Small Acts, Big Impact: Using Microaffirmations to Combat Microaggressions in the Workplace
In recent years, companies have placed significant emphasis on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, recognizing the importance of creating diverse and welcoming work environments.
However, some organizations are now cutting back on these efforts, viewing them as unnecessary or ineffective. This is a mistake. DE&I programs are essential, and their impact should not be underestimated; it’s vital you as an HR professional or business leader communicate this message with your team.
In this blog, we’ll break down different types of microaggressions and focus on one powerful tool in the fight against workplace discrimination—microaffirmations. These small acts can have a significant impact on combating microaggressions and fostering an inclusive workplace culture.
What Are Microaggressions?
Throughout your work experiences, you may have encountered situations where someone unintentionally says or does something that feels hostile or offensive, targeting a part of your identity. These subtle actions, or microaggressions, take the form of insensitive statements, questions, or assumptions.
They can touch on various aspects of who you are, such as your race, gender, sexuality, parental status, socioeconomic background, mental health, or any other facet of your identity. These microaggressions might seem small, but their impact on a person’s well-being and sense of belonging can be significant.
Though typically aimed at traditionally marginalized identity groups, these comments can affect anyone of any background at any professional level. Microaggressions stem from a harmful and simplistic notion: “Because you belong to group X, you must be or like/dislike Y.” Here are a few common examples.
- “I didn’t realize you were [X]—you don’t look [X],” signaling that a person of a certain heritage or background has a stereotypical look.
- “Your English is so good!” indicating someone with a non-English accent couldn’t possibly be capable of speaking the language well.
- “But where are you reallyfrom?” implying someone isn’t truly from the place they currently reside in.
- “You don’t seem like you grew up poor,” suggesting someone from a particular socioeconomic background should look or act a certain way.
- Mental health
- “You don’t seem depressed. Sometimes I get sad too,” minimizing the experiences of people with mental illness.
- “Don’t be so sensitive,” signaling someone, often a woman, is being “too emotional” in a situation where a man would be more objective.
- “Do you have a wife/husband?” assuming everyone has an opposite-sex partner.
- Parental status
- “You don’t have kids to pick up, so you can work later, right?” signaling someone without children doesn’t have a life outside of work.
These assumptions, though seemingly innocent, can have profound negative effects on individuals, perpetuating stereotypes and undermining inclusivity in the workplace.
Types and Forms of Microaggressions
Microaggressions can manifest either intentionally or unintentionally. Regardless of intent, these actions are often rooted in implicit biases, or attitudes and beliefs existing beyond our conscious awareness.
Such biases stem from assumptions and stereotypes related to ethnicity, age, gender, or race, which might have been influenced by our upbringing, family, or exposure to media. Here are a few common ways microaggressions manifest in the workplace and beyond.
Microassaults are deliberate and purposeful slights or insults intended to harm the targeted individual. They may include name-calling and other discriminatory actions. Intentional microassaults could involve using abusive language, clutching belongings when certain people are nearby (and making sure the other person sees you doing it), or posting offensive content online.
For example, jokes that mock racial and ethnic groups, people with disabilities, or specific gender identities are forms of microassaults. Even if the person making the joke claims they were only joking, their biases still perpetuate harmful stereotypes.
Microinvalidation occurs when someone undermines or belittles the experiences of a person from an underrepresented group.
For instance, imagine your Asian American coworker is sharing a story of a time they felt disrespected. If you interrupt to claim they actually weren’t discriminated against in that instance or divert the conversation to talk about your personal experiences in order to contradict their perspective, that’s microinvalidation.
Microinsults are subtle, rude comments that disrespect a person’s racial heritage or identity. This may involve assuming someone is unintelligent based on their appearance, implying certain groups lack morals, or suggesting someone doesn’t belong in a certain environment.
For example, assuming someone won’t comprehend a new work process because English isn’t their first language or implying they couldn’t possibly belong to a marginalized group because they don’t fit a stereotype are microinsults.
Microaggressions can extend beyond words and be conveyed through nonverbal actions and body language as well. Here are a few examples:
- Following someone around a store, assuming they might steal something.
- Rolling one’s eyes when someone expresses feeling invalidated.
- Avoiding or turning away from someone altogether.
- Purposefully scheduling meetings or events that clash with religious observances or obligations.
- Ordering food for events without considering dietary restrictions.
- Limiting high-visibility projects to certain individuals, even if those ignored are qualified to assist.
Recognizing and addressing both verbal and nonverbal microaggressions are essential steps toward building a truly inclusive and supportive work culture.
How to Address Microaggressions at Work
To combat microaggressions, it’s essential we first raise awareness and educate ourselves and our colleagues about these negative forms of communication. Recognizing these actions can be unintentional is essential, as it encourages approaching the conversation with empathy and understanding.
If you experience a microaggression or witness one, consider initiating a conversation with the person involved. Assuming positive intent can be helpful, as many individuals might not be aware of the harm they caused. Start the discussion by expressing curiosity about their intentions, rather than accusing them. By doing so, you can foster a constructive dialogue and promote a culture of openness.
Moreover, it’s essential for company leaders to establish clear policies against discrimination and microaggressions. Training programs can help employees recognize and address microaggressions appropriately. Encouraging open communication and providing resources for support will go a long way in creating a workplace where microaggressions are not tolerated.
How Microaffirmations Can Help
Microaffirmations are small, positive actions that recognize and validate individuals from underrepresented groups. These acts may seem insignificant, but their impact is profound. By acknowledging and appreciating the contributions of marginalized individuals, microaffirmations counteract the harmful effects of microaggressions.
In the workplace, microinvalidations are quite common, leaving individuals feeling dismissed or ignored. One effective method to counteract this is by acknowledging and affirming the contributions of those who might be overlooked. By giving credit and recognition to our coworkers or subordinates, we demonstrate we genuinely value their input and perspectives.
For instance, in meetings, you might witness someone make a recommendation that goes unnoticed until someone else repeats the same idea and receives praise. In these situations, microaffirmations can be powerful acts of allyship.
By offering credit to the original contributor, you show appreciation for their input. A simple acknowledgment like, “That’s exactly what I heard (the original contributor) say a few minutes earlier. I appreciate you echoing that statement,” can go a long way in fostering an inclusive and supportive work environment.
Simple acts like actively listening to colleagues, giving credit where it’s due, or supporting diverse employees in their career growth can make a substantial difference. Celebrating diversity and being inclusive in our language and behavior helps build a more supportive and welcoming workplace culture.
Don’t Let DE&I Fall To the Wayside
Creating an inclusive workplace is not achieved solely through grand gestures or one-time initiatives. It’s essential not to fear communication but rather to embrace it intentionally. Company leaders must continue investing in DEI initiatives, recognizing even small acts can lead to a big impact.
By addressing microaggressions head-on and promoting microaffirmations, organizations can create an environment where diversity is celebrated, and everyone’s voice is heard.