Microaggressions: what they are and how to call them out

Words David Waller

Managers need to understand how and when to highlight unacceptable language or behaviour, however subtle. Experienced Chartered Managers weigh in

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Paul Graham CMgr MCMI

What’s wrong with a bit of banter? A lot, potentially. The negative effects can be long-lasting. Paul Graham CMgr MCMI recalls how, when he took his first career steps over 20 years ago, he was stopped on the stairs by a senior leader in his organisation, who knew Paul was gay and saw he’d lost a lot of weight. 

“Oh my God,” the manager said to Paul. “Have you got AIDS or something?”

“I can still put myself back on those stairs,” says Paul, still appalled by the interaction. “Being so junior at that time, I didn’t know how to deal with it.” 

Two decades on, a comment like that is unlikely to go unpunished, but Paul can attest to the pervasiveness of microaggressions. He cites a recent training session in which someone asked him about his wife. And a development day when someone referenced “the Queen’s gambit”. A colleague then quipped: “A queen like in chess, or a queen like Paul?” 

We may make unthinking assumptions and insensitive jokes without direct intent to harm. But they can still be hurtful and problematic.

What are microaggressions?

“I'm very self-aware, and I have complete management of whether I choose to deal with microaggressions or not,” says Paul, who points out his response to such insensitivities will depend on the situation and his relationship with the person in question. 

“But not everybody is in that position. For example, somebody who’s struggling coming out could potentially be triggered. They may take more offence.”

A microaggression may take many forms. It could be a man asking a woman to take notes in a meeting because her handwriting is better. Or a leader consistently picking people from their own demographic to do challenging and rewarding tasks. 

Or it may be using words without realising their racist or ableist connotations. Citing a CMI article by Mitchell Campbell, Paul argues it’s the responsibility of managers to educate themselves on new terminology and how the use of language keeps evolving.

If that sounds like we’re heading into the weeds, it highlights one of the challenges for managers when it comes to microaggressions: they are often subtle.

Read on: why managers have a responsibility for psychological safety


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