3 Steps to Battle Microaggressions and Improve Workplace Inclusivity

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The research is clear: Diverse companies are likely to outperform less diverse peers on profitability. Yet progress is slow, and gaps are widening between companies that embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and those that haven’t, McKinsey’s latest research shows.

The bottom line is that becoming a truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization is hard work that requires constant education and intention. Part of that work is recognizing the myriad ways that exclusion occurs.

Microaggressions, the subtle behaviors that lead someone to feel devalued, are so common that we often don’t recognize them or their impact — unlike more overt racist, sexist, or homophobic acts. Left unaddressed, microaggressions not only undermine people in the workplace but also affect a company’s well-meaning intentions to create diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces. Imagine for a moment you’re in midsentence, expressing a viewpoint to colleagues, when out of nowhere you are interrupted with a “yes, but” comment. Instantly your creditability is minimized, and those two words (yes, but) have invalidated your point.

If this has happened to you, then you may have experienced a workplace microaggression, of which there are three types:

Microassaults: These are overt actions intentionally meant to cause psychological or other harm. For example, someone displays a racist cartoon or sexist poster in the workplace.

Microinsults: These are not typically meant to cause harm and are often driven by unconscious bias or cultural ignorance. This can make them harder to recognize and, sometimes, to correct. For instance, if a person is told that they are very articulate, they may interpret an underlying message that they were expected not to be. Or, if a White gay woman tells a Black man, “I know exactly how you feel,” the man’s experience is not validated because, while both may face discrimination, their situations differ.

Microinvalidations: These are most common in the workplace. Talking over someone or blatant interrupting invalidates the other person. Not speaking to some people in a meeting or listening only to others has the same impact. This happens so often to women that terms such as “manterrupting” and “mansplaining” have become mainstays in our cultural lexicon. For example, while presenting a DEI project to a group of colleagues, a male co-worker got so excited he interrupted me and started re-explaining what I’d said. This invalidated my strength and clarity as a leader.

Today’s remote and hybrid workplace may make it even tougher for all to be seen and heard. Twenty-one percent of women have felt overlooked in a videoconference during the pandemic versus 15 percent of men, a Catalyst study reveals. If cameras are off, one cannot read body language, either. That means it can be even easier to talk over or interrupt someone and for voices to go unheard.

For a company to reduce or eliminate microaggressions, people need to be aware of what they are and feel empowered to point them out. These three steps are key in doing so:

Initiate a conversation

As with many instances of microinvalidation, my colleague didn’t realize what he’d done but, once explained to him, he felt genuine remorse and vowed not to do it again. This is a highly successful outcome. People cannot correct behavior that they don’t know is harmful until they’re made aware. These are things we all do. I’ve interrupted people too. It’s not about blame. It’s about learning from one another and giving people the opportunity and grace to change behaviors.

Empower and request others to use their voice

In a psychologically safe culture, people will feel empowered to point out microaggressions and learn how to avoid them. The right attitude is that we’re here to learn from one another. We’re going to respect feedback and everybody is on board–top-down, bottom-up, and across the organization.

In a safe culture, someone being offended will not immediately assume negative intent and everyone will be empowered to speak up against microaggressions. If I see something happening and don’t say anything, I share the responsibility for the outcome with the person who committed the offense. This piece of the puzzle really tests whether you have a workplace where people feel free to bring their whole selves.

Invest in education and continued conversation

This is not a one-and-done process. Old habits take time to break. Unconscious bias takes time to become conscious so it can be eradicated. When one does something without intent to harm, it becomes easy to forget or to not recognize that it was inappropriate. People learn over time whether it is safe to speak up and say to someone, “You did it again.”

Leaders need training too. They must model the desired behavior on both sides of the equation. Ceridian’s 2022 Pulse of Talent research finds that only 49 percent of companies have DEI strategies that include employee training to create inclusive cultures and avoid microaggressions, and only 35 percent have DEI plans that include training hiring managers to identify unconscious bias.

As McKinsey’s research shows, diversity, equity, and inclusion are good for business. However, this cannot be the main catalyst to act on improving a company’s DEI policies. Microaggressions erode workers’ confidence and engagement, which can hurt mental wellness, productivity, and innovation. In recent years, we’ve become more aware of systemic behaviors and norms that are exclusive and harmful. A steadfast commitment to change and improve–and tactics to put that commitment into action–is foundational for success.