Micro-aggressions at work often involve comments, questions or actions that may seem innocent but in reality absolutely aren’t. Research confirms that the impact of these comments is quite big and that the comments hinder an inclusive working culture.
‘Are you sure you’re not pregnant with triplets?’
‘Where do you originally come from?’
‘Are you always this difficult?’
‘You’re no typical muslim’
‘Does your boyfriend allow you to work so late?’
‘Those pants look pretty gay.’
This type of comments are often given very casually and even disguised as ‘jokes’. But they’re definitely not innocent, because they deal with very personal themes, such as gender, faith, sexual orientation, age, etnicity or appearance. So they’re an attack on someone’s identity, which is why they’re called micro-aggressions.
Small comment, big impact
Clinical psychologist Delia Mensitieri researched for her PhD Again & Again at Ghent University and Vlerick Business School ways to make organisations more inclusive. And so she quickly arrived at the phenomenon of micro-aggressions: hurtful comments that often aren’t meant badly but do have a big impact on the company culture.
The first trait of micro-aggression is frequency. One of those comments can ‘simply’ be misguided, but when they start to get repetitive, it becomes a problem.
A second factor is that micro-aggressions are based on negative stereotypes. Someone makes a joke about someone else because that person belongs to a group that they perceive to be inferior.
Finally, the relationship between the victim and the person making the comment is a determining factor as well. If the comment was made by a superior, the issue is naturally bigger.
Because the first results from Mensitieri’s research show that 93% of victims do not respond out of fear of being called weak or overly sensitive.
Inclusive company culture
All this makes micro-aggressions a harmful influence on the company culture and on the extent to which employees feel safe and understood. The consequence is that they become demotivated and sometimes even develop a depression or burnout. The Again & Again research even shows that 70% of victims eventually leaves his or her organisation due to repeated micro-aggressions.
Delia Mensitieri considers micro-aggressions to be generally systemic. ‘In an inclusive company culture, one can see that the impact of micro-aggressions is much weaker.’
That is why an open working culture in which people can freely converse without fear for negative consequences, is so important.
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