We all want to feel safe at work. But many of us end up feeling uncomfortable or hurt because of microaggressions. Intentional or unintentional, these actions can have a significant impact on our engagement and overall well-being. Microaggressions in the workplace can be against you or a fellow team member. But when is it okay to speak up? How can you approach these situations without fear of losing your job?
Unfortunately, they often blindside victims when they least expect it. They usually come in the form of seemingly innocent comments by someone who might be unaware of the impact their words have on a colleague. For example, if a white person says to a Black woman, “You are really pretty!” Then, after getting to know her a bit more, the person says, “Oh my gosh, you are so smart too!” it would suggest that a Black woman cannot be both pretty and intelligent.
Actions, such as a white woman clutching her purse when entering an elevator with a Black man, a white person asking to touch a Black person’s hair, or volunteering an Asian colleague to bring fried rice to a company picnic are all everyday examples of microaggressions in the workplace. However, whether intentional or not, the communication to a person or a group of hostile, derogatory, or negative slights, having to do with race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion, has gone largely unnoticed and unreported.
Thankfully, many are increasingly stepping up to correct the discriminatory behavior. Increasing awareness around the impact of these microaggressions can represent an opportunity to help managers evolve into caring and effective leaders. Here are four steps I recommend when attempting to approach microaggressions in the workplace.
Step One: Create a safe space
Employees impacted by microaggressions don’t always feel safe expressing their true thoughts and experiences. It might make them feel uncomfortable, or fearful of retribution for speaking out. Creating space in which open conversations are encouraged, where employees can feel psychologically safe and protected from microaggressions, should be your starting point.
Empowering your people to express their opinions and concerns without fear of being ridiculed is a critical step in identifying microaggressions. You also need to ensure that anyone who stands up to courageously share something about themself should be recognized and encouraged. Show them you appreciate their viewpoint and uniqueness. Without recognition and acknowledgment, their brave action will be perceived as meaningless.
Step Two: Show openness to hear the hard things
Microaggressions typically come from a place of ignorance. In your newly created safe space, you will need to encourage open and candid conversations in which the aggressor and target can share their version of events. Predetermined scripts for each party can make this process much easier by including carefully worded statements like, “I don’t think you were aware of this, but what you said was offensive to me, and I think you could have phrased it better in this way . . . .”
Having these statements prepared in advance can help each person to communicate using the correct language. This simple tool can help avoid an even worse situation with a new series of slipups or intentional slights. Storytelling can be another powerful way to evoke emotions and enable people to see how hurtful an off-the-cuff comment can be to their colleagues.
The stories shared help educate employees who might be unfamiliar with microaggressions. They also remove the ignorance that microaggressions need to thrive, so you can begin building a culture of empathy in your workplace.
Step Three: Ask the right questions
When building a culture in which people can feel safe admitting they don’t know something, you have to show up as a real person, not someone who’s defensive or trying to show the best side of what’s happening. That doesn’t happen overnight, and it can only happen when there’s consistent practice.
Often people make inaccurate assumptions based upon their past consumption of bad information. Because I assume this, I don’t need to go at it aggressively, but more in a way to try to understand their thinking. I usually begin by asking the person why they said what they said to see the world through their eyes. Then, I will show that I am actively listening to what they say by leaning in, shaking my head, and even repeating what I heard to make sure I understand their thinking.
I then try to meet the person to let them know where I can see their thinking and, if applicable, where I might agree. Finally, I ask permission to share why I think their statement is not entirely accurate. I try to use as much factual and historical language as I can. Sometimes this is easier than at other times, and emotions come out too.
With the air cleared, most people can see how what they said offended (or hurt) their colleague, why it cannot be acceptable, and how I would also defend them if someone were to treat them in the same way. It’s usually at this moment when microaggression turns to enlightenment that transforms acts of prejudice into an opportunity for learning and growth.
Step Four: Keep learning
Whether intentional or not, microaggressions can cause a person or group long-lasting pain. A lack of awareness or understanding often prevents the aggressor from seeing and admitting their mistakes. Tackling the problem is a continuous learning process, as microaggressions will still occur as people continue to learn.
When anyone reports a microaggression, there needs to be a plan in place that documents how to move forward, learn, and improve. The plan should be published on the company’s own intranet and communicated to everyone throughout the organization. Every employee should know how to report a microaggression, and every manager should know how to deal with and resolve the issue.
Resolving conflict should be seen as a learning opportunity to unpack and understand why the situation occurred and what individuals can do to prevent this from happening in
the future. In addition, the process should be seen as an opportunity for the entire organization to learn about and celebrate our differences and unique perspectives, and break down communication barriers.
Feeling psychologically safe to speak and work freely is crucial for every employee’s well-being and job satisfaction. A psychologically safe workplace goes hand in hand with showing concern and kindness for those we lead. People need to feel trusted, supported, and included in order to turn in their best work. The responsibility of fostering that kind of environment invariably falls to the caring leader, and indeed, every employee.
Heather R. Younger is the bestselling author of The Art of Caring Leadership and an international speaker, consultant, adjunct organizational leadership professor, and facilitator who has earned her reputation as “The Employee Whisperer.”