It’s the little things that count
Much has been made of the evils of microaggressions but what of micro-affirmations? It turns out that when people interact, they not only target disadvantaged minority groups with microaggressions – they also offer more praise and supportive and validating comments towards people they consider to be most like themselves. Over a lifetime, these little, regular favourable interactions make those receiving more of them feel happier, more confident and, across the population, this contributes towards their enjoying greater success than those without.
What’s that in plain English?
Most people attack people from minority groups, albeit in socially accepted ways. These low-level degrading remarks and disproportionate use of put-downs and jokes made at the expense of others are prevalent in almost every workplace and too often go unchallenged, creating an unwelcoming and hostile environment for anyone who is not a cis-gendered, straight white male. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that the same people praise and validate white people (and almost certainly also cis-gendered, heterosexual men) more than other groups. This concept of micro-affirmations has only just started to emerge from the world of social science research.
The Fakequity blog suggests one community survey showed that teachers reached out to parents equally often when communicating something negative about a child but successfully reached out to report something positive to parents of white children 20% more often than they did to the parents of black schoolchildren, demonstrating a systematically greater interest in supporting white children. This matters because while failures tend to be systematically reported in any organisation, praise and reward tend to be given out much more selectively and with greater discretion. Everyone in school is punished the same but only those who are favoured are selected for praise, to be lifted up and told they will go far in life.
The trend continues in the workplace. Evidence abounds that positive interactions, from praise to managerial coaching build trust and rapport that engages people and lubricates the channels of communication that help people perform at their best and feel a sense of belonging in a team and as part of an organisation. This might sound trivial but it is fundamental to developing loyalty, creativity and resilience and safeguarding wellbeing. It changes what it is like to study, work or be a member somewhere: it determines whether you feel valued or merely tolerated.
So, if we are to leverage the huge benefits of having an integrated, diverse society, we must first pay careful, mindful attention to how we treat one another – who and how we criticise and praise: who we put down and who we choose to lift up. It is tempting to throw one’s hands up and declare innocence but the evidence is clear that everyone is guilty – we just don’t notice what we are doing, and it isn’t like it is all one way – the balance of praise is simply shifted slightly, though enough to make it obvious to everyone watching who is being favoured.