Allies Aren't Neutral

Male Colleague: I just want to be Switzerland.

Me: You cannot do that.

His Female Client: No, you cannot.

Some of you might be wondering what the heck “Switzerland” has to do with talking about allies. Switzerland’s foreign policy states that it cannot be involved in armed conflicts between states. Therefore, when people don’t want to get involved in other people’s issues, they say they want to be Switzerland.

Neutrality means not supporting or helping either side in a conflict or disagreement; being impartial.

Neutrality is good for mediators and judges, not for just about anything else. Do you drive your car in neutral? When your car is in neutral, the gearbox is disconnected from the transmission which means power from the engine can’t reach the wheels. And no matter how much you press the accelerator and want your car to move, it won’t.

It’s the same thing with declaring your neutrality when you see something for which you should be saying something. Being neutral disconnects you from your morals and values. And no matter how much you profess those morals and values, it means nothing because your thoughts can’t translate into action when you are Switzerland.

We are living in some very difficult times. Our moral fortitude is being tested every single day. What are you doing to pass the test? Are you being an ally or are you being Switzerland? The two are mutually exclusive.

If you’re Switzerland, you’re not alone – and it’s not limited to just men. Some people are willfully Switzerland and others are Switzerland because they don’t know what to do. My male colleague is one who didn’t know what to do. So, I and his female client decided to educate him and empower him to ditch his neutrality and be an ally. He will be a work in progress, but he can now never say he doesn’t know what to do. Going forward if he settles into neutrality, he will be making an intentional decision to do so.

Here are three easy ways to ditch your neutrality and be a good ally:

1.       Speak Up

Have you ever witnessed harassment, discrimination, or bullying? What about a couple engaged in an argument or a child being mistreated? I’m sure you’ve heard the saying when you see something, say something. Most of us really want to. But may not know how or are afraid of what will happen if we do. While in some situations, speaking up in the moment will make the biggest impact, you may not feel safe doing so. But speaking up doesn’t always mean speaking up in the moment. Speaking up could be later that day or the next day. It may even be sometime after that. Speaking up also doesn’t always have to be verbal. We can speak just as loudly with our written words. No matter if it’s immediate or delayed, verbal or written, the point is to speak up.

 2.       Make Eye Contact

Example: You’re in a meeting. A colleague begins speaking. Another colleague immediately interrupts and begins speaking. The first colleague tries to finish their statement but the other colleague interrupts again and continues speaking. The first colleague does not speak for the rest of this meeting.

Example: A colleague presents an idea. Management basically brushes it off. Another colleague of a different gender, race, ethnicity, etc. presents the same idea and Management praises that employee and thanks them and credits them for the amazing idea.

Any of this sound familiar? What can you do in these situations? You can always speak up. But remember I said sometimes speaking up in the moment is not feasible? If that is the case, simply make eye contact with the person who is being ignored, disrespected or belittled. That simple act of making eye contact with that person lets them know you see them and you heard them. That small act of acknowledgement will go a long way to letting them know they are not alone.

If you are witnessing a violent incident and you fear getting involved, eye contact still works. Make eye contact with the victim so they know someone sees what is happening and will get them help. Also, make eye contact with the aggressor to let them know you see them and that you are going to get help to stop them. Eye contact with the aggressor may distract them just enough to allow the victim to get away or dissuade the aggressor from continuing their attack. Of course, be safe but don’t just make eye contact, also call for help.

3.       Educate

When we know better, we do better. Like my male colleague, sometimes people think it’s easier to be neutral and not get involved. “It’s not my problem.” But it is our problem. We are our brother’s keeper. If you saw an animal being abused or dumped on the side of the road, would that anger you? That same anger and outrage should fill you when you see other human beings suffering the same fate. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know them, or they don’t look like you or pray like you. A human being is defined as a man, woman, or child. There is no other distinguishing characteristic. Treat every human being as you would want you or your loved ones to be treated.

If you know better, you have a moral obligation to educate others. It is exhausting. Believe me, I know. Every day I feel like I am having to teach someone how to be an ally. But I must. Otherwise I’m Switzerland.

Education comes in many forms, including conversations, sharing books or articles, and modeling behavior.

My colleague thought that by staying out of situations, he was doing a good thing. He has witnessed another male colleague being very disrespectful to me multiple times and he and other male colleagues who were present said nothing. I explained to him that in their silence, lies complicity. By not speaking up in the moment or later, the offending colleague believed his behavior was okay. Their silence ratified that he was doing nothing wrong. My colleague said that was not his intention. But remember the car - no matter how good your intentions are, if you fail to act upon them (stay neutral), no amount of thinking, wishing, and praying will move those intentions to action.

“The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch & do nothing.” ~ Einstein

Allies aren’t Switzerland. Allies aren’t neutral. Put your morals and values in gear!