There are many ways to build inclusive and accepting work environments. When we think of building such environments we think of policies, procedures, laws, statements from leaders, anti-discrimination laws, and very intentional, grand gestures that say to people they are valued. We also see attempts to avoid treating people poorly and avoiding blatant racists, sexist, homophobic, ableist, or other discriminatory type of actions or language.
Derald Wing Sue has done some great work on demonstrating how it does not have to be obvious or even intentional actions that make people from excluded. He has done some amazing writing on microaggressions.
He explained, “Microaggressions are the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual-orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group. Perpetrators are usually unaware that they have engaged an exchange that demeans the recipient of the communication.” (Sue, 2010, p. 4) –
The value of understanding how microaggressions impact people cannot be understated. While one microaggression may have a minimal impact, the multiple microaggressions that people experience over a lifetime have an enormous impact on their mental and physical health.
As a leader being able to recognize microaggressions can help a person to understand why employees feel the way they do about specific actions or occurrences. The concept of microaggressions can help leaders reflect on their behaviors and words, and those of their followers, to realize how they may be negatively impacting others.
Yet, for me this focuses us only on behaviors, attitudes, and actions we need to avoid without giving us a focus on what we can do. As I think about my own experiences as a gay man, I can think of times when I experienced microacceptances and microsupports that helped me to feel welcomed and included in a new environment.
As an example, years ago I remember being at a training where one individual, who was seated next to me, described himself as a Baptist. I had a fairly negative response to him as I assumed he must be homophobic and in my introduction I did not say anything about being gay. During the break, he and I started talking and he asked if I had a wife or was dating. Within a few seconds I had to decide if I would come out. I decided to and to my surprise he thanked me for being honest. He said he knew it was not easy to come out and that he thought gays were treated poorly in this country. His simple statement of support made me feel as if I could be more authentically me in the training. There was no grand gesture or policy change. I just simply learned I had at least one ally in the room and that made a difference.
What is a microacceptance for me? I think it is possible to alter Sue’s definition to accommodate a positive approach. Microacceptances are brief verbal, behavioral, environmental, and attitudinal confirmations that communicate inclusive, accepting, and positive views for individuals and groups. They encourage and validate the experiences of people of color or people of different sexual orientations, genders, abilities, religions, or other characteristics.
However, besides just statements of support there are ways that people not in the oppressed group can help historically marginalized groups be successful and this would be done through microsupports. Microsupports are communications or behaviors that demonstrate confidence, respect, and belief in others. It is actively supporting people in being successful. In a work environment, it can include mentoring, giving people challenging assignments, including people in informal as well as formal networks, and other efforts that express trust in the abilities of the other.
As we learn to recognize and lessen microaggressions in our environment, we also want to think of ways to increase microacceptances and microsupports so we can build a welcoming atmosphere. It is not enough to avoid insulting and offending people. We must show all people that they are valued and supported for us to have a truly open, equitable, and inclusive environment.
Sue, D.W. (2004), Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation.