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The hidden threat to belonging? Don't let microaggressions tank your team

January 21, 2022 - 18 min read

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What are microaggressions?

How do microaggressions affect people?

How to avoid and address microaggressions

What you say and what you do matters

Ever had the feeling that you weren’t welcome somewhere, but you couldn’t quite figure out why? Or felt that somehow, you were the butt of an unspoken joke? A casual comment that stung in a way that made you feel small, invisible — or too visible?

That palpable sense of discomfort is just the tip of how microaggressions in everyday life affect people. Despite the “sticks and stones” refrain from childhood, words do hurt — and so do other, unconscious slights that erode a person’s sense of belonging.

Microaggressions aren’t just a workplace phenomenon, but they can be especially painful in the workplace. After all, the stakes at work are high. Microaggressions are detrimental to individual and team performance. They can damage the long-term success and trajectory of the people who experience them— how our colleagues see us impacts our daily experiences, our job performance, and our careers. 

Leaders cannot afford to ignore the issue or comfort themselves as being open-minded. Good intentions won’t prevent microaggressions from becoming a problem for the organization. Learn how to spot microaggressions and what to do about them in this article.

What are microaggressions?

Based on the statistics, most people from underrepresented groups have experienced microaggression. If they are in a corporate setting, they have likely experienced microaggression at work.

The term was first used by Chester Pierce, an African American Harvard-trained psychiatrist, in the 1960s. His original research defined microaggressions in interactions between Black people and white people. The term now describes a range of subtly demeaning interactions — experienced by any underrepresented group.

Although microaggressions are common, they’re not usually intentional. This type of interaction is distinct from overt racism. But in fact, this might make it more insidious. There is nothing obvious to point to, no obviously hateful bad guy. Many people who commit microaggressions are unaware that they’ve said or done anything offensive. The people experiencing it aren’t sure if they’ll make things worse by speaking up.

There are several reasons why the subtlety of microaggressions makes them more damaging:

1. They are inherently invalidating

Derald Wing Sue, PhD, author of two books on microaggressions and professor of psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University, identified certain characteristics that most microaggressions have in common. They are indirect, unintentional, and go with prejudicial behavior that is rationalized or explained away.

This type of social gaslighting is difficult to call out because it’s difficult for the target to confirm that it actually happened.

2. They are often unexpected

Rudeness and prejudice are often easier to deal with than the subtle indignities of microaggression. When it’s clear that someone doesn’t like you or is disrespectful to you, you “know where you stand,” so to speak. Microaggressions can come from people you engage with in an otherwise friendly or cordial way. 

3. They are pervasive

Thankfully, we live at a time in history when instances of overt racism and prejudice are less socially acceptable and rare. That’s not true of microaggressions.A person can experience dozens of small, casually uneasy moments in a day (here, the #MeToo movement, sexism, and daily harassment come to mind).

In his original research over 30 years ago, Pierce wrote

In fact, the major vehicle for racism in this country is offenses done to blacks by whites in this sort of gratuitous neverending way…These mini disasters accumulate. It is the sum total of multiple microaggressions by whites to Blacks that has pervasive effect to the stability and peace of this world.

Part of the reason the term has seen a resurgence is that it calls out an experience that is, by nature, difficult to pinpoint. As it has gained popularity in social media, more people from marginalized groups, and their allies, are calling them out. That means every leader and every organization needs to be more informed and vigilant. 

Understanding microaggressions and how they impact people — in and out of work — is critical. Leaders need to understand in order to create workplaces that promote belonging and inclusion.

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Types of microaggressions

Dr. Sue, who has led the work to explore how the concept applies outside of the Black community, describes three forms of microaggressions. Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation describes them and offers examples in everyday life. These include microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations

Microassaults

The most overt, microassaults are conscious discriminatory actions. Using derogatory language or encouraging family members to “associate with their own kind” is often cast as joking. Microassaults also include making offensive comments and jokes.

Microinsults

A microinsult disparages a person's heritage or identity, whether verbally, nonverbally, or systemically. For example, asking someone if they have an “easier” name you can use implies that their name is too difficult to bother with. As my mom used to say, “If they can learn to pronounce ‘Tchaikovsky,’ they can learn to say your name.”

Microinvalidations

Microinvalidations exclude, dismiss, or negate the feelings or experiences of a person. In the most meta sense, denying the reality of microaggressions and systemic racism is a microinvalidation.

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How do microaggressions affect people?

Many people don’t acknowledge the existence of microaggressions. They might question whether they really are detrimental at a level that warrants concern The term itself can be problematic in part because the definition includes “often unintentional.” It is hard to see something as both unintentional and aggressive. However, debating the word and definition detracts from the seriousness of the problem.

These slights, insults, and expressed biases are real. They have a real impact on the people who experience them. 

In imperial China, the worst criminals would be sentenced to “death by a thousand cuts.” No single injury was fatal, but the combination of them resulted in an agonizing, horrific death. It’s an apt metaphor for microaggressions in daily life. Any one of them can be dismissed as “no big deal.” But over time, these “mini-disasters” accumulate. They destroy your confidence, your enthusiasm, and your sense of safety.

Dr. Sue describes the insidious nature of microaggressions in his article for Psychology Today:

Our research suggests that microinsults and microinvalidations are potentially more harmful because of their invisibility, which puts people of color in a psychological bind: While people of color may feel insulted, they are often uncertain why, and perpetrators are unaware that anything has happened and are not aware they have been offensive.

Sue notes that the research on microaggressions is clear that they cause “powerful detrimental consequences to people of color” — and, one can imagine, toward anyone who experiences them. 

