The need to belong at work is more important than ever, as the Employee Well-being report released by Glint last month reports that belonging is the second most important factor when it comes to creating a great workplace culture—up four places from last year. Creating a workplace where employees feel psychologically safe enough to be themselves is the starting point for valuing difference at work.
One of the quickest ways to erode psychological safety is microaggressions, which are the indirect or unintentional expressions of racism, sexism, ageism, or ableism. This includes innocent comments by people who might be completely unaware of the impact. Most of us have experienced or witnessed microaggressions at work as a 2019 survey by Glassdoor found that 61% of men and women had witnessed or experienced workplace discrimination based on age, race, gender, or LGBTQIA identity.
“Microaggressions are these slights, these things that people say and often don’t realise. It could be touching an African-American woman’s hair or pushing someone’s wheelchair without asking. They add up to a lot of hurt for people at work. When we’re looking at race, microaggressions are more elevated. It’s like a little stab from a knife that is happening all the time, so the pain is ongoing,” says Heather Younger, author of The Art of Caring Leadership.
Microaggressions have a compounding effect, as these comments serve as a daily reminder to employees that they don’t belong, detrimentally impacting their mental and emotional wellbeing. It can be difficult for individuals to know how to respond to microaggressions when they happen, as addressing these moments might result in backlash or ridicule. Younger believes tackling these inequality moments starts with leaders, and here she shares three strategies every manager can use.
Manage the moments that matter
Leaders are accountable for microaggressions because every day they get to decide what behaviors in their team will be rewarded, endorsed, accepted, or called out. Leaders create psychological safety at work by effectively managing microaggressions when they happen, as this permits employees to do the same. Younger believes the starting point for every leader is to ask themselves what they are doing to directly identify and call out microaggressions within their organization.
“Does the culture inside your organisation allow for such behaviors? Does your culture proactively highlight what the microaggressions might be? Are we as leaders uncovering what microaggressions actually are in practice day-to-day for all of the populations inside our workplace?” she says.
Leaders can use microaggressions as learning moments by unpacking why the situation happened and what individuals can do to prevent this in future. If leaders manage these moments well, they become opportunities for the whole organization to learn about differences and different lived experiences.
Develop a listening strategy
Employees need a safe space where they can voice their concerns and be confident that their leaders are going to follow through with necessary action. Simply raising awareness is unhelpful. Employees want and need a commitment to action. “People need to feel comfortable speaking up, to know that they’re not going to be ridiculed. They’re not going to be fired. They’re not going to be made fun of. Here is a place where I can speak my truth and the people around me are respecting that truth,” says Younger.
To stay accountable, Younger encourages leaders to follow through with a listening strategy, making time to check in with employees, share what actions need to be taken and circle back to let those employees update them on how they are creating a safer workplace.
Let go of the need to be a good person
We are all on a journey when it comes to understanding inequality at work. Often unknowingly, leaders contribute to microaggressions. To understand how you are contributing to employees’ experiences of inequality, you need to ask. “We don’t all have the same lived experiences. My role is to say, ‘Did you realise what you just said was actually offensive?’ Then I can explain why that might be and how they could say it differently. I want to encourage and uplift people, to give you the tools and strategies to do things differently. It’s not about perfection. You stumble, you fall – how do you show up better next time?” asks Younger.
Often we may not know that what we are saying is offensive due to a lack of awareness or understanding. Younger emphasises that leaders don’t need to be perfect; rather the key is to use these moments to learn and improve. We all have biases and prejudices that we might not even be aware of. Overcoming them requires an ongoing commitment to confront these beliefs and the microaggressions they create head-on.