Ask five co-workers for a definition of microaggression and you will likely receive five different responses. While people may have a general idea of what microaggression is, many are unsure of its exact meaning. Understanding the definition of microaggression is important but knowing what it means for your workplace is even more critical.
What is microaggression?
One often-used definition of microaggression is a “subtle but offensive comment or action directed at a minority that is often unintentional or unconsciously reinforces a stereotype.” Many times microaggression can be viewed as a form of unconscious bias.
As with unconscious bias, microaggression begins with making spontaneous judgments about people or situations based on the “observers” impressions of another’s past experiences, culture, or background. Unconscious bias is not inherently wrong, and it’s used every day to navigate the world, however, these types of judgments can cause serious workplace trouble when they are solely based on “mental short-cuts” and do not take facts into account.
The paradox of microaggression
In one sense, the definition of microaggression is problematic because it’s a paradox. Behavior that is considered to be unconscious is, by nature, unintentional while aggression is inherently defined as intentional. Labeling an action as microaggression would mean that it is both unintentional and intentional at the same time.
When a behavior is marked as a microaggression, there’s an accusation of aggression against another person. This is a strong charge that should not be taken lightly. It’s worth asking if a person can be guilty of intentional behavior when they’re unaware of doing so.
The real problem with labeling this behavior as “aggressive” is that it can lead to an escalation as the term itself suggests a conscious action. In the workplace, de-escalating these situations should be the primary objective.
How to address microaggression in the workplace
Creating a culture where employees are encouraged to speak up is the only way to fully address microaggression. One employee may not recognize the effect of a statement or action, but the offended employee clearly feels the negative impact. It needs to be addressed before feelings begin to fester.
Healthy workplaces built upon employees who feel comfortable speaking up and expressing their concerns. If your employees remain silent, the offenders will continue to offend because they are unaware that their actions were hurtful.
“I know you probably didn’t mean it this way, but this is what it meant to me,” is a powerful statement that will positively impact your culture. A few seconds of courage can open the door to a meaningful discussion and resolution. In most instances, the offender will apologize and certainly rethink similar statements in the future.
Microaggression is a potentially divisive topic, and an effective training program that teaches your team how to address these issues through communication will go a long way in creating a healthy, productive and civil workplace.