High-performing teams are a critical antidote to the “Great Resignation,” and toxic cultures. You can start developing high-performing teams by leveraging diversity within your teams and providing psychological safety for members of the team. One simple tool to accomplish these objectives is understanding and preventing microaggressions. Not only is prevention important but openness and clear conversations around microaggressions will bond teammates and create deeper collaboration among members.
What are Microaggressions?
Microaggressions are indirect, subtle, and possibly unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group. Usually, these take the form of statements, actions, incidents, or exclusions. Rarely are these actions intentional but they still create great harm and erect barriers between employees. At the root of microaggressions is our unconscious bias or misunderstanding of groups of people who are different from us.
Let’s look at the various categories and examples of microaggressions. Seeing examples will help you understand when you have committed or been victimized by them.
Examples of Microaggressions
1. Verbal Microaggressions
When thinking of microaggressions, most of us will think of verbal aggressions such as offensive statements against various groups. While many of these are obvious, some can be subtle such as statements like “Do you even know what Snapchat is” if you’re talking to a co-worker that isn’t in their 20’s or 30’s, or “the way you have overcome your disability is so inspiring.”
One common verbal example is continually mispronouncing another person’s name or making the statement, “Your name is really hard to pronounce.” It expresses that you don’t value the person enough to learn the correct pronunciation of their name.
2. Behavioral Microaggressions
Behavioral microaggressions take the form of actions on your part based on assumptions about someone’s culture or abilities. This can also take the form of stereotyping a person only for certain appropriate roles in the company.
3. Environmental Microaggressions
This type assumes environmental preferences or habits based on culture. For example, assuming all Asians are good at math and must be placed in analytical tasks. Another example is making people feel they are a foreigner in their own country because they don’t look like what you might consider a traditional citizen.
I saw this first hand in a previous workplace. A friend who was Native American constantly got questions about his accent and where he was from. I even overheard one employee tell him to go back to his country when they disagreed about an issue.
Because the United States, is a melting pot of various cultures, this not only happens with racial and ethnic groups but even when people are transplanted from different regions of the country. Assumptions about intelligence or preferences based on accent occur often and create barriers in the workplace.
4. Racial Microaggressions
Racial microaggressions occur when stereotypes lead to verbal or behavioral actions. Asking someone where they are from and challenging them because you assume they are from another country. Proclaiming someone as “articulate” or “well-spoken” could be dipping into assumptions that their race is not usually intelligent and this person is exceptional.
5. Gender Microaggressions
The most common gender microaggressions are assuming people are fit for only certain tasks because of their gender. Only women can organize social events. Men can only do physical tasks. Women do only clerical work and can’t perform leadership tasks.
6. Age Microaggressions
We often don’t think of age microaggressions, but they can be just as damaging. It’s common to assume older co-workers are technologically challenged and don’t adapt well. You may have even heard someone comment, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Again we erect boxes around people’s abilities when we make assumptions.
7. Disability Microaggressions
Thankfully, strides have been made within many organizations that provide disability access to employment. Even within companies that provide excellent accessibility for disabled workers, micro-aggression often persists. We often assume they can’t handle basic tasks and they are treated as if they are intellectually inferior. Sometimes, they can be excluded from events because we assume they will not participate.
Dealing with Microaggressions
Now that you have a better feel for how microaggressions are committed in the workplace, how do you deal with them? Whether you have experienced them or perpetrated them, there are simple steps you can take to minimize them.
- Speak Up. Courage is needed to tell a manager or another peer that something they have said or behaviors they have repeated are offensive or hurtful. Unless you speak, behaviors will not stop. You have to assume the best in others and realize that the behavior may be unconscious. Until you make them aware nothing will change.
- Don’t be defensive. If a co-worker approaches you to discuss offensive behavior or language, your initial reaction will be defensiveness. None of us like to think of ourselves as intolerant or hurtful or racist. Pause for a moment before reacting and prepare yourself to listen.
- Listen & Understand. Give space for the person to speak without interruptions about their concern. Make sure they have had time to fully express their opinions before speaking. Before responding, make sure you understand their point of view. Ask questions and restate their opinion to make sure you understand.
- Affirm the person. Thank them for bringing the issue to light and affirm them for the courageous act. It takes a strong person to take a step that feels confrontational.
- Take responsibility. Once you understand the infraction, take responsibility for the action and apologize. Verbally express steps you can take and create an open dialogue so they can help you understand them and their perspective in future interactions.
- Seek awareness. As an employee interacting with a wide range of diverse people and cultures, continue to educate yourself on others’ backgrounds and the unconscious biases related to various groups in your organization. Like any skill set, this takes work and time.
It’s important to remember that we’ve all committed microaggressions at some point in our life. Don’t beat yourself up. For many of us, living and working in diverse environments is a new skill set. In the past, only diplomats interacting with other cultures developed such skills. Now we live and work in a world where we must understand the differences of all our team members, and develop new skills.
Also, don’t keep the fear of committing microaggressions from being open to those who are different from you. The benefit of learning the skills of collaboration between those who are different from ourselves will create an environment of creativity, meaningfulness, and productivity.