3 Things Managers Can Do to Confront Microaggressions Head On

Your goal isn’t to automatically have all the answers — it’s to surface topics in your blind spots and learn more about them

Sarah Soule, Pamela Levine and Lori Mackenzie
Marker
Published in
7 min readJul 6, 2020

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A photo of a Black businesswoman talking to her White colleagues.
Photo: Westend61/Getty Images

One of your direct reports asks for a private meeting. You expect to hear about an update on one of their projects and are caught off guard when they say, “While eating breakfast, two white employees asked me to clean up after their mess. I am a program manager.” Your employee was mistaken for a food service worker. It’s uncomfortable to hear about. Perhaps you’ve even experienced or observed similar slights yourself. Are you equipped to respond?

The encounter your employee described is an example of a “microaggression.” Microaggressions are slights, invalidations, indignities, put-downs, and insults that can be intentional or unintentional, occur in day-to-day interactions, and are most often experienced by people of marginalized groups.

Report after report demonstrates that microaggressions happen in nearly every field: academia, science, manufacturing, tech — and especially if you are Black, Latinx, LGBTQ, a woman, a veteran, or someone with different abilities. Researchers Aneeta Rattan from London Business School and Carol Dweck of Stanford University surveyed Black professionals, and an overwhelming 67% reported such experiences. Among this group, those with a growth mindset were more likely to react in the moment and call out the racially prejudiced remark to the person or people making it.

In the largest study to date on women professionals in corporate America, LeanIn.org and McKinsey reported that 73% of women from almost 600 companies experience these negative dynamics across a wide range of workplaces. These biases begin at the earliest levels of a woman’s career — well before she is on the management track — and are a possible deterrent to seeking promotions and upward mobility to senior management.

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Sarah Soule, Pamela Levine and Lori Mackenzie
Marker
Writer for

Sarah Soule, Morgridge Professor of Organizational Behavior, Pamela Levine, Learning Experience Designer & Lori Mackenzie, Lead Strategist for DEI, Stanford GSB