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Written by Christine Borrelli Smith
Published: January 22, 2019

Join the Micro-Resistance Against Microaggressions

Consider this scenario: You enjoy working for your current organization and developed close friendships with several coworkers in your department with whom you collaborate and socialize daily. A new employee is joining your team today. You are excited to meet this individual, and your first impressions of her are pleasant.

On the other hand, your closest work friend has already decided he does not like the new employee, although he just met her for the very first time and had minimal interaction. When you question him, your friend tells you the new team member is “different” and not someone with whom you and your friends should associate. Your friend instructs you not to invite the individual to lunch with a group of coworkers who eat together on a regular basis.

You realize your friend is quick to judge based on appearances and preconceived notions but will never admit to having an unfair bias. You also recognize the discriminatory nature within which your friend operates could harm the team dynamic and is contradictory to the culture and values of the organization, but you hesitate to go against your friend’s wishes for fear he may turn on you or end your friendship. It is almost time for lunch, and the new employee sits in the cubicle next to yours. What is the ethical thing to do? What action do you take?

As sentient beings, we have an enormous capacity for kindness, acceptance, and empathy. Unfortunately, we have an equal capability for cruelty, exclusionary practices, and ignorance directed towards anyone viewed as “different” from ourselves. While humanity’s most destructive discriminatory aggressions are easy to identify, there is a more frequent, often overlooked, effect of bias causing challenges and division in organizations, social relationships, and society. It can be found each day in our professional and personal lives, undermining and crumbling company and societal cultures one piece at a time and taking a toll on people and the bottom line—the source of this destruction: microaggressions.

What Are Microaggressions?

The term “microaggression” is the brainchild of Harvard Professor Chester M. Pierce and the subject of numerous studies since first coined in the 1970s (Fisher, 2015). Microaggressions are the inadvertent, often unintentional, ways in which people’s implicit biases rear their ugly heads (Fisher, 2015). If we are truly honest with ourselves (often we are not!), we have all witnessed and potentially contributed to microaggressions at work. Consider the following examples, and think of a time when you may have witnessed a similar situation:

  • You overhear a coworker ask another coworker, who is Asian American, “Where are you really from?”
  • A Marketing Manager always gives the one Hispanic employee on his team marketing projects aimed at lower socio-economic classes.
  • The lone female on a team is expected to be the note-taker for every meeting.
  • A group of straight males assumes a gay male does not like football, excluding him from a discussion about the big game last night.

While seemingly insignificant to some, microaggressions like these can have a macro-impact on team and organizational culture as well as the business bottom line.

Let’s return to the scenario with the new employee. What would you do? We all like to think we would take the high road and include the new employee, regardless of social pressure from the friend, but that can be easier said than done.

Unfortunately, situations like the one described are frequent and often overlooked. Let’s assume the new employee was not invited to lunch and continued to be ignored and subtly discredited by a group of colleagues. Let’s also presume the individual did not go to Management or Human Resources with the issue. Why not? Because microaggressions are challenging to prove. When victims of microaggressions share their concerns within professional or social circles, they can be characterized as overly sensitive and imaginative in their interpretation of the actions of others. In some cases, management may be aware of the situation but view it as trivial and unworthy of attention or interpret it as a personality conflict. Ultimately, if no action is taken within a team or organization to address microaggressions like the shared scenario, that new employee will be the first of many to suffer implicit bias in that environment.

The Impact of Microaggressions

When a micro-culture of microaggression exists, departments and organizations can lose significant, diverse talent and dedicated employees. Individuals who, for various reasons, are not approved by a clique can be ostracized until they leave the department or, in some cases, the company. The mental exhaustion of dealing with discriminatory bias every day extends beyond the individual victims, weighing on groups overall and causing communication issues that impact team success and leave members isolated, disenfranchised, and unhappy.

At an organizational level, significant funds are spent identifying, hiring, and training individuals for their roles, and frequent turnover leads to additional expenses and inefficiencies as new individuals are repeatedly brought on board, only to leave shortly thereafter. Lawsuits from individuals who feel marginalized within or by the company is another possible result.

Perhaps harder to measure financially, but just as significant is the potential damage to the reputation of the organization. What are the alienated individuals sharing about their experiences working for the company? Is the business following ethical practices if microaggressions are left unaddressed? The consequences can be severe for both individuals and organizations.

What Can We Do as Leaders?

As scholarly servant-leaders, it falls on our shoulders to be positive moral compasses for others in the battle against implicit bias and microaggressions. But how do we do it? By joining the micro-resistance!

Micro-resistance is defined as “incremental daily efforts to challenge white privilege” (Dush, 2016), but it also applies to any bias based on gender, ethnicity, culture, class, sexuality, weight, age, religion, etc. Utilizing the following methods, you can tackle microaggressions and foster a more inclusive, ethical, thriving workplace.

1.      Confront Your Own Bias Head On

We all have implicit biases, and until we recognize and accept them, we are unable to lead the charge of the micro-resistance. Identify and check your prejudices at the door with the Project Implicit hidden bias test (Greenwald et al., 2011).