The following are some of the ways that microaggressions can be affecting people in your organization: 

Loss of belonging

When people experience microaggressions at work, they feel less welcome — even if they can’t explain why. They begin to question whether they’re wanted or even safe in their workplace. This impacts employees' ability to collaborate with others, ask for and receive feedback, and makes them far more likely to seek friendlier waters elsewhere.

Reduced productivity

How good are you at solving problems when you’re looking over your shoulder? Imagine your work environment feels like that on a daily basis. People who feel “tokenized” at work often don’t feel safe taking risks. They worry that they have to represent their entire community, and that any failure might confirm negative stereotypes. There’s a large body of evidence that stereotype threat reduces performance and negatively affects mental health.

Limited professional development

When you don't belong, your position feels precarious. You don't speak up. You don't participate fully. You don't take risks that can lead to visibility, recognition, and professional achievement. It’s no wonder, then, that women, people of color, people with disabilities, and the LGBTQ+ community are underrepresented in positions of leadership. When you feel a bit too visible at work, keeping your head down feels safer than even positive recognition.

Microaggressions damage the psychological safety and camaraderie of your workplace, even for those not directly experiencing them. Few people will feel comfortable when their colleagues are ill at ease. 

For example, if a person at work is visibly annoyed by having to accommodate a colleague that uses a wheelchair, they will likely (and understandably) upset the target of their annoyance. But they may also offend other coworkers with invisible disabilities or who may be caring for family members. They also risk triggering emotional reactions from other people, who may not be in the “target” category but might feel singled out for other reasons.

If someone is being targeted for an aspect of their identity, others who share that identity may begin to feel triggered, on edge, or in fear of being found out. This is especially true with hidden characteristics that may not be common knowledge or readily apparent to coworkers — such as sexual orientation, gender, religion, legal status, or upbringing. 

For example, teams sometimes develop customer segments and personas using loose labels and broad generalizations. Imagine the hit to belonging employees from lower socio-economic backgrounds might feel if teammates throw around labels like the “projects,” the “wrong side of town,” “trailer trash,” or “hillbillies.” 

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How to avoid and address microaggressions

So how do you identify microaggressions? Should you say anything at all? Are people just being too politically correct? And how do you deal with it at work when you may not even know what’s happening?

Some critics of Sue’s work (both within and without academic circles” say that people are just “being too sensitive,” manufacturing offense where it doesn’t exist. Kenneth R. Thomas, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison dismisses Sue’s research altogether, asserting that "Implementing his theory would restrict rather than promote candid interaction between members of different racial groups."

Experientially and statistically, that doesn’t seem to be true. Rather than restricting communication, the problem with microaggressions is that one group feels entitled to comment without restriction on what they perceive to be true about another group. Their communication isn’t limited — but because it’s disguised as “innocent,” the choices the target has to respond are limited. 

If you’re committed to belonging, inclusion, and psychological safety in your community, then the answer is simply to try. There isn’t really a right way to begin to understand implicit bias. It’s a journey that requires constant awareness and authentic communication.

Here are 7 ways to identify and address microaggressions within your organization to build a healthier, more inclusive and vital work environment:

1. Validate, validate, validate

Remember that the tendency to dismiss another person’s lived experience is a microinvalidation, and it may be rooted in unconscious bias. A good ground rule is to validate the experiences of others, no matter whether or not you think it’s plausible. This is particularly true when you’re a person who has responsibility for others, like a manager or human resources professional.

2. Stop saying you “don’t see color”

Most people who insist that they don’t see race are well-intentioned but ill-informed. They don’t realize that describing themselves as colorblind is problematic on multiple levels — not the least of which is invalidating the experience of their colleagues. There are some excellent resources that explain why this statement does more harm than good, and ways that you can be a better ally.

3. Educate yourself and your organization

Most companies offer sensitivity training, but it’s often more helpful and rewarding to open up a dialogue (otherwise, you run the risk of everyone just tuning out). Teach your team what the different kinds of microaggressions are, and work with them to understand why well-meaning comments can hurt.

4. Take the IAT

Although we don’t like to acknowledge it, everyone has implicit bias. By definition, that means we’re unaware of the attitudes we might have about people of different backgrounds (or even our own community). Taking the Implicit Association Test (IAT) can help you become aware of underlying biases and how they may impact your interactions with others.

5. Offer inclusion training to leaders

While everyone can benefit from diversity and inclusion education, it’s of special importance for the leaders in your organization. Managers and human resources are most likely to receive complaints from their teams, and should be equipped to handle them well. 

One helpful way they can respond is not to ask for “evidence” when fielding concerns about microaggressions. Instead of proof, look for patterns. You may not be able to pinpoint the problematic behavior, but if people often report feeling uncomfortable it’s worth further inquiry.

6. Get to know people as people

Microaggressions often stem from a lack of experience with people from other cultures and communities. Get to know people for who they are, not what you think you know about them. Seeing people for their individual qualities has a way of breaking down our assumptions about where they come from or how they live.

7. Ask for your team’s input

It’s impossible for one person to know everything about diversity and inclusion. When putting together projects, interviewing candidates for a new role, or even planning an end-of-year party, don’t wait till after the fact to worry if people feel included or represented. Involving many voices early in the process means you’re less likely to overlook something important that a different perspective could have caught quickly.

What you say and what you do matters

When your employees experience microaggressions in their daily life, they can be left feeling like perpetual foreigners in their own land. Unfortunately, because these interactions are so subtle, your team may not even be aware of what's happening. The impact, though, is usually evident in your team culture (and in your attrition).

Having conversations about implicit bias is an important step to make your workplace safer and more inclusive. When people feel supported, welcomed, and valued, everyone in your organization will be able to thrive.

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Published January 21, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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