Addressing Microaggressions in the Workplace

June 28, 2022 Diana Johnson Urbina

During my time at Microsoft, I was responsible for culture transformation strategies at Xbox. We had a brand initiative for Xbox to be known as “A place where everyone has fun.” Yet, Xbox had a predominantly white, male client base and was a predominately white, male organization. The brand had to become more family friendly.

To accomplish that, we needed to hire more diverse candidates to enable more creativity and awareness - - essentially to achieve all the benefits of having a more diverse workforce. In addition to this being extremely effective for business results, it would provide a much-needed perspective for helping us reach a more diverse audience—a key part of the rebranding effort.

As is often the case, the challenge was more than simply hiring diverse candidates. We needed to retain them by successfully engaging them in an environment where they could do their best work. Because they were coming into an environment where they would be in the minority, we had to ensure that people in the majority were aware of how some of their behaviors might alienate those outside of their majority circle.

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Description automatically generatedIt was in leading this effort that I learned about microaggressions and my understanding evolved. I needed to teach people the elements necessary for creating a truly inclusive environment— and this was a critical one.

My goal was to make sure everyone understood the concept and awareness of microaggressions and the damage caused by them. I also wanted to teach how to be more sensitive to the feelings of others. Success depended on getting people to lean in, be curious, listen to other people’s perspectives, and not get defensive. This was a tall order!

When it comes to microaggressions, no one is innocent. We all have unknowingly acted on them or ignored them around us. However, asking someone to acknowledge that they might have hurt others in the past can cause them to go through a process of surprise, sometimes defensiveness, denial, anger, and grief. It can be a hard journey, but the destination is greater self-awareness.

A closer look at microaggressions

Microaggressions are not always intentional or explicit. The disparaging nature of microaggressions is subtly hidden within everyday practices, cultural slang, and conversation.

On some occasions, microaggressions can be our unconscious bias in action. Many individuals are unaware that a simple compliment or question could be taken as one.

Here are some examples of microaggressions:

  • “Let me show you how that works, Grandpa.” A younger employee says this to an older one, who they assume struggles with technology.
  • “If you want to be taken more professionally, you should dress the part.” A manager to a young woman.
  • “She’s a piece of work.” A man describing an outspoken female, when he might describe a male colleague as a go-getter or competent.

The cost of microaggressions

Microaggressions often seem harmless to the person delivering them. But over time and with regularity, they can produce mental health issues such as feelings of low self-esteem, humiliation, and dehumanization.

Microaggressions can also create a hostile work environment. This leads to lower productivity and learning, which ultimately leads to lower retention. People want to work in an environment where they feel comfortable. If your work environment doesn’t feel friendly and managers or team members seem unaware of what microaggressions are or what they feel like, the targeted person will leave.

I like to think of it this way. One microaggression is like a mosquito bite—irritating and annoying. But hundreds of micro aggressions, like hundreds of mosquito bites, are intolerant and damaging.

Three tactics for stopping microaggressions

As a leader, one of your responsibilities is to create a safe environment where people can thrive. That includes addressing microaggressions, regardless of how harmless they may seem.

Consider these three approaches for addressing microaggressions: Inquiry, Calling Out, and Redirecting. Below are examples of each.

  • Inquiry: Gain additional information about a speaker’s intentions and help them become aware of the possible impact of their actions.

For example, if you hear someone say to an Asian person, “You’re all good in math. Can you help me with this problem?”

You can step in and say: “I’m not sure where you got that idea. Can you explain your thinking?”

  • Calling Out: Your goal is to call out inappropriate behavior in a way that respects everyone.

For example, one of your female colleagues is frequently interrupted during a meeting.

You can say: “Emily brought up a good point. I didn’t get to hear it all. Emily, can you please repeat it?”

  • Redirecting: When you redirect, you shift focus to a group of diverse perspectives.     

For example, someone makes a racist joke.

You can say: “That’s not funny to me. It makes me uncomfortable.”

What if you are called out for a microaggression?

Microaggressions are a relatively new area of research. As you learn, you may discover that you have committed microaggressions. I know over time I’ve become aware of several that I unknowingly committed and it caused me to be very disappointed in myself.

Don't be too hard on yourself. It's okay to make mistakes. They are bound to happen. Becoming aware of microaggressions is not about perfection—it’s about awareness, growth, and a desire to connect with people you may have offended. It’s about connection.

Here’s a recommended approach if you discover that you have committed a microaggression:

  • Apologize to the receiver and see your mistake as a learning opportunity to become more aware of others’ experiences.
  • Try not to get defensive or withdraw. Lean in instead.
  • Ask with curiosity to learn what the impact was on the receiver and how your actions affected them.
  • Check out resources. Talk to others with more experience than you. Practice a growth mindset.

The most important thing is to stay engaged, learn from the experience, and expand your understanding of others.

Microaggressions are common. By becoming aware of them and considering ways to change your behavior, you can make your corner of the world a bit kinder and help others feel more of a sense of safety and belonging. And that's the hallmark of a real leader.

About the Author

Diana Johnson Urbina

Diana Johnson Urbina is Head of Coaching Services at The Ken Blanchard Companies®. She has more than 22 years of experience executing strategic and tactical plans in organizational development and capability improvements. She specializes in coaching executives through change, with a focus on team dynamics and business performance.

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