Battle your identified prejudices by:

  • Diversifying your social group: Do your friends look like you, come from similar towns, and have parallel life experiences? If the answer is yes, it’s time to seek out and get to know people from other backgrounds, cultures, and schools of life.
  • Exposing yourself to alternative viewpoints: Do you avoid discussing tough subjects with people who you believe have differing views? Opening ourselves up to other perspectives allows us to see the world through another lens and helps develop empathy.
  • Accepting (and celebrating!) that we are not all the same: The world would be dull and boring if everyone were identical. Our diversity makes us stronger and is something to applaud. (Dush, 2016).

2.      Open the Front Door

In social situations, human beings naturally look to others to determine what is acceptable, ethical behavior. Unfortunately, if we are unsure how to act or behave, the “bystander effect” (Johnson, 2018, p. 230) can take hold and paralyze even the noblest among us.

One strategy that can be utilized to address the bystander effect is a mnemonic device referred to as “Open the Front Door” (Dunn, 2015). The next time you witness a microaggression, apply these four steps:  

  1. Observe: State clearly what you see happening.
  2. Think: Express what others may be feeling.
  3. Feel: Share your feelings on what is occurring.
  4. Desire: State what you want to take place to address the issue(Dunn, 2015).

When approached about microaggressive behavior, people may deny the accusation or become defensive and angry. Accept that you will feel uncomfortable and your message may not always be received or acted on as planned (Clay, 2017). Keep trying. Lasting change takes time.

3.      Promote Implicit Bias Training

Encourage your organization to develop and implement implicit bias training for employees. To make the training valuable:

  • Do not normalize bias: Yes, we all have biases, but that does not make it okay. Successful training not only helps people identify their biases but also encourages changes in behavior.
  • Lecture less: Interactive training where employees participate and get to know one another fosters communication and teamwork. Use role-playing to get people out of their comfort zones.
  • Provide actionable takeaways: Effective training provides strategies employees can utilize to combat implicit bias in their work and personal lives. Just learning about the issue is not enough to foster change.
  • Keep the conversation going: Leaders should ensure their teams continue working towards goals identified during the training. Add implicit-bias-battling initiatives to annual team goals(Kim, 2017).

Companies do not want the reputation of being friendly towards aggression and discriminatory practices—micro or otherwise—and should be open to your concerns. Human Resources or a Compliance Department are great places to start this conversation.

4.      Take Care of Yourself

Self-care is an essential part of dealing with microaggressions, especially if the person you are dealing with is someone with whom you frequently interact (Clay, 2017). While eating right, getting enough sleep, exercising, and meditation are all good ways to fuel your micro-resistance, consider adding the following to your self-care plan:

If you are the Target:

  • Find role models, books, and other resources to provide social support and a sense of belonging.
  • Realize it is normal to feel shocked, hurt, and like you may not “belong.”
  • Look for allies (we are there, I promise!).

If you are the Bystander:

  • Be an ally and let the targeted individual know that you recognize the microaggression and he or she is not overly sensitive.
  • Speak for yourself but do not attempt to speak for the targeted person (Clay, 2017).

Be kind to yourself and realize each step in the micro-resistance against microaggressions encourages positive, ethical change in ourselves, coworkers, leaders, organizations, and society.

The Mission

The impact of implicit bias on individuals, teams, and organizations is severe and detrimental to all parties involved. By recognizing our own unspoken biases, speaking up against microaggressions, encouraging our companies to implement implicit bias training, and ensuring our inner circles are inclusive to all people, regardless of our perceived differences, we can lead the battle against microaggressions and implicit bias.

You have the power to change yourself, your coworkers, and your organization one interaction at a time. Use your influence wisely and join me in the micro-resistance!


Clay, R. A. (2017, January). Did you really just say that? American Psychological Association, 48(1), 46. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2017/01/microaggressions.aspx

Dabbah, M. (n.d.). Microaggressions: Those pesky slights that damage workplaces. [Image file]. Retrieved from https://redshoemovement.com/microaggressions-damage-workplaces/

Dunn, J. (2015, November 9). Pedagogy and micro-resistance: A strategy for the college classroom. [Blog post]. Retrieved from  https://flourishingacademic.wordpress.com/tag/micro-resistance/

Dush, C. K. (2016, November 11). Fighting back: Implicit bias, micro-aggressions, and micro-resistance. [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://u.osu.edu/adventuresinhdfs/2016/11/11/implicitbias/

Fisher, A. (2015, December 9). How microaggressions can wreck your business. Retrieved from http://fortune.com/2015/11/19/microaggressions-talent-business/

Greenwald, T., Banaji, M., Nosek, B., Teachman, B., & Nock, M. (2011). Project implicit. [Measurement instrument]. Retrieved from https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/taekatest.html

Johnson, C. E. (2018). Meeting the ethical challenges of leadership: Casting light or shadow (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Kim, M. (2017, December 4). How to not suck at unconscious bias training. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://medium.com/awaken-blog/how-to-not-suck-at-unconscious-bias-training-f4467b3acdf3

Topics in this article

Business Leadership