How Bold Allies Take Action


This was a webinar by the Australian office of the Neuroleadership Institute (NLI). Its primary function was to drum up business. The content is freely available in books and on the institute’s website. The how to element at an organisational level is what you pay for – and I would pay for such a service.

The webinar was on Zoom and participants were sent recording with impressive promptness. The session was only an hour, so while it did not get into the depth necessary, the key concepts were outlined – and they are valuable. I will discuss the key ones below. I sometimes quote directly from what was on screen.

What is allyship?

To quote the slide. “It’s when someone is aware of and uses their advantaged position to actively support people in less advantaged positions.”

There is a difference between being a sympathetic individual and being an ally, and this can be summed up as:

  • Don’t expect to be taught – Do your own research
  • Don’t view the desire for change as a personal attack – Listen non-defensively
  • Don’t self – victimise – Recognise systemic inequality

Allyship is an activity, not a sentiment. The NLI is strong on the need to develop habits of thought and action, and came up with 3 essential habits for effective allyship:

  • Identify Inequity
  • Increase Equity
  • Drive Change

There is a gulf of difference between sentiment and impact. Research on attitudes of staff conducted by Deloitte in 2019 showed:

  • 92% already see themselves as allies in the workplace
  • however, only 29% say they actually speak up in the moment when they perceive bias,
  • and nearly 1/3 ignore it.

There are 3 myths about allyship:

  1. Myth: Awareness is enough             Fact: Allyship must be coupled with action
  2. Myth: Allyship equals friendship     Fact: Allyship directly addresses inequity
  3. Myth: Once an ally, always an ally   Fact: The goal: exercise allyship continuously

Acts of exclusion have been shown to trigger threat and pain regions in the brain. Six reactions were identified, and they include all contexts, not just work:

  1. Reduced intelligence & reasoning
  2. Poor choices
  3. Antisocial behaviour
  4. Less self-control
  5. More defensive
  6. A lesser level of well-being (physical and psychological)

It is important to observe that exclusion can begin in one’s family of origin, one’s cultural setting, and the community as a whole. This may be true, for example, of a transgender person. In relation to people with disability there may well be support from family, but not in a cultural or wider community sense. What happens at work can be a perpetuation of exclusion begun elsewhere.

There has never been so much energy devoted to supporting acceptance of diversity. But without inclusion and belonging it has little meaning. Allyship, as an intentional act, is a great way to harness that energy and make it more effective in creating and maintaining real change.

Knowledge of what triggers our behaviour is essential

Our brains function on a threat/reward binary. Threat is the stronger impulse, but reward is the preferred impulse. The NLI has developed the SCARF model to help us think about how we respond to a situation. 

  • Status
  • Certainty
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness
  • Fairness

Unconscious bias: Accidental, unintended, subtle and completely

unconscious choices, made by everyone, all the time”. Essentially, “If you have a brain, you have a bias.”

Bias is a field that merits deeper examination. I have just finished Jessica Nordell’s The End of Bias. There is a lot of superficial commentary that is intended to be helpful, but in fact ends up being somewhat misleading. A fuller picture is better. Nordell’s work is the most comprehensive exploration of the theme I have come across. Your Brain at Work, by David Rock, co-founder of the NLI is an excellent exploration of the brain science of bias, and other themes.

According to the NLI, the science of driving change has 3 essential steps:

  • The development of an ethical conviction that exclusion is wrong
  • An empathic and compassionate identification with those who are excluded (discriminated against, bullied)
  • Activation of an intent to drive collective action to bring about the needed changes.

One slide struck me as being deceptively potent. In simply said: Power dynamics – Hierarchy can add another layer of complexity and threatYour Brain at Work touched on this to some extent. However, wider comments about the importance of Leaders in the webinar suggest a far more complex discussion on this theme is available from the NLI.

The other theme touched on in the webinar was “a growth mindset”. This is from the NLI blog – “growth mindset is the belief that skills can be improved over time, rather than being fixed from birth. You may never be the best at something, per se, but with a growth mindset you do believe that you can get better. Not only that, using a growth mindset compels you to focus on improving, not proving, yourself to face all future challenges.”

This idea is key to the approach taken by the NLI. You can read the full article here.


I am a huge fan of the work the NLI does. I like data that puts some arguments beyond disputation by people who are resisting the notion that there is a need to do better – and here’s a way that works.  By framing key areas for organisational and personal change in terms of brain science we avoid the messy moral discussions framed by sentiments and passions. Once you develop an ethical conviction that exclusion is wrong, you want to express that in ways that are rational, rather than emotive and dependent on sentiment.

Brain science on the side of the ‘good guys’. It helps us calmly see the complexity of the challenge, and the rational responses we can take to bring about enduring change in the most effective and efficient way.

I am not saying you have to go off and hire the NLI to run something for your org – and if you don’t do that you have no chance of ending exclusion. Obviously, for some orgs affording that option isn’t going to be on the table. But I could imagine several orgs getting together and having key people exposed to the depth of knowledge and opportunities for change that is available. 

Finally, the more we understand what drives us to behave badly or well, and what impedes the manifestation of good sentiment, the better chance we have of making the changes we want stick in an effective way.

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