Overcoming Microaggressions in the Workplace

While the perpetrators of microaggressions may not intend harm, microaggressions are harmful for individuals and organizational cultures. Microaggressions perpetuate disapproval, derogation, or discomfort towards marginalized groups and should be confronted to mitigate their harmful effects.

Microaggressions were dubbed “the new face of racism” back in 2007 and affect all marginalized groups. These insidious behaviors have real damaging effects on individuals and can add up to macro problems, far greater than the sum of their parts, when it comes to perpetuating everyday acts of exclusion in your company culture.

What Are Microaggressions?

Microaggressions are the brief and everyday verbal and non-verbal snubs, slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to  marginalized groups (such as BIPOC and LGBTQ+ as well as identities or communities based on sex, age, religion, abilities, etc). Microaggressions position the dominant culture as the “norm” and highlight a person’s “difference” from the majority representation group in a way that perpetuates disapproval, derogation, or discomfort towards marginalized groups. As an example, saying “your name is hard to pronounce“ normalizes common white people names while implying other names are the exception and difficult. 

Microaggressions are usually rooted in unconscious assumptions and stereotypes, and while they can be intentional, they are often committed by people who are unaware of the hidden messages they are communicating and the harm they are inflicting. This makes microaggressions tricky and corrosive because they can seem neutral or even positive to the speaker while reinforcing thinly veiled stereotypes and associations held by the culture that create exclusion. 

How to Identify Microaggressions

There are three subgroups of microaggressions that can show up in the workplace are: 

Microassaults are conscious, overt discriminatory comments and actions  intended to criticize, discredit or demean a marginalized group. Racist slurs, homophobic bullying and religious mocking are examples.

Microinsults appear in the guise of a compliment, disrespecting a demographic group while inferring that the target is an exception to the stereotype. For example, telling a Latino man how good his English is and how unnoticeable his accent. While the speaker may think they are giving a compliment, it’s a direct insult to the recipient. 

Microinvalidations minimize, exclude, negate or nullify the experiences, thoughts or feelings of historically disadvantaged groups. For example, when a white person says “I don’t see color” it implicitly discounts the speaker’s own implicit bias, systemic racism and the racial identity and direct experiences the recipient might have.

Microaggressions take three kinds of forms in the workplace: 

Verbal microaggressions are when someone says something offensive or disrespectful to an individual of a marginalized group. Examples include “where are you really from?” or “you’re so articulate” or “can I touch your hair?” or “who is the man in your relationship?” or saying “your people.”

Behavioral microaggressions are problematic actions that often play into or show insensitivity to identity stereotypes. Common examples include asking a woman if she can get the coffees, mistaking a person of color as a service worker or tone-policing.

Environmental microaggressions are made evident through lack of representation, inclusion, and diversity. Examples are not having accessible facilities, not respecting gender pronouns or having protocol, excluding people of color from visible leadership, and paying men more than women for the same job. 

The Risks of Turning a Blind Eye on Microaggressions

While the perpetrators of microaggressions may not often intend harm, microaggressions are harmful for individuals and organizational cultures. 

“Because of their somewhat ambiguous nature, microaggressions come with an added layer of emotions,” says psychologist Dr Samantha Rennalls, “They can be confusing, sometimes leaving the recipient with a sense of uncertainty about why they are feeling hurt or offended.”

The cumulative psychological harm on individuals with sustained exposure to microaggressions is often referred to as “death by a thousand cuts” - impacting upon mental, emotional, and physical health.  

Long-term exposure to microaggressions is associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety and can be erosive to self-worth and self-esteem. Microaggressions contribute to not feeling belonging or acceptance. Without a sense of psychological safety, employees will not feel able to speak up, take risks or be creative and innovative.

By inhibiting individuals to show up and contribute fully in the workplace, microaggressions are detrimental to the diversity of thought that leads to performance and innovations. They can corrode engagement and loyalty, narrow the talent pool, lead to the attrition of valuable employees, impair diversity and ultimately impact the bottom line. 

The proliferation of microaggressions, though often unconscious, can contribute to an organizational culture being discriminatory.  

According to DavidsonMorris: “Microaggressions at work, perhaps in the form of ‘banter’ and improper use of language, which result in a staff member feeling their work environment is hostile because of their race, can amount to subtle forms of harassment and bullying.”

How Managers Can Respond to Microaggressions Effectively 

   

Confronting microaggressions can be difficult and elusive for several reasons: Microaggressions can often present as subtle, the microaggressor will often feel benign in their intention, and the recipient may even have an unclear feeling about the interaction. 

Microaggressions are best confronted by fostering a growth mindset among your managers and leaders, to encourage openness and learning rather than shutdown and defensiveness. We’re all capable of microaggressions and it’s about becoming curiously conscious about the ways we normalize majority culture and perpetuate discriminatory stereotypes and beliefs - while recognizing that this lack of consciousness creates real harm and consequences for others.

According to Derald Wing Sue, a psychology and education professor at Columbia University, an artful “microintervention” must consider both the “conscious communication” (intention of the initiator) and the “unconscious metacommunication” (message sent to the receiver) of the microaggression.

Sue recommends three strategies for confronting microaggressions that managers can use:

Make the invisible, visible. When you witness a microaggression, make the nature of the behavior visible to the perpetrator. 

Educate the perpetrator. Shift the focus from the intention, which may be perceived as positive, to the impact. This opens up for realization of how the comment or behavior may cause unintentional harm. 

Disarm the microaggression. Steer the conversation away from a problematic comment or behavior to communicate it was offensive. 

Outside of disrupting incidents, raising awareness and educating on microaggressions can go a long way in making them preemptively visible. Some people will even realize they have unconsciously committed them in the past and may be more actively self-aware in their words and behavior. If they personally err, they will be more equipped to “own” their mistake from a growth mindset.

Additionally, awareness and education helps to empower your team members to be active bystanders and allies who can speak up when they witness microaggressions and it also builds strength in “microresistance” within your culture, encouraging everyone to proactively create a more inclusive environment. 

Microaggressions chip away at individuals, cultures and business performance, but the more we shine the light of awareness into these dark spaces, with the willingness to engage as learners, the more we create organizations that embody, not only espouse, inclusion.

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