June 18, 2019

Not-so-random acts of kindness: How you can use micro-affirmations to fight unconscious bias in the workplace

Microaggressions are far more powerful than their name suggests. These small acts of bias form patterns of injustice, and are often undetectable to people not on the receiving end.

Unintentional microaggressions are at the root of so much lost confidence, unmet potential, and alienation—can the inverse also be true? That is, can intentional acts of micro-affirmation foster inclusion, boost self-worth, and help employees achieve their full potential?

As it turns out, they can, and there’s a growing movement toward making them an integral part of how we interact in the workplace. But what are they?

A micro-affirmation is a small acknowledgment of another person’s value. It’s a subtle act of inclusion and kindness that goes a long way when built into company culture or even just one person’s everyday practice.

Common micro-affirmations include publicly giving a co-worker accolades for an accomplishment, referring to specifics of a past conversation to show that you listened and remembered, and saying hello to someone as they enter the office.

If that sounds a lot like basic courtesy, that’s because it is. But micro-affirmations go a step beyond common decency—they can combat unconscious bias.

Mary Rowe, a pioneer in our contemporary understanding of microaggressions, hypothesizes that practicing micro-affirmations might not only increase one’s tendency to be “universally respectful” to others, but they also might be a step to counteracting the effects of bias, including racism, sexism, ableism, and ageism. If Rowe’s hypothesis is correct, micro-affirmations are powerful tools for good that anyone can use.

But where to begin? Here are three things to think about as you start to get intentional about micro-affirmations:

1. Monitor your feelings.

Spend time noticing what words and actions make you feel seen and valued, as well as what makes you feel disrespected and overlooked, no matter how insignificant they may seem. Chances are, your colleagues react similarly to the same types of words and actions. (And people in under-represented groups more frequently experience the “disrespected/overlooked” words and actions.) By labeling for yourself the ways you do and don’t want to be treated, you can start to apply them to how you engage with others.

Try it today: As you go about your day, write down specific three things said or done to you that you found affirming. Think about how you can pass that feeling on to someone else—particularly someone outside your typical circle at work.

2. Act natural.

Using micro-affirmations may take a little extra thought, but they should still feel authentic to both the giver and the recipient. Two techniques that make this easier are appreciative inquiry—using open-ended, positively-framed questions to show interest and respect—and being specific in your positive feedback.

Try it today: Practice appreciative inquiry by trying to go a whole day without asking a yes-or-no question. Keep questions open-ended, and be ready to hear responses you might not have expected.

3. Leave room to be wrong.

Contrary to some writing on the topic, it is possible to commit a microaggression in an attempt to micro-affirm (eg, sounding surprised when giving positive feedback or recognition). It’s okay to say, “Please let me know if I’m making a mistake” when discussing a sensitive issue. And if you catch yourself microaggressing? Resist the urge to get defensive, and apologize.

Try it today: If there’s a discussion you’ve been avoiding because the fear of saying something wrong seems insurmountable, it might be time to role-play that conversation with someone you trust. For employees working Bravely, their coach or “Pro” is the perfect resource for this.

There’s no instant solution for the unconscious bias that employees in under-represented groups experience every day. We can all use micro-affirmations as a force for good, making life at work a little better for everyone.

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