Understanding and Overcoming Microaggressions

Written by Mark Rowland Thursday 30 January 2020
Microaggressions can be extremely disruptive and draining in the workplace – but it’s worth stopping and having a think about where they might be coming from
Person holding cup of coffee

Leah Steele’s 12 years as a lawyer were beset with microaggressions – and she was the source.

Phones were slammed down into receivers. Scowls were directed at laughing co-workers. She recalls a moment when two groups of colleagues were talking to each other over her desk; she muttered it under their breath that she wished they’d shut up.

Turns out it wasn’t muttered, but spoken – fairly loudly. Her colleagues awkwardly laughed it off; that was the culture at the firm and they all knew lawyers could be difficult. That’s just the way it was.

In reality, she was burning out. “I couldn’t concentrate, I had no boundaries, and I was feeling eroded as a result. I was engaging in behaviour that I’m not proud of, but I wasn’t necessarily conscious of,” she says. “The filter had gone.”

Steele eventually quit law and became a wellbeing coach, determined to help others avoid the same path as she’d followed. She works with organisations to reform their cultures to be more open and pay attention to wellbeing.

“We tend to think of people at the centre of a lot of microaggressions as a troublemaker, but people who are struggling with burnout become exhausted, cynical and disconnected from their work and as a result, they start this behaviour that comes across as difficult – but it’s very unconscious. They’re often your best workers.”

It’s clear that tackling microaggressions among your team is more complicated than it might first seem. It takes a very careful, emotionally intelligent approach – one false move, and your staff could shut off and become more cynical than before.

It All Starts With Culture

Any attempt to reach out to microaggressive staff who might be struggling will fail if your culture isn’t right. You can’t suddenly tell your staff that your door is always open if you’ve often got it shut.

Nor can you force through cultural change – if it comes from the top-down, it will fail. Any cultural change must be more of a two-way conversation between management and employees. The best way to start, according to Steele, is with some kind of training that involves both staff and managers.

“I educate the team with very informal training. What happens afterwards is a conversation. You can’t deal with microaggressions or even worse behaviour if people don’t feel that they can talk. You need to create engagement. That’s when you get people talking about how things can improve.”

Spotting the Signs

Slamming the phone down and making snarky comments are classic microaggressions, but if it’s got to that point, it may be too late. Look for personality changes on your team. If someone is quiet when they would usually speak up and if they seem withdrawn and avoiding social interactions, they may be struggling.

An indicator of wider issues across the team is if it starts splintering up and certain groups are always speaking away from the others; cliques can be sources of microaggressions in themselves. “When you have an engaged team they talk to each other, laugh with each other and help each other through that stress,” says Steele. “You have an issue when you start seeing fractures in that.”

Don’t Approach the Person

If you see signs that a team member is being microaggressive, don’t bring them into your office and tell them it’s OK. It might seem like the right approach, but you could just put them on their guard.

“If you’re feeling under pressure and are worrying about whether you’re working hard enough, and your boss takes you into their office and asks you if everything is OK, you feel like a cornered animal,” warns Steele. Instead, encourage them to come to you. Have a meeting with the entire team, talk about the signs of stress, and encourage them to look out for each other. Again, this is an area where you need to tread carefully – it can easily come across as shallow and cynical to the people you’re trying to help.

“There’s got to be a pragmatic solution behind what you’re saying,” says Steele. “Don’t just tell them it’s going to be OK and do nothing. You either need an outcome, or at least a ‘hey, I’m working on it’.”

It’s much easier if you do your due diligence with your people on a regular basis. “If you have a culture where you regularly chat to staff, you genuinely have an open door and you ordinarily ask people how they’re doing, the ‘pull to one side’ will work – but you do have to have that open dialogue at all times.”

Once They Come to You, Give Them Your Time

It takes a lot of courage for your employee to come into your office and tell you they’re having trouble. You have built enough trust with them that they feel they can come to you – it’s crucial that you maintain that trust.

“There’s nothing worse than somebody screwing up their courage to come and talk to you and being brushed off because you’re about to go into a meeting,” Steele says. “They’ve got to be heard and seen.”

Let them talk and really listen to what they’re saying. Acknowledge it and work with them to come up with a pragmatic solution. This must be something you work on together – don’t decide for your employee, and equally, don’t leave everything in their hands. Think outside the box to try to make it work – putting them on leave or sending them to HR are not your only options. Small changes to the working environment could be helpful – a desk-move to a quieter area could make a big difference.

“It’s important that you follow up with them,” says Steele. “I can’t tell you the number of times when I told people that I was struggling and they felt that a ‘keep calm and carry on’ discussion was enough. It had already taken so much of my courage to tell them I was struggling. When it wasn’t resolved a week or two later, I felt embarrassed. If they’ve opened the door, make sure you step through it.”

As discussed as part of our Management 4.0 campaign, soft skills such as emotional intelligence are constantly growing more valuable in the modern workplace. More than ever managers may need to be actively agile, emotionally intelligent, able to exercise good judgement and intuitive. It’s also OK it you don’t have all the answers – your employees will appreciate it if you try to figure it out with them. “It’s about learning and growing with your team.”

Read our previously published article for more tips on handling this difficult conversation, or learn about common ways to deal with your anger at work.

Image: Unsplash