Have you ever witnessed or been the recipient of a microaggression? If you are unsure, the answer is probably yes. These small acts concealed by their habitual nature are dangerous for our culture and especially for our workplaces.
Microaggressions are the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental dignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group (Younger 109).
I pulled this definition from my book, The Art of Caring Leadership, but it originates from Chester M. Pierce, MD, a Harvard psychiatrist in the 1970s. Microaggressions are based on assumptions that historically biased stereotypes have ingrained into our culture. They are extremely hurtful, whether by word or action, to the person from the marginalized group.
Instead of spreading the message of inclusivity and belonging, microaggressions are like glaring flash signals that indicate there is space between two people (or groups). This space can be culturally, socioeconomically, racially, educationally; the list goes on.
In a survey conducted by Gallup on microaggressions in 2020, 32% of Black adults responded that “people acted as if they were better than [them]” very often. Some examples of microaggressions:
- A non-Black person asking to touch a Black person’s hair.
- Someone volunteering an Asian colleague to bring fried rice to a company picnic.
- When a Black person is articulate, a White person says, “Oh my gosh, you articulate so well!”
- telling a thin person that they should eat more food
- using outdated and offensive terminology, such as, “That’s so gay”
Some of these examples are from my book, others I found here. Actions such as these demonstrate presumptions about people from minority groups. For workplaces to function efficiently and while being inclusive and belonging, there can be no space for microaggressions. What does this mean for our workplaces comprised of people who are unaware of the harm they might be inflicting?
First of all, how many believe that ignorance means innocence? That’s an idea I am familiar with because of my faith. It holds some truth—you are not culpable for your mistake if you didn’t know it was wrong. However, ignorance does not preclude your personal improvement. Just because you are unaware of the harm you may have caused, it does not negate the wrongness of the action itself. You can only claim ignorance for a slip-up once; then, you should know better and must learn from it.
Secondly, it does not fall upon the shoulders of the person or group of people you are offending to educate you. I would advise you not to seek out lessons on microaggressions from your peers who identify as a minority in some way. If they freely offer information on this topic, by all means, listen to their experiences. It is a great way to learn, but do not put the responsibility of resolving this issue on their shoulders.
Lastly, we must transform our workplaces into Psychologically Safe Spaces where microaggressions desist as people learn to avoid discriminatory behaviors. Simultaneously, we must create a comfortable and safe way for employees to report bad behavior.
A Psychologically Safe Space
You can learn more about this in Chapter 7 of my book, which I mentioned above. I will provide you with a summary of steps to take to achieve this.
- Earn their trust: seek to get to know your people on a deeper emotional level. Always be honest and transparent. Let them know they can rely on your word.
- Encourage speaking the truth: invite people to share their experiences and feelings. Provide focus groups, Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), and forums. Also, go a level deeper and create a seamless, safe, and anonymous system for reporting incidents.
- Show openness to hearing the hard things: This step goes hand in hand with accountability. If the organization is going to make mistakes (disclaimer-it will) then they must own up to those mistakes. Instill accountability at every level of the organization. The highest leadership tiers especially must be held accountable, so the rest of the organization sees what kinds of behaviors will and will not be tolerated hands down, no grey areas here.
- Acknowledge when people speak up: This step is crucial. If you encourage people to share, you must recognize their willingness and helpfulness to come forward. Always connect the dots and communicate back to the person what actions the organization is taking in response.
- Provide educational resources: Encourage your whole organization to educate themselves on these issues. Make it mandatory. Once the proper behavior has been learned, and resources to learn are available, I encourage you to no longer tolerate any microaggressions in your workplace. You will have a system to report them and a system to hold people accountable; use these to eradicate microaggressions.
While my book details many more steps to aid you in fostering a psychologically safe space, I will not get into each one here. I encourage my readers to go forward seeking to lead with your hearts and engaging in inclusive, compassionate, caring, and empathetic behaviors. I look forward to creating more caring workplaces worldwide with your help! Join our Community of Caring Leaders here.