Added 13 October 2022

From witness to leader – Microaggressions in the workplace

As I support companies in implementing Diversity & Inclusion strategies, I see more and more clearly the consequences of an unthinking Diversity policy. The more emphasis on Diversity, with no planned actions to change the organization’s culture to a more inclusive one, the more unspoken tensions that “ooze” in inarticulate jokes, faces and comments. These are known as microaggressions.

What are microaggressions? To quote L. Staff ” all those little things, each of which injures and cripples”. They are those behaviors and statements that make the person to whom they are addressed feel ignored, overlooked or humiliated. They are everyday comments, questions, jokes, a way of addressing, most often unconsciously, but characterized by a kind of superiority resulting from membership in the majority group. Microaggressions often reflect stereotypes, confirming the belief of what is typical, valuable and “normal.”

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They are often compared to mosquito bites: one does not disrupt our functioning, while several a day do. Microaggressions carry a “negative power” that affects not only the temporary well-being of the person who experiences them, but according to Kevin Nadal’s research, they affect the overall level of stress experienced, raising blood pressure, a greater chance of depressive disorders, lowering cognitive abilities, self-esteem, problem-solving skills, building relationships in the workplace, and so on.

And for no reason, some people experience them more often than others. Just because they belong to a certain group (background, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc.).

Derald Sue distinguished 3 types of microaggressions (own translation):

  • micro-attacks – small forms of discrimination, the author of which had no intention to offend the other person, such as: “That’s so country”, “Don’t be like a woman and make that decision quickly”, “That’s gay”, “When I was your age, you were still in your mother’s belly”,
  • micro insults – consciously or unconsciously insulting another person, e.g.: constantly not greeting a person in the office, commenting on a black person in our company: “You speak great Polish”, “You are different from all Italians”, “I won’t even try to pronounce your name”,
  • micro-aggression – questioning the experience of people who have experienced micro-aggressions, such as: “Oy, you’re exaggerating, no big deal”, “Get a grip, you’ll do better next time”, “Dress differently then they won’t talk like that”, “Don’t be offended…”.

All these MIKRO events have MIKRO consequences!

It imposes more the conclusion that WE MUST RESPOND! Just who, just how?

Who should react? People who experience micro-aggressions do not always have enough power (confidence, skills, social consent) to react. So don’t be an idle witness to such situations, wake up the leader in you: don’t wait until the punchline of a sexist joke, start reacting.

Like other skills for responding to microaggressions, you need to learn. What can you do?

1 – Start observing: yourself and others. You already know what microaggressions are, try to catch them in the expressions and behaviors of people around you. Consider whether you would want to react in a given situation. You don’t have to react, but remember that this is also a decision and information for the others about what is okay and what is not. Information about what kind of cooperation we agree on here.

2 – Reveal the microaggression: If you decide to react, let the person ‘doing’ the micro-aggression know that you see and hear this behavior and do not condone it. It is very important to do this as authentically as possible. You can say:

  • What do you mean by ‘male decision’?
  • You said “ciapaty”, you said it, right?
  • Make a sound: ouch! (a very effective method, throwing you off the track of stereotypical thinking)

3 – Defuse microaggressions: This can be done on the forum or in private. On the forum will allow you to loudly emphasize the norms of the team, in private has a better chance of influencing the “microaggressor”.

On the forum, ask:

  • How can we look at this issue differently?
  • I think this is irrelevant to our discussion. Let’s get back on topic.
  • I prefer that we do not use such phrases in our discussions.
  • Refer to the Rules/Code of Ethics/D&I policy that applies to your company.

In private:

  • Share your feelings using the IAM Message: “I felt affected when you said…”.

And in consistently high-powered situations, consider documenting the incident and reporting it to the appropriate unit within the company.

4 – Respond respectfully, don’t bestow further aggression on the aggressor. Keep in mind that it is difficult not to be the perpetrator of microaggressions – after all, we grow up in a world that is far from tolerant and, willingly or unwillingly, we soak up the discriminatory messages around us. When introducing D&I in an organization, it is therefore worth ensuring that we create a safe space for people who are more likely to be perpetrators of microaggressions to learn about the consequences of such actions and learn how to counteract them, how to talk about it. When someone in private points out to them not to explain themselves, but to ask: What else have I done/have I done? How can I repair our relationship?

Privileges are not given forever. Tomorrow the aggressor may become a victim.


Recall, especially if you belong to the dominant group in your environment (e.g., you are a middle-aged, well-paid white male), recall a situation in which you were ignored, excluded from the flow of information, humiliated in some way. How did you feel then, how did it affect you in that moment? And imagine that some people experience this every day.

So stop being a witness, start reacting!

Text: Michalina Konkel – Director, DEI Organisational Development at Think Tank Diversity Hub

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