Fostering a positive corporate culture can be one of the most powerful levers for organizational success and employee satisfaction. But culture can be tough to shape, especially when insidious actions can gnaw at a culture until it has completely eroded. Microaggressions (jabs, slurs, snide remarks, and offensive body gestures) are some of the worst offenders.

First defined in the 1970s (and later explored in depth by Columbia University's Derald Wing Sue), microaggressions run the gamut from asking an American-born woman if she is from China, nudging a cube mate to check out an attractive new coworker, or saying in jest "that's so gay" to someone who is, indeed, gay.

Microaggression behavior is often perpetrated against people in marginalized statuses-- including race, sexual orientation, and gender--and can be a major cause of employee disengagement and, thus, a challenge for HR departments.

The Gallup Organization found in a 142-country reaching study ?that disengagement is a large drain on global productivity. In another study, Gallup found that disengaged employees cost the US between $450 billion to $550 billion per year. 

So what can human resources professionals do to combat microaggressions and improve culture? One antidote is employee mindfulness training, which can positively impact organizational culture in the following ways:

1. Mindful employees are better at detecting micro-aggressive behaviors.

To address microaggressions, people need to first understand how to detect them, which can sometimes be difficult. The offender may not have meant any harm, as micro-aggressive actions can often be mindless (which is the point).

The basic tenets of mindfulness are by now well-known. The primary emphasis is on staying in the moment, rather than focusing on the past or anticipating the future. Mindfulness also emphasizes non-judgmental awareness, rather than judgmental or emotional interpretation. These two foundations of mindfulness are crucial when it comes to dealing with microaggressions.

With mindfulness training, people learn to be in the moment, become aware of their actions, and are tuned-in to the consequences of even the most innocuous acts. This awareness can reduce the careless instances of harmful behaviors that deteriorate cultures.

2. Mindfulness reduces blame and increases dialogue.

The impact of unwanted behaviors can be annoying and even painful, and the impacted person might second-guess her discomfort (did he just say that?).  

While avoiding the discomfort might be desirable, it is hard to influence positive change when people don't have a space to speak up, converse, and challenge each other in a way that isn't shaming. Thus, fostering a space to extend compassion, rather than blame, can go a long way.

In these spaces of dialogue, mindfulness can help people feel empathy toward each other, as mindfulness allows people to honor their hurt feelings while recognizing someone else's humanity. People can process a hurtful situation by separating the action from the actor, which offers the space to turn a moment of frustration into one of growth.

Greater awareness of the present allows for unbiased observation of personal and group behaviors--it allows room for forgiveness, understanding, and growth. A conversation can change behaviors. A conversation can steer future outcomes.

3. Aware leaders are culture influencers.

Leadership often comes with power and privilege, which can cause blind spots in a manager's ability to recognize a poisonous culture.  Afterall, employees are more likely to watch their words around people in positions of authority.

However, by training leaders to be mindful and compassionate, they are more likely to step in and help when they notice a slight jab or an assumed presumption. Leaders who work on personal mindfulness are also more likely to focus on present tasks, create cultures of compassion, and make sure the workplace is a safe environment.

4. Mindfulness leads to healthier cultures.

Providing mindfulness training is a first step and a worthwhile investment. From there, though, organizations must consider mindfulness as a fundamental tenet of daily behavior. This doesn't mean that HR departments need to hold group meditation sessions. Rather, a culture of mindfulness can arise from encouraging simple and common behaviors. They include helping employees to:

  • Recognize emotions as soon as they are provoked.

  • Re-frame a situation or specific instance in order to properly evaluate it.

  • Feel comfortable enough to speak up when offended by words or behaviors.

  • Engage in "real talk" when emotions are stirred.

By recognizing mindfulness as a powerful tool, HR departments can encourage a compassionate workforce, where people are unafraid to communicate honestly, which is a major step in creating cultures that engender employee engagement and lead to greater organizational success.