For those seeking to create a more diverse and inclusive workplace, “microaggressions” has become a point of focus. The word refers to the multitude of little ways in which we ignore, diminish, or insult people who are different from ourselves, either consciously or unconsciously. It’s an uncomfortable word, because it challenges us to take a hard look at how we treat others, acknowledge that we are not as accepting and open-minded as we would like to believe, and do the work to change our problematic behaviors.

It also has an inverse: “microaffirmations.” One definition, from an article by Mary Rowe at MIT, is “apparently small acts, which are often ephemeral and hard-to-see, events that are public and private, often unconscious but very effective, which occur wherever people wish to help others to succeed” (emphasis mine).

The benefits of microaffirmations in the workplace

While less well-known, microaffirmations can prove just as powerful as microaggressions for business leaders. That’s because microaffirmations build on each other, creating a positivity loop. First, affirming other people’s work, or even just their presence, is a highly effective way to motivate them to do their best. Second, the practice of microaffirmations is often contagious. If the boss offers microaffirmations frequently, others in the department are likely to adopt the behavior. This creates a more supportive and inclusive culture, which again is a stimulus for people to bring their best.

While everyone benefits from bringing microaffirmations into the workplace, it’s especially important to institute the practice when we interact with people who are different from ourselves — people with whom we may be less likely to engage in this way. In fact, focusing on increasing our use of microaffirmations with diverse colleagues and employees may help us to prevent or counteract the unconscious slights that create a toxic culture.

Examples of microaffirmations that build a better workplace culture

Much like microaggressions, microaffirmations come with a multitude of examples, some conscious, some unconscious. Here are a few you can look for, and push yourself to follow:

  • Open doors to opportunity — invite someone to a business networking event, include them on an important committee or project
  • Show inclusion and caring — stop by someone’s office for a chat, socialize with them, get to know about their life outside of work
  • Listen — invite someone to speak, pay attention to their words, ask thoughtful questions
  • Give credit — make sure people’s contributions are known and acknowledged
  • Offer support — stand up for people when they’re being discredited or demeaned
  • Provide feedback — help everyone to recognize and build on their strengths and overcome their weaknesses

Putting a positive spin on microaggressions

Some people are tired of hearing about microaggressions. Those charged with the behavior may feel defensive, self-conscious, and under attack for what seem like pretty small infractions. Meanwhile, those experiencing multiple microaggressions throughout the day, day after day, may be understandably tired of pretending there’s anything “micro” about what is a very big deal indeed.

As business leaders who are tasked with optimizing the productivity and value of our people, we are obligated to work on identifying and minimizing our microaggressive behaviors. One powerful way to do this — that also avoids defensiveness — is to identify and maximize our microaffirmative behaviors.

For more information on how to create a microaffirmative work culture, contact us at ggolden@gailgoldenconsulting.com.

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