Allyship in Asia: DEI in Hierarchical Cultures

Categories: Diversity & Inclusion

Allyship is a key aspect of inclusion, and a growing number of organizations want to equip their global employees with this skill. At the same time, very real cultural differences between countries and regions mean that allyship can take various forms, and also that it resonates more immediately in some places than in others.

Ideas and practices related to most current approaches to allyship have U.S. and Western European roots, and are linked with egalitarian ideals that have evolved over many centuries. What does allyship currently look like for global companies with a presence in Asia, and what could be its future prospects? Some Asia-headquartered companies as well are asking what allyship could mean for them as they globalize.


The Limits of “Tolerance”

Allyship is not a familiar practice for many Asian employees, and the term itself doesn’t have a direct translation in many Asian languages. Employees often need to start by looking up the meaning of allyship in their own language sources, where they encounter various definitions that may differ from the one provided by their company. The translations they find do not necessarily lend themselves to specific actions. Some descriptions of allyship from Japanese language sources include: “Allyship is to have conversations, listen, and continue to learn and engage”; “Allyship is to understand and support minority groups”; and “Allyship means a Straight Ally who supports gender minority groups such as LBGTQ colleagues.” In Hindi, the closest translations appear to be “support” or “friendship.” Common reactions to allyship that we have seen in the region include:

  • “What can I do as a regular employee? I don’t understand what it means to elevate others; this is not my role. Being an ally is the job of my boss and other senior people.”
  • “We’re accepting, we’re tolerant. Isn’t that enough? We coexist peacefully with different kinds of people.”

Many Asian cultures are status-oriented and interdependent, and people tend to be highly conscious of the attitudes and feelings of others in their team—along with their status in relation to fellow team members. The data-based country comparisons in the GlobeSmart Profile diagram below indicate that China, Japan, and India, for example, tend to have more status-oriented, hierarchical cultural settings than their peers in Western Europe and North America. Within a hierarchical environment, upward and horizontal communication patterns often tend to be relatively indirect (managers do usually have cultural permission to be very direct in communicating with subordinates). Defining allyship more passively as “tolerance” of differences is often perceived as being safer. Yet this can also mean that conflicts fester or are swept under the rug unless a manager takes the initiative to address them. An employee might even leave the company out of frustration with the lack of feedback—either opportunities to give it or to receive it—and others may wonder why they left.

Systemic factors can reinforce hierarchical organizational structures as well: seniority-based promotion systems, long-term employment, family-owned businesses, central government control, employment tied to vital benefits such as housing or health care, explicit or implicit restrictions on the advancement of women employees. Such factors have an influence on how people behave and interact with others at work.


Speak Up at Your Peril

Advice offered in allyship programs in the U.S. and Western Europe typically includes, “See something, say something.” “Speak up; be direct.” “Create brave and safe spaces.” “Balance ‘calling in’ with ‘calling out.’” Yet the reaction of many employees in Asia to such advice is likely to be fear and trepidation.

  • “If being an ally means calling out other people in public for their mistakes, especially those who are more senior, that could mean the end of my career.”
  • “My country has one capital city where most businesses are located, and everybody is connected with each other through school or regional ties. If I lose my job with my current company, I may have trouble finding suitable work elsewhere.”

Some Asian employees may be willing to try using more direct communication methods with senior colleagues, but they usually need to acquire new skills for doing this, and their leaders must also be prepared to receive and respond constructively to such input. Indeed, there are even stories of employees from Europe or the U.S. who tried to implement their own company’s leadership directives—“Stand up for your opinion;” “Disagree and commit”—with more senior Asian colleagues and were met with stony silence and long-term retribution. “I thought I was following our company’s established practice, but the manager whose views I questioned in a group meeting then began to undermine my career and blocked my prospects for an expatriate assignment to the region.” Most people have heard the term, “loss of face,” but are not fully aware that embarrassing a more senior manager in a public setting can have enduring consequences.


Cultural Context

So for would-be allies in Asia, what is the alternative to either passive tolerance or potentially career-limiting public confrontations?

