Updated: Jul 27
In view of recent events happening around the world, the topic of discrimination has become more prominent, and that has translated into the workplace as well. How employees combat discriminatory behaviors in the workplace has been a premise in business and HR strategy. Companies have started introducing Assessment, Development, and Diversity classes or programs to provide their team a unique insight into human resource matters and make their workplace more diverse, inclusive, and accepting.
What are micro-behaviors?
Micro-behaviors are tiny, often unconscious gestures, facial expressions, postures, words, and tone of voice which can influence how people around us feel. The term ‘micro behaviors were coined by psychologist Mary Rowe in the early 1970s. It can be as minute as glancing at your watch to see the time when your colleague is giving a suggestion, checking your texts in a meeting, telling an employee to work faster through their pitch, not giving full attention when someone is speaking to you, or even forgetting a name.
Now the above-described behaviors are mostly negative. So they come under micro-aggressions, which refer to how individuals may be singled out, overlooked, or ignored based on an unchangeable characteristic such as race or gender.
Micro-behaviors are branched into two components – micro-aggressions and micro-affirmations. Micro-affirmations are positive micro-behaviors that help build a feeling of inclusion in the workplace. These include paying attention to someone talking, letting someone finish their sentence, maintaining eye contact when speaking with someone, avoiding the use of slurs, demonstrating positive body language and facial expressions, often calling out interruptions, and asking the person who was speaking to continue.
Micro-behaviors are usually:
Verbal and non-verbal
Influenced by our biases
Why do these small micro-inequities cause problems in the workplace?
Most micro-behaviors come under the spectrum of ‘unconscious bias because they are so small and usually people don’t admit that they mean them, but they come from a place of years of learned stereotypes which become the foundation of their prejudices. And, they have an impact on your peers – whether they feel included, rewarded, or threatened.
“Without knowing it, we spend years learning stereotypes which become the foundation of our prejudices – our biased thinking. The first step is to realize that this can be a problem.”
Additionally, when the people who feel targeted by micro-inequities, do recognize the micro-messages, they find it exceedingly hard to call someone out or explain to people why these small behaviors can be a huge problem. Since these are very small behaviors, it’s easy to belittle their effect, and usually, leaders try to push them under the rug.
‘What? I didn’t say anything!’ is the usual comeback when called out, or the targeted person is called over-sensitive for reading too much and being hurt by it. This causes a lack of safe space around the workplace, resulting in employees feeling not included and generating feelings of exclusion.
Besides a pervasive sense of invalidation, these everyday indignities can lead to:
Increased self-doubt in employees, usually female employees
Loss of motivation and sense of purpose
An unwillingness to speak up in meetings and take professional risks
Psychological impairment leads to having a sense of negativity when thinking about their workplace.
On the contrary, using positive micro-messages (‘micro-affirmations) can improve employee engagement, enhance performance, unlock creativity, and help build collaborative projects leading to the success of the firm. It increases job satisfaction, making it a safe space for all employees. They’d pay more attention in the workplace, be involved more, and have a positive perspective when thinking about their job.
How to unlearn, and tackle these micro-behaviors?
Derald Wing Sue, the preeminent psychologist on microaggressions, noted that 64% of women experience gender-based microaggressions in the workplace.
Research showed that most people in leadership positions across the world, resort to gender stereotypes to define the characteristics of effective leaders. The findings are consistent with implicit bias tests. Behaviors linked to leadership were found to be stereotypically masculine, and women were expected to overperform men by a large margin all while being criticized for having feminine leadership traits.
To fight these, leaders would have to recognize that gender-based microaggressions are real. The hardest part of unlearning is recognizing there is a problem. And after the first step is taken, gender equality is the number priority in workplaces. Women should not be made to feel inferior, they should be given equal opportunities without having to ‘prove’ their worth or work twice as hard to reach the same positions as men. And, for this to happen every employee should ensure accountability. Calling out helps as workers who are made aware of how their unconscious behaviors hurt others, may be less likely to act disrespectfully again.
Another thing to implement is emotional vulnerability in the workplace. While the head is for awareness, just awareness is not enough here. Decisions made from the heart play a large role in inclusivity. Seeing every employee as equal, and not demeaning any person based on race, ethnicity, and gender are important emotional engagements.
Creating internal discussion forums to understand the opinions and feelings of marginalized employee groups. Learning and discussion can help employees see that the leader is making a conscious effort to make the workplace a positive place. This facilitates a sense of pride in the employees and they learn from the leader, therefore making changes to the ground levels.
Inclusivity has to be implemented daily. It can start by asking everyone to put their phones away and actively listen to all the ideas contributed during a meeting. Near the end of the meeting, rather than simply asking “any other business”, go around the table and say everyone’s name, while asking them individually if there is anything else, they would like to contribute or if they’d prefer to share their comments via email. This creates the space for everyone to feel that their ideas and thoughts are valued, without feeling pressure to divulge anything on the spot.
As small microaggressions are, they have a huge negative impact on the workplace. But as small micro-affirmations are, they too have a huge positive impact and this positive impact facilitates success, making your employees feel safe, included, and at peace. So, unlearn and bring the necessary change required to make your workplace a better place!