Microaggressions are all those little (and not so little) actions and comments that erode an inclusive and welcoming culture. They are demeaning, hurtful, uncomfortable, and dehumanizing. They are the equivalent of saying: ‘you don’t belong here’, ‘you are not welcome’, ‘I don’t understand or respect you’, ‘you are not my equal’.
Some of these actions and phrases come from malice and intent. They are true acts of aggression and are used as instruments of manipulation to show power, authority, seniority, and position. Of course, they are poor instruments that will inevitably backfire, but that is for a different conversation.
On the other hand, many of these microaggressions are not actually aggressions. They are not malicious or intentional, but rather, they are mistakes that stem from a place of good intention or unawareness, and inexperience.
However, independent of intentional or out of innocent unawareness, an environment ripe with microaggressions will inhibit a culture of inclusivity and belonging. Therefore, they must be stopped.
To stop microaggressions takes a conscious effort of AWARENESS, ACTION, and CONSEQUENCE.
Assuming that many, if not the majority, of microaggressions stem from unawareness and inexperience, the first step (but NOT the only step) to correcting the behavior is AWARENESS. After all, without knowing you’ve done something wrong, how can you be expected to correct it? Even for malicious microaggressions, the more awareness within the culture, the more everyone is enabled to stop others from committing those hateful acts.
After awareness comes ACTION. Never hold an awareness conversation or training without a resulting action. If there are no next steps, no tasks, no things to do, or no changes to make, the training will have no effect. When uncovering or learning about a microaggression, also identify the resulting action – what people should (or shouldn’t do), how they should do it, and what they should do if they observe the behavior in others.
Why is action so important? Without immediate, clear, and continuous application of the lesson learned, the lesson disappears quickly. Consider this; how much geometry do you remember? What about lines of Shakespeare, which chemicals cause an endothermic reaction, what are the state capitals? Or, something easier - can you give five main learnings from any training that you took last year? Can you name the training you took last year? If you haven’t done anything with the knowledge, chances are, the knowledge is gone.
Even with awareness paired with action, to truly change behaviors and the culture of an organization, there must also be CONSEQUENCE. Consequence demonstrates priority, shows the organization is taking the initiative against microaggressions seriously, and compels change. Those who exemplify the actions should be recognized, praised, and rewarded. Those who continuously and knowingly violate or ignore the actions must experience some form of penalty.
What happens without consequence? Consider an action to mitigate microaggressions in meetings: No one is to speak over another, and every member has a turn to speak. Now, consider someone who consistently and knowingly violates that action – talking over others and squeezing out their voices. How will the ones being squeezed out feel if that person never experiences any consequence? What will others in the organization think about that action if there is no consequence to violating it?
AWARENESS * ACTION * CONSEQUENCE in action
Here’s a simple and cost-effective technique to begin the journey to identify and stop microaggressions. Note, if there is no one within the organization trained and experienced with these types of exercises, consider engaging with a facilitator or consultant.
1. Define microaggression: Conduct a short training to explain what a microaggression is and why it’s a problem. Use examples across a range of acts and recipients to add depth of understanding.
Here are a couple of examples:
Example: “Wow, you are so articulate.” Or “Where did you go to school? You sound so well-educated.”
Impact: To say that someone is ‘so articulate’ or ‘well-educated’ implies that based on what the person looks like, they shouldn’t be articulate or educated.
Example: “You are being too emotional. Man-up, you aren’t acting professional.”
Impact: Human emotions are not wrong nor are they unprofessional. To imply someone is too emotional is to deny, devalue, or reject their responses. To imply someone must ‘man-up’ (or similar phrasing) implies that to be a professional is to be masculine and that they are not ‘male enough’ to fit the role which is offensive across all gender-identities.
2. Share experiences: Ask for employees to share their experiences with microaggressions.
Keep both the aggressor(s) and victim(s) anonymous so the organization can learn from the experience without fear of backlash or embarrassment. For those that feel comfortable, they can share their stories without anonymity, but always keep the other parties involved anonymous in public forums.
Keep shifting the focus of the microaggressions across different groups so that no one group feels ‘picked-on’ or isolated as either the aggressor or the recipient/victim.
When sharing real stories, make it clear that the purpose of the exercise is to learn, not blame. The conversations should be open and honest, but also productive, respectful, and empowering. Ask the participants to answer the following:
What was the impact – how did it make them feel or react and why
If appropriate, open the conversation to questions and conversation to further reflect on the learning experience. However, if this is the first time the organization is sharing or if you don’t have an experienced facilitator, consider collecting the stories and responses / questions through a private channel. This way you can avoid any surprises, unproductive arguments and defensive reactions, escalations, or potential liability (such as someone calling out an individual or a hateful or inappropriate language).
3. Turn experience into action: discuss what to do to remove the microaggression
With each experience of microaggressions, turn the conversation to the ‘now what’. What can every individual in the organization do to stop that behavior in themselves and others.
Ideally, this is an open conversation where everyone can participate. An open conversation will breakdown the ‘us vs. them’ of the aggressors and recipients shift toward everyone working together to being part of the solution for driving a more inclusive workplace.
End by selecting actions, defining the next steps, and specifying the consequences.
Select actions that are reasonable with a clear ability for how to do them. For example, a good action could be adopting three habits of an inclusive meeting with the habits defined and displayed in the meeting rooms. A bad action could be an expensive training program with no time or budget allocated for that training.
Define next steps that are tangible and noticeable. For example, a good next step is an anonymous survey three months later to see if meeting inclusion has increased. A bad next step is to ‘check-in’ at some point in the future with no specification of how, when, or with who.
Specify consequences that are tangible and noticeable. For example, a good consequence is to give an award to the person who most exemplifies an inclusive meeting – voted on by peers with examples. A bad consequence is none.
Bringing it all together
Contrary to common belief, microaggressions are not all aggressive or intentional, but they are all detrimental. A truly inclusive culture is a microaggression-free culture.
Addressing and removing microaggressions takes awareness, action, and consequence. Running programs that increase awareness, give employees a path on what to do about the new awareness, and a reason to do it will enable true and inclusive change.