Common Mistakes of Allies In Training

Growth requires mistakes to be made

Many well-intentioned allies in training make mistakes. We call it the bumble and stumble of allyship. By definition learning and growing requires us to make mistakes. You don’t know what you don’t know yet. Be kind to yourself, give yourself space and grace as you’re learning, and practice good self care to maintain your energy.

Common early allyship mistakes:

  • Saviorism (saving the day for the other person)
  • Making excuses for bad behavior (rather than holding them accountable)
  • Defending or denying your own bad behavior (rather than apologizing)
  • Trying too hard (not everything is about DEI)
  • Participating in allyship when it is cool (following the news cycle)

According to the McKinsey 2021 Women in the Workplace report, 77% of people consider themselves to be allies at work. Very few of these people advocate (21%), confront discrimation (39%), mentor or sponsor (10%), or take real action to show they are allies at work. While this data is from the workplace, allyship has similar correlations at home. People often think they’re doing more than they really are. Everyone wants to think they are a good person. No one wants to think they’re intentionally harming someone else.

A colleague of mine recently shared his allyship story with me. He works in an industry that is extremely white, able-bodied, straight male-dominated (nearly all industries are). In fact, his entire team are white, straight, able-bodied males, including himself. When I asked him what shifted for him to want to focus on diversity, he responded that he feels his lifelong calling is to bring more people into the industry that he’s loved since he was a child. He wants to see his own children better reflected, and those that are different reflected in the industry he loves. He sees DEI as additive. To bring more people into his industry will benefit his business, as well as his own personal passion to share what he loves with others. He wants to leave the industry more inclusive.

Ally visions help us find the courage when things get hard. A client of mine candidly shared a few years ago that he attended an industry conference where a Black man presented on anti-racism. The speaker advocated that systems needed to be addressed for positive change. My client was early on in his ally journey at the time and was really caught off guard by the presentation. He was even offended. He recalls feeling emotionally defensive and felt like he was accused of being a part of the problem just because he was White. Fast forward to today, and he actively understands his role in maintaining the systems that keep certain people down. He’s further along on his ally journey because he’s acknowledged that he is indeed part of the problem and he is a big part of the solution. He actively looks for ways to engage people of color, women, those with disabilities, LGBTQ+ folks in a very white straight male-dominated industry. And he doesn’t do it for the glory, he does it because he understands he has an obligation to leverage his privilege for good. Although his journey started with denial, it has flourished into awareness and advocacy. By meeting our allies where they are at, they are more likely to participate and it takes time to learn.

Denial to awareness to advocacy

Early on the ally journey people often are unwilling to accept their role in the systems they didn’t create. It’s a very natural reaction to deny things that are different than you want them to be. It’s easy to say I didn’t create these systems or I’m a good person. That’s not the point. Being an ally is accepting that I benefit from these systems and I can participate in changing them. It’s the paradox of accepting I’m a good person and I also make mistakes.

My nephew is a white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied male. He was born and raised in a small Midwest rural area that has a problematic racial past and strong perceptions of racism still today. He’s incredibly bright and hard-working, and didn’t have a ton of resources growing up. He did the best he could with what he had. Similar to the myth of meritocracy, my nephew flew in the face of people’s expectations of him. He was Valedictorian of his high school class. He’s the second student ever from his high school to go to an Ivy League college and he is rocking a 4.0 as a sophomore there currently.

As he’s grown up and knows what I do for a living, we have lots of candid conversations about DEI. One Thanksgiving, he openly acknowledged his privilege without any prompting. I simply responded how did you realize you had it? He said he’s observed other people not be taken as seriously or not given the same chances as him even though his life was not easy. He worked very hard to get to where he is at and he wants to share his privilege with others. He sees it as a chance to help others who are different from him. Privilege is not a zero sum game. Admitting it does not mean you did not work hard. It just means you have a duty to help others with it.

White men are not the problem with DEI. They are the solution.

I am married to a White man, my nephew is a White man, and many of my friends and clients are White men. They are not the enemy. We have to bring white men into the conversation about DEI to move it forward. Our systems are controlled by White men. They created the systems. They still control the systems. We need them to participate in helping change the systems.

Having the courage to hold people accountable for their actions is part of the ally journey. It is coming to terms with our own limitations, owning them vs. running from them, and inspiring others to do the same as allies.


Want to do better, and not sure where to start? That is why we developed the Lead Like an Ally virtual self-paced training program, perfect for organizations struggling with accountability for diversity. You can also check out all of our other virtual and live program offerings.