As companies embrace a new commitment to diversity and inclusion, they must address an essential truth: BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color) workers often face microaggressions in the workplace, and this makes it more difficult for them to experience psychological safety.
According to Amy Edmondson,the Harvard researcher who coined the term, Psychological safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. People on teams with psychological safety feel as if their skills and talents are valued. They enjoy mutual respect and trust.
Microaggressions -- subtle acts of exclusion that demean, belittle or harm -- can reinforce an insider/outsider dynamic and undermine psychological safety.
"Just being BIPOC, showing up is incredibly stressful," explained Tiffany Jana, author of Subtle Acts of Exclusion: How to Understand, identify and Stop Microaggressions. "In so many ways people are directing bias on you, often unintentionally."
In Saving Face: How to Preserve Dignity and Build Trust, I detail how "face" -- an individual's sense of dignity, self-esteem, and confidence -- affects relationships. "Losing face" results in shame, loss of respect, and loss of dignity. When we "save face" for someone, we help them recover that loss. By continuously "honoring face," we create the trust and respect that are the foundation of psychological safety.
When BIPOC workers experience microaggressions, they feel a loss of face. What can leaders do to help mitigate for that loss and recover the trust needed for psychological safety?
The following tips can help.
Consider intent versus impact
Microaggressions may be unintentional or perceived as harmless. A comment about a Black worker's hairstyle or an Asian colleague's accent, or an assumption that a Latinx worker can easily translate a document into Spanish -- acts like these erode face over time.
If you've committed a microaggression, help your colleague regain face by being responsible for your impact, regardless of your intent.
"When a person engages in subtle acts of exclusion, they tend to immediately default to their intent -- 'That's not my intention' -- without considering the impact," Jana says. "The initiator of the subtle act of exclusion must be willing to have some humility to believe BIPOC are suffering from the experience. They need to believe it is real, true and it hurts. Acknowledge that 'I caused harm, even if I didn't mean to.'"
"Hold space" by listening to your BIPOC colleagues without judgement. Lead with curiosity. Be open to accepting the reality of their experiences -- even if what they say might be difficult to hear.
Empathy is crucial for this step. Accept and validate the experiences of BIPOC colleagues. This is "honoring face."
"Display empathy to acknowledge they are hurt. The psychological trauma has the same impact as the physical," Jana says.
Raise your awareness
Learn about the different kinds of microaggressions so that when they happen, you have the awareness needed to identify and interrupt them.
"In a meeting, notice who is speaking up, and who is not. Whose opinion has more weight?" says Mary-Frances Winters, author of Black Fatigue. "For example, a Black woman raises a point but nobody acknowledges it. Five minutes later, someone else says the same thing and is taken seriously. Notice whose voice is amplified, and whose is not."
We often miss microaggressions in the moment. An initial fight-or-flight reaction happens and we are too stunned to act, or we don't realize what happened until we take time to reflect and process. Being an ally also means checking in after the fact, validating the experience, and offering support.
Hold self and one anther accountable
Establish inclusive practices in meetings -- when microaggessions can often occur -- and hold one another accountable to maintaining them.
Ask team members to give peers their full attention when they speak. Allow people to take their time and complete their thoughts. Share what you, the leader, perceive as valuable about someone's questions or comments. Use people's names and refer back to earlier comments they made. Invite people who haven't spoken into the conversation.
In the event of a microaggression, consider "calling in" instead of "caling out," allowing someone to save face while still being held accountable.
"Have grace for self and for others. Don't call people out, call them in," Jana says. "Educate the initiator so they won't keep doing it. Help them see the impact."
Teams with psychological safety enjoy greater innovation, creativity, and productivity. To build the foundation of trust and respect needed for psychological safety, protect "face" as a guiding principle, always striving to save and honor face for all.