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Empowering people to take action on microaggressions

It’s common to see the same microaggressions repeating themselves in particular teams or departments. 

Maybe you regularly witness a colleague being ignored in a meeting, watch on as it’s assumed someone doesn’t know something about a topic because of their gender, or keep overhearing offhand comment about something being ‘lost in translation’ due to differences in native language.

What microaggressions do you keep seeing in your organisation? 

(If you’re not quite sure what a microaggression is, you might want to read this article)

Perhaps the microaggressions you come across are less about traditional differences and more about the quirks of the organisation. Recent research has explored ‘hierarchical microaggressions’ – subtle messages centred on an unspoken intellectual ‘pecking order’. These are particularly prevalent in companies operating in particular industries, such as finance and engineering. Their effect remains the same as more traditional microaggressions – they determine what you can say, who you can speak to and ultimately your performance at work.

It’s not uncommon to hear people in these organisations being introduced as ‘my second in command’. Or to see people shot down for their contribution because they lack seniority. Sound familiar?

This type of microaggression is harmful, commonplace and difficult to react to when seen. It is also often embedded in a team’s culture.

How do you know if this is true for your team?

Other than specifically noticing microaggressions, there are a couple of tell-tale signs.

Microaggressions flourish in a culture that lacks candour – its absence often due to fear of being exclusive. An environment that, on the surface, seems collegiate and amicable. People are kind to one another – slow to challenge and accepting of different points of view. Until the meeting has finished. Then the real views are heard, in hushed whispers around the corner. Passive-aggression reigns – if someone is unhappy, you’ll pick up on it from coded signals. It’s no surprise that microaggressions are common in these cultures.

A toxic culture of subtle messages isn’t the only bastion of refuge for microaggressions. Bystanders allow them to spread. Bystanding is a problem for all organisations, whether it is getting people to take action when they see safety risks or spot potential exclusion. People often do nothing when noticing microaggressions as they feel powerless and unable to take action – a big obstacle as organisations strive to make their cultures more inclusive.

How can we support people to change the way they react and empower them to foster inclusion in their teams? Reflecting on these three areas is a good start:

  1. What we permit, we promote. Start with the leadership team, help them see the opportunities of tackling these problems and communicate their shared story down the organisation.
  2. Targeted training. Use engaging learning interventions to develop self-awareness and help people overcome the bystander effect.
  3. Model and support best practice. Both leaders and HRBPs can be powerful drivers of change in organisations through leading by example. Ensure these groups are well versed in the skills others need to develop.

These can be used across a whole organisation, in teams or departments. However, more will need to be done to help an organisation achieve a cultural step change in this area. Look out for the fourth and final article on microaggressions to find out more.

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