How To Respond To Microaggressions At The Workplace

How To Respond To Microaggressions At The Workplace

"If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all": that's the lesson most of us grew up with. Yet, none of us were taught to think twice before saying something nice. Why should we? We are being "positive", after all, what could go wrong?

Actually, quite a lot can go wrong! Because not all remarks posing as "nice" are actually positive or friendly, not all "jokes" are funny if they come at someone's expense, and not all compliments are ultimately flattering. For example, individuals who consider themselves superior to others tend to give "compliments" that are quite condescending. And, because this process is unconscious, they can't understand why people are reacting with resentment rather than gratitude.

At the workplace, mixed messages of this nature -- known as "microaggressions" -- can translate into conflict that brings down the morale and productivity of the company.

This article talks about what microaggressions are and what makes them harmful -- as well as how to respond to microaggressions strategically rather than reactively.

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What Are Microaggressions?

Microaggressions are verbal, behavioral, or environmental actions (intentional or unconscious) that communicate hostility toward oppressed or targeted groups -- most often having to do with race, gender, and sexual orientation -- as well as around the topics of age, disability, body weight, and religion.

Examples of Microaggressions Posing As Compliments

Most microaggressions subtly_ insult or invalidate_ their target by referencing stereotypes rather than individuals. Classic examples include:

"You are a credit to your race" (implies that others of your race are a disappointment)

"You are not like the other women who know nothing about cars" (tries to make the woman feel "special" at the expense of other women who are expected to be ignorant or incompetent at "masculine" activities). This falls under gender microaggressions.

"Of course, you're good at math, you're Asian" (expects people of the same race to have the same skillset; puts undue pressure on the person to be excellent/talented at specific things based on a cultural generalization)

"You look great for your age" (implies that, at an "advanced" age, one is expected to look bad)

Microaggressions Are Harmful To Both Individuals And Society

As you can see from the above examples, microaggressions are built around lowered expectations toward an entire group of people who have nothing in common but a single common trait like race or gender. Except those who speak in microaggressions typically don't notice the "sabotage" in their messages.

Most Microaggressions Are Rooted In Unconscious Bias

The culprit behind many microaggressions is unconscious bias: the unfair, negative beliefs we internalize from surrounding culture.

For example, when people say: "The way you're dealing with your disability is inspiring", it may feel like a "positive" sentiment because the person saying it is genuinely "inspired". But the question is why? Are they inspired by this individual's personal merit -- or because they have a preconceived notion that people with disabilities are "less than"?

As a society, we have such low expectations of persons with disabilities, that any time they show that they are capable of doing something "normal", we are a little too impressed. The underlying assumption under the above "compliment" is: "people with disabilities are not normal" -- not a very "nice" thing to imply, after all.

In addition to being personally insulting and possibly retraumatizing, popular microaggressions that go unchecked also communicate hostile and discriminatory messages about certain social groups to everyone around -- reinforcing problematic social stereotypes on the unconscious level, example, discriminating Asians because of corona virus. As such, in their subtle ways, microaggressions contribute to the language of discrimination, causing harm on societal level. This is something to take seriously.

Impact of Microaggressions On Mental And Physical Health

Just as backhanded compliments cause shame and embarrassment instead of flattery, microaggressions can have a negative psychological impact on those they are "bestowed" on. By now, more than one study found that microaggressions contribute to mental health problems in individuals, leading to lowered self-esteem, depression, and other harmful outcomes that negatively impact one's life and work (to that point: microaggressions at the workplace can bother people enough to consider leaving the job).

Microaggressions Do Not Exist In A Vacuum

It is important to understand that microaggressions are not "isolated incidents", but rather an onslaught of insensitive and hostile words and attitudes that add up over time and turn into trauma for individuals who keep hearing the same condescending compliments and jokes again and again.

As with all discriminatory behaviors, it's the aggregate effect that chips away at the victims' well-being. A Black person who reacts negatively to a racial microaggression -- like being "complimented" for being "so articulate" -- is not reacting to a singular incident: they've heard some version of this condescending sentiment dozens of times before! And, each time, it came from similarly "well-meaning" individuals who fail to realize and acknowledge the implicit racism underneath being so "impressed" whenever Black people can tie two sentences together coherently. This is what makes microaggressions not just rude or insensitive words but cumulatively traumatic experiences.

So, How To Respond To Microaggressions Meaningfully?

The aim of calling out microaggressions is to show support for the targeted colleague as well as to educate people: it should never be about self-righteousness. Everyone makes mistakes. And if one is not careful, it's easy to go down the same slippery slope of making faulty assumptions about the person one is "calling out".

Microaggressions are subtle -- and so should be the approach to pointing them out. As tempting as it may be, it is counterproductive to directly accuse a person of racism or sexism as that will only put them on the defensive.

Be Diplomatic Yet Firm

With effort and mindfulness, there are other forms of confronting someone than directly pointing fingers. It makes more sense to challenge their beliefs by debunking the faulty assumptions beneath their remarks with truths rather than judgments. For example, if you hear someone taking a micro-"dig" at a coworker, you can counter with the following approaches:

  • Exaggerate the remark with playful, gentle sarcasm: "Oh, she plays like a girl? You mean, like star athlete Megan Rapinoe, the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom?"

  • Point out what they have in common: "Come on with the Boomer jokes already! Did you know he's also a diehard Spurs fan like you? You might want to talk with him, he's got a lot to say about last night's game."

  • Innocently ask for clarification: "What do you mean by that?" or "I don't get it -- why is it funny?" This puts the person on the spot to articulate their silly bias -- or back off.

  • Tell them they're too good/smart to say something so ignorant or offensive.

  • Relate by sharing your past problematic behavior: "I used to say this too, and then I learned I was wrong to do that."

Putting An End To Microaggressions Starts With Awareness Training

People cannot be expected to change their behavioral patterns if they do not genuinely understand where they went wrong in the first place. Becoming aware of the "backhanded" dimension of bias within microaggressions -- and realizing how harmful such statements are to people's feelings, comfort levels, and mental health outcomes is step number one in learning to quell insensitive and tone-deaf "complements" when interacting with coworkers -- and replace them with words that genuinely lift them.

EasyLlama Has The Microaggression Sensitivity Training For Your Business!

EasyLlama understands the subtleties involved in debunking microaggressions and offers training that:

prevents individuals from unwittingly speaking in microaggressions -- as well as teaches them how to responsibly "own" the microaggressions they do commit

teaches individuals proper ways of responding to microaggressions, so that they can productively speak up for themselves and their colleagues -- without inciting further misunderstandings and hostilities

EaslyLlama's microaggressions training program is easy and fast to complete -- with lasting results rooted in a clear understanding of why microaggressions are problematic -- without putting anyone on the defensive. Such training is part of creating a safe social environment for your workforce -- which, ultimately, translates into happier employees and a more productive workflow.

Written by: Maria Malyk

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