When it comes to tackling unconscious bias, microaggressions are a key component that has to be addressed. Unconscious bias can reveal itself in the workplace as microaggressions. The key to addressing microaggressions is to understand how unconscious bias impacts stress levels, productivity, and overall team cohesion and the role that microaggressions play in perpetuating this malignant interpersonal disease.
Unconscious bias in the workplace has a career-stifling effect because it influences behavior and decisions driven by negative societal conditioning towards minorities or marginalized groups. However, unconscious bias also includes any conditioned negative views towards a majority that drive negative perceptions and behavior toward that group (reverse bias) — though this element is rarely openly acknowledged. All stem from societal conditioning and past experiences.
Microaggressions are subtle conscious and unconscious slights towards minorities or marginalized group members from majority members based on negative stereotypes. An example could be voicing surprise at how well-spoken a minority/marginalized group member is, with statements such as: “You’re so articulate.” Another example is always asking a co-worker with a disability if they need help. Microaggressions leave victims feeling insulted and invalidated as equal members of the team.
Most definitions of microaggressions are imbalanced, failing to address how minorities and marginalized groups can (understandably) misinterpret perfectly normal behavior as microaggressions. This would make the traditional victim the perpetrator and the traditional perpetrator the victim in that instance. While microaggressions aimed at minorities and marginalized groups are certainly more prevalent, minorities can misinterpret statements as microaggressions. When the misinterpreted microaggression is called out mostly ineffectively, it invokes a negative response from the majority victim and can perpetuate the problem by wrongly confirming to the minority their suspicion of microaggressive behavior and unconscious bias.
The situation is compounded when the majority victim defends their position and is then unconsciously gas-lighted by the minority perpetrator and made to feel that they are the problem. In reality, it’s the minority’s conditioned views of the wider majority that are causing the contention.
Therefore, it’s inadequate and counter-productive to address the problem of microaggressions and wider career stifling unconscious bias from a one-sided perspective. When we do, it impairs our wisdom, and we come up with wrong answers, adopt “a state of alert,” and simply reinforce the biggest unconscious bias of them all: that the majority are guilty perpetrators by default and minorities are hapless victims solely reliant on the majority to change for their career progression. Both are extremely damaging.
Left unresolved in the workplace, unconscious bias lays fertile ground for toxicity to flourish. The solution to tackling workplace bias and its expression as microaggressions is to equip and empower all team members with the necessary skills and confidence to navigate unconscious bias at the moment. It also allows traditional victims of bias to have as much of a role in dismantling workplace bias as traditional perpetrators.
Here are two proven tactics based on my method of asking “I don’t understand” (IDU? Methodology) for tackling microaggressions and complex career-stifling bias at the moment:
1. Quick call out for microaggressions
– Consciously make a mental decision that the sensed bias directed towards you is a minor unconscious infraction at worst.
– Acknowledge to yourself that your concern or offense may or may not “have legs” but that it’s not worth ruining your lunch over.
– Briefly, calmly, but clearly use a light, friendly response or humor to recondition the presumed perpetrator — and then move on and enjoy your lunch.
2. Enquiring call out for more complex career-stifling bias
– When team members sense less tangible career-stifling unconscious bias, engage in a calm extended conversation with the sensed perpetrator then and there. Don’t wait or delay!
– Draw their attention to your sensed bias through effective, nonjudgmental, inquiry-driven dialogue. Allow for your possible misinterpretation of their comment or behavior.
– Avoid finger-pointing (literally and figuratively) and/or drawing on negative personal past experiences or general negative narrative and hearsay about the category the presumed perpetrator fits into. Otherwise, you become the perpetrator, not them. You also run the risk of almost certainly getting their backup.
– Collaboratively agree on how you’ll harmoniously move forward and then get on with your life and your career.
IDU? provides a platform and gateway for non-confrontational, open dialogue and turns the traditional victim into a leader and captain of their career.
Watch a YouTube explanation of how to think about and tackle career-stifling unconscious bias here.
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Buki Mosaku is the Founder and CEO of London-based Diverse City Think Tank, a workplace-bias and diversity-and-inclusion consultancy. He is one of the world’s foremost bias-navigation experts. Mosaku has cracked the code for calling out unconscious workplace bias and stopping it in its tracks, which he details in his new book, I Don’t Understand: Navigating Unconscious Bias in the Workplace (Business Expert Press, Aug. 23, 2023). Learn more at www.bukimosaku.com.
By Buki Mosaku