A different kind of diversity program is inspiring people to be better allies – and be OK with making mistakes

Sara Lerner was fired up and ready to jump into the fray on an imaginary bus.

The Microsoft senior program manager was exploring diversity and inclusion and chatting with her peers about a hypothetical scenario: What they would do if a bus rider made a cruel comment to a passenger who was transgender. Lerner started envisioning how she might confront the fictional bully.

Until a colleague who is transgender weighed in with a surprising twist.

If it happened to them, the person said, they wouldn’t want anyone to angrily defend them, potentially heightening tensions and causing backlash they’d then have to deal with. Instead, they’d wave, smile and ask if the other rider had any questions, trying to provide a positive interaction that wouldn’t shame the agitator but might open a dialogue instead.

A smiling woman leaning against the window of a building

Sara Lerner, a senior program manager for Microsoft (Photo by Dan DeLong)

It was an encounter Lerner was still reflecting on when Microsoft introduced its global allyship program last year. The course was offered to all employees, aiming to broaden Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella’s push toward a more inclusive culture. But amid the global chaos of 2020 — including a pandemic requiring remote work and making relationships more challenging, acts of hate toward those with Asian heritage stemming from false rhetoric about the virus, widespread protests against racial injustice following violence against Black and African American people, and increased political tensions — the company made the introductory sessions virtual, and mandatory.

The goal is to give Microsoft’s 160,000 employees worldwide the language they need to discuss different viewpoints and difficult things in a way that offers empathy and inclusion to all, says Chief Diversity Officer Lindsay-Rae McIntyre. The program merges employees’ increased enthusiasm around advocacy with the well-known “growth mindset” platform Nadella adopted from psychologist Carol Dweck. And it adapts that from the work-performance arena to address the culture of the company, where leaders have been trying to break down silos and address bias, intolerance and discrimination.

“So much around allyship is putting the growth mindset into action, learning how to empathize with and advocate with someone else,” McIntyre says. “I’m not saying advocate for. It’s not a badge or cape. It’s a practice that we’re trying to embed so people can engage in conversation to learn from one another how to support and help one another.”

While many companies have programs to foster diversity and inclusion, Microsoft worked with neuroscientists for two years to develop a new approach.

The Microsoft Allyship Program consists of 10 segments using various media to appeal to different learning styles. Employees can take online, self-paced classes, watch video scenarios with actors portraying and discussing various work situations, and participate in facilitated sessions focused on building skills and practicing behaviors. The program teaches that there’s no limit to who can benefit from a focus on greater inclusion — everyone has an opportunity to be an ally, and everyone needs allyship in some form.

A smiling man leans against a railing

Rich Neal, a senior director at Microsoft

Rich Neal vividly remembers a meeting early on in his career with his manager and other leaders when he was the only African American in the room — not a new thing then, or now, he says — and someone made an inappropriate comment. Three seconds felt like 30 minutes while Neal contemplated what to say, when he suddenly heard his manager ask what the colleague had meant. The meeting turned uncomfortable, but Neal’s shoulders dropped with relief.

“I felt like this person checked in part of their privilege, part of their fraternity, for me,” Neal recalls. “And the next month, when I got there, it was just different. My boss had created a new reality for everyone in that session. That experience taught me that it doesn’t have to be this huge, Herculean effort to show up for other people.”

Years later, as a senior director at Microsoft, Neal was asked to attend an event for LGBTQI+ employees. There he met a woman who talked about her privilege, as someone who was white and Ivy League-educated, and challenged him to extend his privilege to others — a concept he says he’d never considered, having “correlated the word ‘privilege’ to ‘white male.’” Now he mentors and coaches people of all different ages, career stages and disciplines.

A woman looks into the camera

Microsoft Chief Diversity Officer Lindsay-Rae McIntyre

Members of majority communities often are portrayed as either offenders or saviors. But opening the aperture of the conversation to reflect topics such as mental health, age, disability and faith shows how everyone benefits from greater inclusion, McIntyre says.

Rather than shutting people down for offenses, the allyship program encourages employees to learn, grow, make mistakes and get better.

“Allyship isn’t perfect,” she says. “You’re going to fail sometimes. But we hold each other accountable for what we’re aiming for. We show people what good and bad looks like so they actually understand some of the well-intended behavior doesn’t land the way they want it to. And ultimately we’re giving people the skill sets to deepen their connections” — and improve their work performance as a result.

The two are inextricably linked for Steve Chu, an account executive on Microsoft’s state and local government team in Kansas City.

