroLeadership Institute, we know that to drive real behavior change, you need to instill new habits. Habits are the automated behaviors that our brains like because they save time and energy. Building the right habits across an organization can shift entire cultures. (In fact, at NLI, that’s exactly how we define culture: a shared set of everyday habits.)

So we’ve been reviewing the research for nearly two years to identify the core habits of allyship. We’ve distilled the practice into three core habits that individuals can practice on a daily basis: identify inequity, increase equity, and drive change. We unpacked them more fully in this blog post.

The bottom line is that the intersection of neuroscience and allyship is a messy one. But by following the science, we can create clarity and drive change.

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