How Microaggressions May Be Harming Your Team
Wednesday, June 14, 2023 - Prophit Co.
In recent years, the term “microaggression” has become somewhat of a buzz word. Dialogue has sprung up all over the internet, with people from all walks of life debating what exactly they are, what effects they have, and in some cases, if they even exist at all. Unfortunately, microaggressions are a very real phenomenon and can add up to have an adverse effect on peoples’ mental health.
This topic as a whole can be fairly confusing, so let’s clarify exactly what we’re talking about before getting into any specifics. Deonna Smith, EdD, defines a microaggression as a “comment or action that subtly expresses a bias or prejudiced attitudes towards a member of a marginalized group.” She adds that they are often committed unintentionally, unconsciously, or subtly, and occur commonly in everyday conversation (Forbes). Microaggressions are unassumingly impactful. They may not be as overt as outright mistreatment or direct insults, but they can be just as harmful. Knowing how to identify them and knowing how damaging they can be are essential to interacting well in the modern business environment.
A microaggression can take many different forms. These are not flagrant displays of hate, but instead subtle displays of (often unconscious) internal prejudice. They can be premeditated or completely unintentional. Smith provides some examples (Forbes).
“You’re so articulate!”
“Where are you really from?”
“Is that your real hair?”
Any of these statements might be interpretable as compliments or innocent remarks/inquiries. Sometimes they might be genuinely well-intentioned, others not. However, statements like these might be ultimately rooted in subconscious biases, assumptions, stereotypes, or preconceived notions about certain groups of people and their backgrounds. When these ideas are expressed to the person in question, even innocently in an attempt to connect, it may bring up bad memories and/or a defensive reaction for one reason or another (Smith).
While microaggressions may not seem like a big deal in the moment, even to the recipient, research unfortunately proves that these kinds of remarks are highly detrimental to those on the receiving end of them. Data gathered from a systematic review of 138 studies on the topic found that microaggressions are directly linked to low self-esteem, increased stress levels, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. They are also linked to physical problems, with people experiencing microaggressions cited as more likely to experience regular headaches, sleep disturbances, stomachaches, and substance (alcohol and tobacco) abuse (Psychology Today). Ella Washington, an organizational psychologist, explains that microaggressions can also negatively affect people professionally as well, reporting that they are linked to increased rates of burnout and decreased levels of job satisfaction (Harvard Business Review).
Given this laundry list of negatives associated with microaggressions, it’s easy to understand why getting ahead of the problem and stopping it is a great idea. Preventing microaggressions from occurring is a critical part of creating a healthy working environment and retaining employees. A leader would be mistaken to dismiss them as something small or infrequent that doesn’t need to be addressed. Microaggressions are highly impactful and can tangibly contribute to a spectrum of potential negative effects for employees on the receiving end.
Fagan, Abigail (2021). “The Detrimental Effects of Microaggressions” [Article]. 5 October, 2021. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evidence-based-living/202110/the-detrimental-effects-microaggressions [Accessed May 17, 2023]
Smith, Deonna, EdD (2023). “Why There’s Nothing ‘Micro’ About Microaggressions” [Article]. 20 March, 2023. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbeseq/2023/03/20/why-theres-nothing-micro-about-microaggressions/?sh=7de5860d1c0a [Accessed May 17, 2023] Washington, Ella F. (2022). “Recognizing and Responding to Microaggressions at Work” [Article]. 10 May, 2022. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2022/05/recognizing-and-responding-to-microaggressions-at-work [Accessed May 17, 2023]