A man stands in front of a tall building

Steve Chu, an account executive on Microsoft’s state and local government team in Kansas City

Chu grew up in Alaska with a mother of German descent and father of Chinese lineage. He says he experienced “a lot of harsh racism” as a child and denounced the Asian-American half of his heritage, at one point telling his parents he wanted to change his last name. But while taking the Microsoft course last year, Chu began exploring ways to be more authentic to his whole self. He ended up having the most successful year of his career.

“That really changed everything for me, to embrace both sides of my heritage,” Chu says. “It’s freed me up. I don’t expend energy anymore on covering the Chinese aspects of my personality, so I can focus that energy on more meaningful efforts.”

Research backs up Chu’s experience and has shown that companies with greater employee diversity are more innovative and profitable. But diversity and inclusion require intention.

“If we want to make sure our products are created for people around the world, we need to make sure those varied perspectives are represented, heard and acted upon,” says Diana Navas-Rosette, who leads strategy and innovation on Microsoft’s Global Diversity & Inclusion team. “So we need to have the space and the right behaviors in place for people to be able to speak up and to respectfully challenge each other and have conversations about different perspectives, views and values.”

A woman leans against a wall and looks into the camera

Diana Navas-Rosette, who leads strategy and innovation on Microsoft’s Global Diversity & Inclusion team

Recognizing that Microsoft’s data-driven workforce would respond best to a science-based approach to allyship, Navas-Rosette’s team worked with New York University’s Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging and with the NeuroLeadership Institute to identify what prevents people from acting as allies and how to move them from fearful bystanding toward empathetic action. The institute partners with doctors, neuroscientists, researchers and educators who help create a scientific yet practical way to improve leadership effectiveness, sometimes hooking people up to various scans to watch where the blood flows in their brains and to measure cortisol and heartrates as they’re put into different situations.

Discourse about privilege can divide people and make them feel threatened by each other. And the brain processes social threats, such as exclusion and rejection, much the same way it processes physical pain, says Katherine Milan, the institute’s senior vice president of client experience and product.

So the group’s work connects well with Microsoft’s growth-mindset approach by emphasizing collaboration instead of competition, to lower the threat and encourage engagement, Milan says. While many allyship efforts urge people to muster up the courage to confront those who speak or act in a non-inclusive way, Microsoft’s program aims to create a shame-free learning atmosphere for everyone.

A woman looks at the camera

Katherine Milan, the NeuroLeadership Institute’s senior vice president of client experience and product

And Microsoft’s culture seems to be shifting since the first workshop in July 2019, with surveys indicating employees are feeling more safety and comfort in speaking up even when conversations are difficult, Milan says. But it’s a journey, she says.

“You can’t just take one workshop,” Milan says. “It’s a muscle that you stretch and grow and build every day, and you have to practice repeatedly.”

The pandemic has changed personal interactions in many ways, and some displaced teams have even managed to find greater unity by being more deliberate.

“At the office, there can be dozens of short interactions throughout the day, bumping into people in the halls and cafeteria and having quick conversations,” says Parul Manek, a director of program management for Microsoft’s Enterprise Cloud division. “That doesn’t happen now, so you have to be a more intentional ally. Yesterday I observed someone in a meeting who just didn’t seem like themselves, so I reached out afterward and discovered they had issues working from home and were overwhelmed, and I was able to help them with some strategies to cope.”

A smiling woman leans against the column of a building.

Parul Manek, a director of program management for Microsoft’s Enterprise Cloud division (Photo by Dan DeLong)

Manek became acutely aware of how it felt to be excluded when she moved with her parents to England from India. Since her family hadn’t had the privilege of learning English before immigrating, she felt she didn’t belong in her new home. New friends were intentional about helping her fit in, though, and now she’s spent a lifetime similarly on the lookout for anyone who might be struggling and in need of help.

Manek says she’s seen a clear impact in her work from Nadella’s focus on empathy, even though it’s not an obvious element in a company where employees are so focused on excellence. But she’s noticed that empathy encourages humility and understanding without judgment, which promotes personal connections and, accordingly, workplace collaboration.

Microsoft leaders know the company still has much more to do and learn, McIntyre says.

“As aspiring allies, it’s important that we don’t show up wanting to be the well-intended savior in the conversation,” McIntyre says. “I do not see it as my responsibility to speak on behalf of anyone else but rather to create the space for others to be heard. If we can support people the way they want to be supported, we can create huge systemic change not only for Microsoft but for the broader ecosystem.”