Companies can begin to adapt their approach to allyship by recognizing what it means to live in a profoundly hierarchical society, where everyone is either senior or junior to others in the workplace based on factors such as age, rank, educational background, ethnicity, gender, or social class.

Allyship in a hierarchical context can take two primary forms depending on one’s role relative to others—the role of manager, and the role of a more junior employee. There are deep cultural roots for how leaders are supposed to behave with their employees. On the one hand, they have the clear right to give orders and tell others what to do, and the job of subordinates is to implement. On the other hand, leaders are also expected to listen very carefully, to incorporate team members’ input, and to develop the people on their team. Confucius, the ancient sage whose influence is still present in much of northeast Asia, is quoted as saying,

“If you wish to be established yourself, seek also to establish others. If you wish to be enlarged yourself, seek also to enlarge others.”


Senior Allyship

Such a close and interdependent link between the development of self and others means that leaders have both the practical and the moral obligation to look out for each person they manage. This could take the form of:

  • Socializing with team members to learn more about them and their views
  • Providing subordinates with just the right balance of responsibility to help them grow without being overwhelmed
  • Building a person’s network by opening new doors or opportunities within the organization and offering chances for visibility across teams or functions
  • Providing direct critical feedback and encouragement as needed
  • Serving as an energetic advocate for deserving subordinates when promotions or compensation are discussed
  • Creating a safe space within the team for growth and experimentation by shielding more junior team members from outside criticism and taking personal responsibility as the manager for the performance of the team
  • Giving permission or approval for team members to serve as allies by supporting each other


Junior Allyship

Employees who are more junior than their colleagues can serve as allies in other ways:

  • Pointing out or affirming the strengths of colleagues to others (“giving face” instead of “losing face”)
  • Supporting or building on ideas from others that appear to have merit
  • Pitching in to help peers complete projects and meet deadlines
  • Participating in social occasions where more open conversations and feedback may be socially sanctioned
  • Raising sensitive issues in private one-on-one conversations with a trusted manager or with colleagues
  • Providing anonymous written feedback when requested
  • Resolving difficult issues through a respected third party
  • Leveraging relationships with peers and/or leaders to bring attention to other individuals or groups who are marginalized and may not have had the chance to contribute


Regional Differences: Mutual Learning

Addressing allyship based on one’s position in the organizational hierarchy can help even those from more egalitarian cultures. The reality is that plenty of hierarchy exists in U.S. and European organizations as well, from compensation to parking access to who says what in meetings. Meanwhile, leaders and employees in Asian firms who are accustomed to more status-oriented work environments may benefit from the selective adoption of egalitarian allyship practices that foster candid communication and wider inclusivity.

Cultural agility is essential in order to ally effectively with people around the world. While some might find the hierarchical workplace dynamics in most Asian companies to be onerous, there are also clear options for serving as an ally at any level. Both Asian and Western approaches to leadership generally agree that careful listening and a sincere commitment to the growth and development of others are crucial. Knowing how such growth and development can take place in hierarchical as well as egalitarian environments is part of the shared learning process that we all need in order to ally effectively with colleagues at home and abroad.


Our new Allyship in Action workshops and learning module provide your employees with the tools and support needed to demonstrate allyship effectively and build inclusion in the workplace and beyond.


About the Authors

Freeda Fernandes
Director, APAC Sales

Freeda Fernandes is currently the Director, APAC Sales at Aperian Global and has held several roles within the firm’s Bangalore and Singapore office locations. Freeda currently partners with clients in support of their cross-border, global talent challenges and consults in areas of global leadership development, inclusion & diversity, global mobility and teaming effectiveness. Freeda holds a Bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering from R.V. College and a Diploma in Business Management from T.A. Pai Management Institute.

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Ernest Gundling, Ph.D
Co-Founder and Managing Parnter

Dr. Gundling has worked with numerous Fortune 500 firms and is a sought-after keynote speaker and executive coach. He has lived in Asia and Europe, including six years in Japan. Dr. Gundling holds a Ph.D. and M.A. from the University of Chicago, and a B.A. from Stanford University; he also serves as a Lecturer in the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of six books, the latest co-authored with Dr. Cheryl Williams, Inclusive Leadership, Global Impact.

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