It's the little things that pile up–Microaggressions in the workplace

November 9, 2022

It's the little things that pile up–Microaggressions in the workplace

“Microaggressions cut deep at the emotional level of how we think about ourselves.”—Mo Abdullah

“You’re a little young to lead this project.”

“Aren’t you too old to be trying that now?”

“You are so handsome. Too bad you’re gay.”

“You look really pretty for a trans girl.”

“For a Black woman, you are pretty.”

“You are a white man. You probably never had to worry about fitting in.”

“You don’t seem that depressed. It’s okay, I get sad sometimes too.”

“Don’t be too sensitive.”

“You don’t have kids waiting at home, so you’re free to work longer, right?”

If any of these statements above rub you the wrong way, I understand. These statements are examples of microaggressions—seemingly “small” everyday comments, questions, assumptions, or behaviors that can come off as insensitive to other people. People who make microaggressions may or may not be aware that they are hurting other people, which means that they are based on our unconscious biases.

The thing about microaggressions is that, at their core, they send messages of disrespect, inequality, and exclusion of a stereotype.

It is often aimed at traditionally marginalized identity groups but isn’t limited to them. It is a result of generalizing and categorizing people into stereotypes and making assumptions from that oversimplification. Sometimes it is done intentionally. A lot of times, though, a person might be unaware of its negative impact on another person, even if they said something with good intentions.

Microaggressions can happen to anyone, of any background, at any professional level. They may seem innocuous at first glance, but it is the little things that pile up over time. It is often silent, which makes it scarier—because then, you only catch it when it is too late.

Studies have shown it has tremendous negative effects on people’s mental and physical health over time. It contributes to depression, prolonged stress, anxiety, and trauma. It can even show up in your body, like with frequent headaches, high blood pressure, trouble sleeping, gastritis, and other stomach problems that are caused or made worse by stress.

It takes a lot of time and resources to recover from the effects of microaggression.

Microaggressions in the workplace

In the workplace, it can be damaging to people’s careers and potential, as it causes higher burnout rates, lower job satisfaction, and disengagement from the organization. It also negatively impacts company morale, productivity, effectiveness in collaborations, and loyalty.

“... microaggressions are not so micro in terms of impact,” says Ella F. Washington, a psychologist and contributor to Harvard Business Review. A study showed that 7 out of 10 workers say they are negatively affected by microaggressions in the workplace, and 50% agree that such actions can make them consider quitting the job.

That is why, as leaders, it is important for us to be aware of microaggressions in our organizations and to deal with them effectively.

How can we deal with microaggression?

Building a psychologically safe culture is a great thing. Inclusive workspaces have a positive effect on our employees’ overall well-being. But even on teams where everyone gets along, unconscious bias can creep in and show up in everyday conversations.

The first step to combating microaggression is awareness. It involves candid and authentic conversations on tough subjects (sexism, racism, homophobia, etc.). The more aware we are, the more sensitive we become to catching ourselves (and others) when we commit microaggressions. And the more we are open to talking about it, with the intent of making it right, the easier we can break these unconscious biases that have become a habit.

Whether you are on the receiving or giving side of a microaggression, once you catch it, pause. Reflect on what was said. If you are on the receiving side of the comment or behavior, ask them to clarify what they mean. If you are the person who committed the microaggression, acknowledge the mistake and the bias you were or were not aware you had, and apologize. To understand, ask questions, listen, and leave some space for follow-up.

Depending on the relationship between the “micro-aggressor” and “victim” these conversations can play out differently. But starting these discourses is crucial in spreading awareness and creating new norms around behaviors that are not beneficial to anyone.

As leaders, we set the tone. A lot of companies do mandatory workshops for DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) thinking that’s it. One and done. But that alone isn’t enough. It doesn’t often translate into everyday practices in the workplace.

Proper training and policies are important, but it doesn’t stop there. Set the example, and provide space for productive-conflict resolutions where important discussions can happen. Check in regularly with your teams and team leaders. Invest in educating everyone on how they can be more inclusive in their language and behavior in the office.

Microaggressions are real and have huge impacts on everyone. Let’s put more energy into making sure our people are safe physically and mentally. 

Thanks for reading A Brilliant Tribe.