THE BLOG

Reflecting on the "Small Things" With Big Impact

Jul 01, 2014 | Updated Aug 31, 2014

I have been dreaming about sitting on a beach lately. It is a vision complete with sand, beautiful water, limited technology use, and nice people. Yes, nice people.

This may sound naïve to some, but I am sure I have some people reading this giving me a virtual high five or fist bump in agreement.

The truth is, that challenging and negative interactions with people can be draining and zap our energy, productivity, and peace of mind. We experience it, we feel it, and we know it has impacted us.

A recent New York Times article entitled "Why You Hate Work" has been circulated widely via social media. The sentiments of discontent, wanting more time for "creative and strategic thinking," and "the lack of overall positive energy" seems to have resonated with many people. 49 percent of the people surveyed stated that they do not have a sense of community at work.

I wonder how many of you reading this have often thought that you could bring more of your "whole selves" to work, or bring more creativity to a certain project, or do better work, if you did not feel like there were specific people and observed or experienced behaviors chipping away at your connection to a team or an organization.

In working with teams and organizations around the world, I think there are some additional barriers connected preventing people from feeling respected, valued, and connected to others at work. Think about these situations:

• Have you ever been in a meeting and watched a person roll their eyes after you made a comment?
• Have you been trying to speak with someone as they stared at their electronic device texting or e-mailing?
• Have you felt invisible around some of your colleagues?
• Have you been with a colleague and found and saw they received a glowing introduction, while your introduction was simple, and missing some pieces of your background, experience, etc.?
• Have you ever been left of e-mail communication that connects to a project or client that is important to your work?
• Have you experienced a pattern of someone consistently being late to meeting with you, but not with others?

Any of these sound or feel familiar? In the worlds in which I work, we call these micro-inequities. We often feel the "sting" of these verbal and non-verbal behaviors, but can find it hard to explain to others.

In 1973, Mary Rowe of M.I. T coined the phrase "micro-inequities," and defined these behaviors as "apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, which occur wherever people are perceived to be 'different." Her research of 40 years ago, still is relevant for our workplaces today.

Often described as similar to paper cuts (small but big impact,) and similar to water on a brick (initially rolls off, but over times wears it away,) "micro-inequities" although small and often unconscious, communicate lack of importance, less value, etc.

What can be difficult about those of us on the receiving end of these behaviors is that we wonder how we can address something as seemingly innocuous as snub, a sigh, or a particular tone. We know that it impacts us, and yet we also know people who seem to easily be able to "brush things off," as snarky comments.

Although these behaviors can be/have been easily dismissed by some, there is research that shows that there is a potential cumulative impact, that can make a difference in our work environment and our ability to contribute, engage, and succeed. The impact has been described as "corrosive," having "detrimental consequences," and having an "influence on the standard of living."

I think we have seen micro-inequities increase in organizations, and in some cases become a part of organizational cultures. We allow certain people to say/do certain things, because they are "a key player," or "a rockstar," or "a rainmaker." However, as one of my colleagues often asks -- at what cost?

Many of us experience micro-inequities in our work. I have experienced the sting of micro-inequities, and even though I know the research, I still sometimes hesitate addressing it out, or sharing the impact.

I have learned to use language like "I am not sure if you realize how that landed," or "that was a bit of a sting." I am not hoping to change the person forever, or make someone wrong. I am seeing this an opportunity to take a step back, and then to maybe go back "into the arena" (thank you Brene Brown) and possibly feel a bit less distanced, or frustrated with the person.

(There is also an extremely important diversity component to this conversation. This could be an entire post in itself. People who are perceived to be "different," often experience a different (often nuanced and pronounced) level of these behaviors. Women, People of Color, and LGBT individuals often experience different reactions and behaviors that are tied to an aspect of their identity.

Derald Wing Sue, Ph.D has done significant research in this area. Recently we have seen/heard students at Fordham University, Harvard University, NYU, Brown University, and Oxford share the "micro-aggressions" that they have experienced through a powerful photography campaign/movement. Their campaigns have sparked conversations about the often potentially harmful way we interact with each other that create distance, lack of trust, and impact our sense of community and belonging.

My mother has often said to me "may your friends not be people that make only small mistakes." The "nice people" on the beach, are not people that do not make mistakes. We ALL make mistakes. I could not ethically write this post without also acknowledging how I too am guilty of committing micro-inequities at times. They are people that are reflective, and open to learning about how their behaviors might be impacting others.

Now back to that beach.

What I would hope would happen with the people on the beach, is that they are open to hearing how we can make things better by acknowledging the micro behaviors, which often have big impact... EVEN IF the behaviors are not behaviors that would have an impact on you.

As we think about leadership development, coaching, and working to make organizations more efficient, more productive, more inclusive, and less of places that people "hate," we might focus a bit more on the awareness of micro-inequities and the noted impact on individuals and teams.

There is no magic pill, policy, training program, or pixie dust that will make micro-inequities go away. I have in fact done work with companies that sing their own praises about their micro-inequities programs. Some of these same companies are where I have experienced micro-inequities. Like any aspect of self- awareness, some things that could help are mindfulness, self-reflection, increased communication, and practice in addressing the behaviors.

Mary Rowe in her research also describes behaviors that create a sense of inclusion. She calls them "micro-affirmations." She describes these behaviors in the following way "Micro-affirmations are tiny acts of opening doors to opportunity, gestures of inclusion and caring, and graceful acts of listening. Micro-affirmations lie in the practice of generosity, in consistently giving credit to others -- in providing comfort and support when others are in distress, when there has been a failure at the bench, or an idea that did not work out, or a public attack. Micro-affirmations include the myriad details of fair, specific, timely, consistent and clear feedback that help a person build on strength and correct weakness."

Can you imagine the potential increase in engagement if we described our workplaces as places where we experienced "graceful acts of listening?"

As organizations in the public and private sector look to address engagement and increase innovation, it might help to pay closer attention to how people feel included and respected in an organization. Innovation happens in places where diverse groups of individuals feel like they can share their ideas, and be heard.

I hope to see some of you on the beach in the future. Pull up a chair under the umbrella where I will be sitting. I will be the one thinking about the Revolution (individual, societal, social, and more...) and thinking of ways that we can make our communities and workplaces more inclusive and more meaningful. Be warned, we may be called naïve. I am ok with that.