People are often unaware of how their words or actions can send the wrong message to others with different experiences and perspectives than their own. Unintentional slights, snubs or insults – also known as microaggressions – can leave others feeling judged, misunderstood and excluded, and undermine diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.
Ongoing training and conversations to raise self-awareness of microaggressions can help prevent these behaviors and their adverse effects on physical and mental health, and promote a more inclusive culture where everyone feels welcome, valued and empowered to be their authentic selves.
Rooted in unconscious bias, microaggressions are statements or actions that often affirm stereotypes or belittle members of a group. They often seem harmless or can even appear to be a compliment, but regardless of the intent, verbal, behavioral and environmental microaggressions send demeaning messages to coworkers that negatively affect teamwork, performance and retention.
Common types of microaggressions are:
Microinvalidation is when a person invalidates, negates or undermines the experiences of a certain group of people. Examples of this are interrupting someone or talking over them, a male telling a woman that sexism does not exist or giving someone a nickname because their full name is difficult to say.
Microinsult is when a person behaves in a way that is unintentionally discriminatory. This can be a backhanded compliment driven by cultural ignorance, such as complimenting a person of color on how articulate they are or telling a female colleague that they are tech savvy for a woman.
Microassault is when a person intentionally behaves in a discriminatory way. For instance, someone displaying a racist cartoon, telling a sexist joke and then saying, “I was just joking,” or referring to a group as “your kind” or “you people.”
6 things to do if you commit a microaggression
Everyone has unintentionally committed a microaggression. What matters is how individuals respond once they’ve been made aware of their comments or behavior. These 6 tips can help:
Don’t react defensively
Accepting criticism can be difficult. It likely wasn’t your intention to offend someone, but that doesn’t nullify the pain your microaggression caused. Treat these confrontations as learning moments rather than a personal attack.
Take it seriously
Listen to an individual’s concerns and don’t interrupt. Strive to be empathetic and understand their perspective rather than invalidate it. Avoid saying, “I was just making a joke” as this can seem like you’re making light of a person’s pain.
Acknowledge the impact and apologize
Regardless of your intent, it’s important to acknowledge the pain a microaggression has caused and apologize, but don’t expect forgiveness in return. The best way to make amends is to educate yourself and be more cautious in the future.
Show humility by asking questions
If it is not clear to you why what you did was wrong, ask for more information. Ask the individual about their life experiences and the microaggressions they’ve experienced. Doing so can help you identify other microaggressions you may be prone to.
Consider where the microaggression came from
Unconscious bias takes time to become conscious. Reflect on life experiences to acknowledge your biases and blind spots and to avoid committing microaggressions in the future.
If you witness microaggressions, be an active bystander
Active bystanders who see everyday microaggressions at work can show support for those who are targets and help prevent future incidents by knowing how and when to apply bystander intervention techniques.
Microaggressions can undermine an organization’s efforts to create a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace. And over time, these daily slights, insults and indignities can affect people’s mental and physical health, as well as the health of the organization. Ongoing training on how to recognize and prevent microaggressions helps build a more respectful, inclusive workplace where everyone can bring their best selves to work.
Access a free trial of our Microaggressions in the Workplace course: