December 21, 2020

Microaggressions hurt everyone. Here’s how you can address them and repair the harm.

“That came out wrong.”

“It’s just a harmless joke!”

“You know I didn’t mean it like that.”

When a microaggression takes place in the workplace, one or more of these utterances is often close behind. Microaggressions are subtle slights and insults based on group identity, and, yes, they’re usually unintentional, or even made with positive intentions, but they’re anything but harmless.

Don’t be fooled by the prefix “micro” — microaggressions have a large impact, especially when experienced repetitively (“death by a thousand cuts”). Over time, they can come to define a person’s experience at work, damaging their confidence, their sense of psychological safety, and their opportunity to thrive.

On the individual level, a microaggression can become an emotionally-charged moment for everyone involved. A person experiencing one may feel offended or angry, a person committing one might feel ashamed and become defensive, and a person witnessing one may feel tension at the prospect of conflict. All of these emotions compound each other, creating a situation that can feel impossible to address head-on.

You’ve probably been in one or more of these positions, and you probably will be again in the future. While your emotions can’t really be removed from the equation, you can move through those emotions toward action that repairs harm and strengthens your working relationships.

If you’ve experienced a microaggression…

  1. Breathe. This might be easier said than done, but take a moment to process what you’re feeling before reacting. Allow yourself the space to acknowledge your emotions without self-judgment, then pause to “cool down” if you need to.
  2. Weigh your options and associated risks. We all do this all the time in our interpersonal interactions, asking ourselves “Is this worth it?” You might think of it as “choosing your battles.” The truth is, when you’ve experienced a microaggression, you have no obligation to address it with the other person. Think about who the aggressor is to you, the context of the incident (has this happened before?), and your own emotional bandwidth, and give yourself permission to not engage if that’s the right choice for you.
  3. Address the situation with curiosity. Even if you know a microaggression wasn’t intentional — they meant it as a compliment, or they were being momentarily thoughtless, and so on — it can still affect you. Both of these can be true, and both should inform how you approach the other person. Make this “formula” your own:

When you said [microaggression], I think your intention might have been [intention], but because [cultural context / why microaggression is harmful], it made me feel [emotional impact]. Can you tell me more about what you meant?

Remember, the impact of an action matters more than the intention. You can know that there wasn’t ill intent but still need the impact to be acknowledged. When someone accidentally steps on your toe (metaphorically or otherwise), knowing it was an accident doesn’t make your foot stop hurting.

  1. Identify allies who can step in. The emotional burden of microaggressions can be eased by having allies who can validate your experience or be a supportive presence for future conversations.

If you’ve witnessed a microaggression…

  1. Affirm what you’ve just witnessed. When you’ve recognized a microaggression committed against someone else, you might wonder if you’ve understood the situation correctly, or if it’s your place to step in. Take some time to make these assessments so you can avoid jumping to conclusions.
  2. Address the situation with curiosity and kindness. If you choose to speak to the aggressor, make it clear that you’re doing so on your own behalf. Trying to speak on behalf of the recipient of the microaggression can escalate the situation and put them in an uncomfortable position. Besides, your voice as an ally is a powerful rebuttal to the argument that people responding to microaggressions are “being too sensitive.” Like in step 3 above, you can approach the aggressor with an understanding of what their intentions might have been, while bringing your own understanding of the impact.
  3. Check in with the person who experienced the microaggression. Whether or not you step in in the moment, it’s important to check in with the person who experienced the microaggression. Ask them how they’re feeling and what support they might need from you. If the answer is a “No, thank you,” respect that.
  4. Commit to continued learning. Take the experience as a reminder to hold yourself accountable to growing your fluency around microaggressions. If your own lived experience has made you perceptive to gender-based microaggressions, for example, seek to expand your awareness to microaggressions based on race, disability, sexual orientation, or any other group identities affected by systems of oppression.

If you’ve committed a microaggression...

  1. Name and acknowledge it. Sometimes you know you’ve said something wrong as soon as it happens. Other times, it’s a while before the realization hits. And other times, it takes someone telling you for you to understand your mistake. Either way, it’s still worth addressing. The most important thing is to acknowledge the impact. It’s human to get defensive and resort to blurting out one of the lines at the top of this post, but keep in mind that the other person is probably already aware that you didn’t intend harm — they’ve heard it all before. What matters more in that moment is that you can say, “I understand that what I said was harmful, and I’m sorry that I said it.” You don’t need to beat yourself up over it — mistakes happen — but you do need to take responsibility for it.
  2. Ask permission to inquire. Committing a microaggression should be a learning opportunity for you, but the recipient of your words does not have to be your teacher. They simply don’t owe you that; it’s not their job. If you do feel you want to continue the conversation with this person — maybe you have a close relationship, for example – ask permission first: “Is this something you’d be open to talking about some more, either now or in the future?”
  3. Commit to learning and changing your behavior. There are plenty of avenues to take to further your understanding, including your friends and a wealth of material written by people with expertise in, and lived experience with, microaggressions.
  4. Seek partners for accountability. You’re not the only person who’s learning and growing. Find people you trust who can go on the journey with you.

Avoiding and addressing microaggressions is not about censorship or creating rules around what you can and can’t say. Rather, it’s about intentionality: being mindful of the way your words affect others — both before choosing to say them and after they’ve been said — and vice versa. When we work to understand microaggressions from multiple perspectives, we’re opening up conversation and building trust in our organizations.

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