That’s something Sylvia Vargas has seen and is still learning herself, despite a lifetime of trying to stick up for others.

Vargas, a senior data and applied scientist, left Microsoft after seven years in 2013 because of negative experiences with the company culture, then was lured back in 2017 by a former colleague who told her things had changed.

Microsoft’s allyship program helps employees to:

  • Counteract unconscious bias by practicing willful awareness
  • Slow down, suspend judgment and take time to process information
  • Exercise curiosity, ask good questions and listen carefully
  • Separate the behavior from the person and focus on the action’s impact on others
  • See our own mistakes as an invitation to learn rather than an occasion to get defensive
  • Speak in our own voice, not on behalf of someone elseShe quickly learned a new word that had entered the company’s vernacular: allyship. It was a concept she was familiar with, having grown up Puerto Rican in the Bronx. She and her family knew whom they could trust to support them, she recalls, and that inspired her to be someone others could count on when they felt marginalized.

“I’ve been an ally unintentionally, a lot of times in meetings where people were spoken to in a disparaging manner, and being a New Yorker, I don’t keep my mouth shut,” she says.

A woman smiles at the camera

Sylvia Vargas, a senior data and applied scientist for Microsoft

Even though Microsoft’s culture is shifting, Vargas says, there are still arguments and inappropriate discussions. The big change is that people are starting to handle the tensions differently — including Vargas herself.

Now, instead of aggressively confronting a colleague who’s speaking over someone in a meeting, Vargas says she might cheerfully interject with, “I think so-and-so really has a point, if she wants to chime in here with her idea.” And Vargas is learning another big lesson as well, to be an ally to herself and show empathy for her own attempts and failures.

As the course spreads to Microsoft hubs around the world, the term “ally” isn’t always translating well into other languages. And spellcheck programs still try to correct the word to “ally’s hip.” But the message seems to be getting through.

“It’s fundamentally around being an action, not a noun or label or credential,” says Ashwin Shrinivas, who recalls thinking the word “ally” was grandiose and presumptuous until he took the classes. “You can be an ally if you took one action, but in the next moment if you didn’t take an action, you’re not an ally. So it’s more about a lifelong journey.”

And that’s a concept Shrinivas, an engineering director in the Azure Data division, is all too familiar with.

A man smiles at the camera

Ashwin Shrinivas, an engineering director in Microsoft’s Azure Data division

Shrinivas’ mother graduated at the top of her class with a post-graduate degree in math and then taught advanced physics and math for college placement exams in a small town in India, helping many of her students get into prestigious engineering schools — unusual feats for a woman in that setting. As a child, Shrinivas watched her battle misogyny from fellow teachers and parents, and when he went to college himself, he vowed not to be like that. But he soon realized the society around him and his own unconscious bias had allowed negative behaviors and thoughts to flourish toward colleagues, students and teachers who were women.

Ashamed, he realized he needed to actively correct for those prejudices, and as he rose through the ranks at Microsoft, he sought out opportunities to learn and get involved in supportive efforts — including the allyship program.

A big part of allyship involves awareness of different lived experiences, Shrinivas says. Someone might be subjected to a certain negative interaction once a year and be able to easily brush it off, but another coworker might experience something similar every day, and could be perceived as overreacting if others don’t realize it’s the thousandth time it has happened to them.

“If you go through situations not facing these subtle microaggressions, you can be unaware that they even exist,” Shrinivas says. “A lot of allyship training for the majority is opening their eyes to recognize that your experience may not be typical of all your coworkers. That’s the first step in being an ally.”

Having allies makes employees more engaged, so they can make more of an impact in their work, Shrinivas says, and it drives diversity because people feel like their differences are appreciated.

A man smiles at the camera

Chris Mateo, a business strategy leader in Microsoft’s healthcare division

The events of this year not only confirmed the need for an allyship program but made it more urgent, Navas-Rosette says.

Many are offering space — and grace — to make mistakes, as long as there is effort.

Chris Mateo and his husband were walking around Seattle amid protests following the May killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, when his manager at Microsoft texted.

“He just mentioned that he didn’t really know how to express himself, but he wanted to reach out, and he wanted to let me know that he fully would give me the space that I needed in order to be in the moment,” says Mateo, who is Afro-Latino. “And that simple text message was extremely comforting.

“When we talk about allyship, for some reason there’s this perfectionist mentality. But you’re going to make mistakes, and you need to be OK with yourself in making those mistakes and more importantly, be okay to listen to feedback and then act on that feedback. It is truly a journey.”