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Microaggressions and the Threat to Productivity

With the shift to working from home, microaggressions are evolving and now is the time to re-evaluate your institution’s culture and create a welcoming and productive environment. 

As a senior leader, I was a member of a hiring committee, whose charge was to find and hire a leader for a newly created department within our organization. Each member of the hiring committee had a role. One member led the engagement between the organization and the executive recruiting firm. Another vetted resumes and led the interview panel sessions. Another led the engagement between the hiring committee and organizational stakeholders. Me, I was charged with collecting the lunch orders and arranging the conference rooms to hold the interviews.

If the paragraph you just read isn’t making you feel some sort of way, let me see if this helps. My hiring recommendation is considered in making the overall hiring decision. The team that I lead works closely with the person in this position, and I represent certain stakeholders within the organization, AND I’m the only African American male on the hiring committee.

With having such an important position in the hiring process, does the first paragraph at least make you cringe? Well, it should. And if it doesn’t, then perhaps you don’t understand microaggressions and how destructive they can be. Defined by Dr. Derald Sue, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University: “Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.”

Now, because I believe that dialogue is a powerful tool against microaggressions, and because I believed my assignment was genuinely “unintentional”, I took the incident as an opportunity to educate the committee, explaining that being the only black man, serving a leadership on the committee, and being selected to merely order food and reserve conference rooms when we have a professional dining and catering department who performs this role, is demeaning, humiliating and invalidates my role on the committee. While I never received an apology, I did feel heard…until several months later, during another hiring search, when I was once again assigned the responsibility of ordering food and reserving conference rooms, except this time I refused.

For many of us in marginalized or in underrepresented communities, microaggressions are the evolved and more subversive form of overt racism and gender and sexual orientation discrimination of the past. Women and people of color were once excluded from senior-level, decision-making meetings; we are now invited but asked to order the food or prepare the coffee. When once we were excluded from having a seat at the table, we are now invited to sit down…and take notes. 

But now, in the midst of a pandemic, in the world of virtual meetings–the “new normal”–it seems that microaggressions have once again evolved. The tactics may have changed, but the sentiments remain the same. In a recent virtual staff meeting with senior leaders, we each provided a report on our respective areas. The meeting was as productive as it could be in a virtual format. Engaging questions, intentional eye contact with the camera, active listening–similar to what you would expect for an in-person, pre-pandemic meeting. But to my surprise, when the only woman of color began her report, cameras suddenly turned off. For those still on camera, they were now muted and appeared to be having conversations with others off screen. Those still on camera and not on mute appeared to be typing while the chimes of messengering systems could be heard in the background. Those still on camera and mute were laughing non-humorous portions of the report. All of these acts clearly communicate that she was not being heard and that her voice does not matter. The new form of microaggression.

Addressing this topic with your colleagues can also be problematic and often leads to even more microaggressions–or worse, aggression. In the previous example, the senior leader, who was a woman of color, demanded to know why everyone seemed so disinterested in her updates. She followed that by briefly describing how the perceived disinterest made her feel. “Don’t be so sensitive…” was the response she received from a C-level executive. That comment left her feeling defeated, deflated, and discouraged. Indeed, many people, when confronted regarding their microaggressions, react defensively and blame the recipient for their own aggression.  “You seem to be easily bothered” is also commonly heard. The fact is that for those in marginalized groups, microaggressions can have a devastatingly cumulative effect on career progression, productivity, and mental health. As Tiffany Alvoid explained during her 2019 TedTalk entitled, Eliminating Microaggressions: The next level of inclusion, “A Microaggression is like a paper cut. One is no big deal–you can manage it. But hundreds of paper cuts, all over your body, is unbearable.” 

While these examples are but a mere drop in the bucket of microaggressions I have experienced in my 20-plus-year professional career, I do offer some advice of a few things those looking to do better by their colleagues can do: 

AcknowledgeBy accepting that what you say, regardless of your intent, can have a detrimental effect on others, you can begin the process of understanding the lived experiences of minorities and marginalized communities.

Listen: Create a safe space, and reach out to minorities and those in marginalized communities to hear their stories. Empathize with the effect that a lifetime of microaggressions can have on someone both personally and professionally.

Learn: Take the initiative to educate yourself.

Act: Be a leader and an ally. Speak up when you witness a microaggression. Act swiftly and decisively when a microaggression is reported. 

Admittedly, these are just a few things you can do, but if you value diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in your workplace, microaggressions can make the difference between a productive and thriving environment, and a toxic and demoralizing one. 

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