Avoiding Microaggressions Can Make Shared Spaces More Productive

Avoiding Microaggressions Can Make Shared Spaces More Productive

“The reality is that micro-aggressions are not so micro in terms of their impact. They should be taken seriously, because at their core they signal disrespect and reflect inequality” —Dr. Ella F. Washington

Apropos to the earlier article published on 22 February 2023 that was much appreciated, it is important to understand that knowledge of microaggressions is essential in order to avoid them from happening in the form of a potential perpetrator and in order to deal with it as a victim. Research is quite clear that statements which are usually innocently made, but have sarcastic undertones can be detrimentally impactful on someone’s physical and mental health. These include among others, increased rates of depression, stress and trauma, headaches, high blood pressure, insomnia and so on. Career persons can end up getting disillusioned with their work or work environment, forcing them to frequently switch jobs.

These days, one comes across many instances of young deaths because of sudden heart-attacks or cardiac arrests with no previous history, or strokes, even though one hears of some being highly conscious about diet and exercise. One also learns about cases of young men and women afflicted with extreme depression and undergoing psychological or psychiatric treatments, regularly taking drugs including anti-depressants, antipsychotics, sleeping pills, lithium and other mood stabilizers. We also hear of a substantial population of adults and children being hooked onto narcotics such as methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, alcohol for different reasons as in recreation, experimental use, peer pressure but mostly to escape from the mundane realities of life—personal or professional.

This growing menace of micro-aggression has also caught the attention of employers who are realizing how negatively it is affecting their businesses, the environment of which needs to be congenial for smooth running of their enterprises. With mass movement of people from one place on the planet to another, cultural, lingual and ethnic diversity is now emerging as the new global character. Pearls of wisdom, art, ideology, sensitivity and moral values unique to indigenous cultural oysters are being shared and passed across the ocean of human civilization. The need to communicate and understand each other has never been so imperative as of now, and overcoming fear of the other has become more essential than ever before.

As Dr. Ella F. Washington learnt that this revelation among employers grew more conspicuous during the Great Resignation or the Great Quit at the turn of 2021. The term “Great Resignation” was introduced by Anthony Klotz, professor of management at University College London’s School of Management in May 2021, as he predicted a sustained mass exodus. In the wake of Covid-19, employees voluntarily resigned from their jobs primarily owing to wage stagnation amid rising costs of living, limited opportunities for improving professionally, fewer benefits and of course, hostile environments. The sectors that were most affected were hospitality, health care and education. According to Dr. Washington: “The reality of the Great Resignation of 2021 has employers paying closer attention to how organizational culture can influence whether or not employees want to leave. One study found that 7 in 10 workers said they would be upset by a micro-aggression, and half said the action would make them consider leaving their job.”

Employers should be aware that they or their subordinates may deliberately or inadvertently indulge in microaggressions at workplaces which, if they are conscious about, can easily be avoided. Besides having conversations that smell of racial, ethnic or class bias, some everyday words can be hurtful and offensive. Although these things occur at individual levels, conscientious employers and companies that are interested in creating inclusive environments for their workers must make an effort to provide counselling to their old and new recruits to refrain from using discriminatory language toward any colleagues regardless of their positions in the organization. Persons at the forefront or ones belonging to the human resource department should remain vigilant and not ignore even the slightest of complaints since overlooking minor offences can lead to the institution developing a culture permissive of microaggressions.

For example, telling a person, “You don’t have kids to pick up, so you can work later, right?” implying that those without children do not have a life outside their work or saying to perhaps, a woman who may have been emotionally vocal, “Don’t be too sensitive,” probably indicating that a man would be more objective in that particular situation. These type of remarks must be discouraged by those heading organizations, especially so when they are directed towards a particular group, in order to maintain an inclusive and cooperative environment. To invoke a harmonious atmosphere, ‘know your colleagues’ should be followed on the same pattern as ‘know your clients.’

Response can only be possible when one can actually perceive and identify microaggression from normal talk. Depending on the type of connection with the aggressor, one can either choose to ignore without taking it seriously, point out either immediately or later in time; the sting that is concealed within the words. There is no one particular way of dealing with it since relationships vary from person to person at workplaces and in other social settings. In a group set-up like in a meeting, one should be extra careful in snubbing an offender to avoid creating tension. Prolonged chances of microaggressions can be prevented by informed meeting heads if they politely make it clear to the participants to avoid micro-aggressive remarks. However, the best way out is the one-to-one approach to settle matters before they go completely out of control.

Intentions could be taken into consideration but despite their being good, they do not justify usage of words that can negatively affect someone’s personality. For those who have intentionally or innocently passed micro-aggressive comments and who have been singled out, there is a great possibility that they may try to defend themselves. They are advised to hold on a few seconds to contemplate on what they have uttered because mistakes could be committed by anyone. Seeking clarification and trying to understand the other person’s perspective before jumping to conclusions would be a more sensible approach. Chances are that they may not have sufficient knowledge about what consequences their outbursts can have on others. Of course this can be followed up by a simple, human apology which would definitely go a long way in not only improving relationships with fellow human beings but also set the stage for a peaceful, inter-cultural, interactive and productive environment at work and in social gatherings.

The writer is a lawyer and author, and an Adjunct Faculty at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), member Advisory Board and Senior Visiting Fellow of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE)