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Q&A Interview: Addressing Personal Microaggressions and Personal Bias

Whether or not we’d like to admit it, we all carry bias. Built initially as a product of our instinctive fight, flight, or freeze responses, our biases evolve over time as we are influenced daily by our experiences, family and friends, media, and the world around us. As adults we can become less aware, or unconscious, of our own biases, which can create unintentional discriminatory responses toward others, also known as microaggressions. Bias and microaggressions occur everywhere, even in the workplace. Our consistent goal is to uncover our biases and move to change them, and in turn, reduce the potential for microaggressions. Are we ready to courageously and honestly confront our biases?

In a recent panel discussion on Addressing Microaggressions in the Workplace, we interviewed three industry leaders to gain insights on their experience and explore:

  • Types of bias in the workplace and how leaders can increase personal bias awareness
  • Common microaggressions and how leaders can address them
  • The concept of intent versus impact and how it relates to equality, equity, and liberation
  • Tools to reduce bias to create inclusive environments

During the session on addressing microaggressions and personal bias, we had a lively and engaged audience and several questions came up that we didn’t have time to answer. Below are those questions and thoughts from our panelists, James Garza, Diversity & Inclusion Learning Consultant for GP Strategies, Demetriouse Russell, CEO of Venn Diagram Partners, Frank Lewski, Leadership Development Consultant and Coach, and Stace Williams, Founder of InterActive Dynamics:

Q: What does positive bias mean?  What should someone respond to positive bias?  Isn’t it a good thing?

JG: Positive bias could also translate to privilege.  Essentially it stems from some part of your identity being seen as safe, trustworthy, or familiar, without any factual evidence or personal experience to support it.  And then, you benefit as a result.  So, it can be a good thing just in relation to you, but if it is enabled within the context of comparison to another, where negative bias occurs for them against positive bias for you, then it is not a good thing.  This is the injustice that we are trying to combat.

FL: As James mentioned in the Webinar, a bias is typically unfounded or presumed, and is based on stereotypes and implicit associations shaped by others or generalizations.  By this definition, a bias can either be negative or positive.  As a straight, white, non-disabled, male, I have become more and more aware of positive bias directed to me.  In my experience, a positive bias, and its negative consequence, often comes in the form of the “halo and horns” effect.

Let me give a few workplace examples that have happened numerous times over my career…

  • When entering a meeting, joined by a female colleague, with clients we’ve not met previously, I have experienced clients assuming I was the “boss” or held a more senior position than my female colleague – – and that was not the case.
  • When co-facilitating a workshop, with an African-American colleague, I have been in the back of the room, while my colleague was leading a discussion in the front of the room, and participants will turn-around and address their questions to me – – with no evidence that I would be able to provide a more informed response.
  • I’ve been in a corporate leadership role, and been given “accommodations”, without even making a request (such as “better” office furniture, support from an assistant, etc.), while employees with disabilities had to go to extreme measures and high-level of approvals to get “accommodations” that would support their ability to perform work.
  • I’ve been in hiring and talent development conversations where co-leaders make pre-judgements that an employee of Asian background would “obviously” be a “better” choice for a technical role, with no particular facts to back up the assertion.  (Note: This bias is often accompanied with a negative bias that the same individual would not be a good choice for a management position.)
  • And… here’s a very personal example… When my wife and I had our first child, we decided that we would both move into a part-time work arrangement, so that one of us could always be home with our baby daughter.  (Pause – – check-in on your own reaction as you just read that sentence.)  At the time, we worked in different functions in the same company, had similar roles, and were both viewed as “high-potentials”.  We were glad that the company’s HR policies were “progressive” enough to allow for the arrangement.  The reactions from our leaders and colleagues were very different.  The reaction I got was that I was some sort of hero – – a very forward-thinking, sensitive man – – someone who would make a great leader.  I was even asked to go on a speaking tour, across the company, to share my story as an example of creative work-life balance.  To the contrary, my wife received “advice” and “warnings” that she needed to understand that she was putting a hold on her career, and that her opportunities for promotion would be re-evaluated when she returned full time.

So… how should someone respond to positive personal bias like the examples above?  First of all, it’s to be aware enough that it’s happening.  That may be a huge step for someone who has “always” been on that “positive side” of bias.  Then, it’s about acknowledging the inequity of the bias.  That could take the form of “calling it out” or taking some action to balance the playing field.  In my example above, about working part-time, I have to admit, it was my wife who made me aware of the inequity.  Once she did, I used the platform of the speaking tour, without publicly “naming names”, to tell the “whole story.”

Q: ­Any advice on how frontline leaders can model inclusion and cultural humility, and promote behaviors that engender the trust required for strong teamwork?­

JG: Storytelling is a great skill that leaders can use to create an environment of inclusion and belonging.  It also allows leaders to share aspects of their personality and history appropriately while creating connection.  Leaders can cultivate storytelling across the team so that each team member is allowed the space and time during interactive moments to also share parts of themselves.  Again, it is about curiosity.  How can I stay curious about this other person?  Over time, we will see that we are often more alike than we initially thought or have similarities that might surprise us.  When we can connect on that human level frequently, then trust will follow.  So, a simple tool like storytelling can make all of that happen.

FL:  Remember the old “form, storm, norm, perform” model of how teams develop?  In my experience, the “storm” has always gotten a bad rap and is often short-changed (or “wished away”) by frontline leaders of teams.  The “storm” is actually where the work of diversity, inclusion and equity can best be promoted on a team.  After the team has completed forming (e.g. clear about its mission, objectives and who is on the team), storming is where a team leader can explicitly facilitate the team to openly discuss their differences – – What does each member uniquely bring to the team based on their background and experiences?  Storming is also the time where the leader sets precedence for how the team can have inclusive discussions and decision-making – – this can be done by setting inclusive team ground rules, and, more importantly, actually following those ground rules.  Done well, the energy of the storm can be productive (inclusive and trust-building), rather than destructive (exclusionary, silo-creating, and trust-breaking).

Q: ­How do you address D&I and all things related with a senior leadership team that does not want to take it on? They would prefer to continue “business as usual”.­

JG: Numbers and data matter to those that manage the bottom line most.  Work to find ways to get the data that supports D&I initiatives in front of those senior leaders, while also bringing in the human element through the voice of the employee, focus groups, articles with human stories, etc.  Map out a plan of implementation to start diversity and inclusion efforts, start small and grow.  We can often make a difference as a single voice, but often wait for large scale permissions before we take that action.  Be mindful and responsible to your role and internal protocols but get creative.  Find leaders in the organization who will sponsor the cause and gain allyship with your peers.  It is hard work sometimes, but change like this takes time, because we are asking people to analyze their full selves.

FL: This is a tough one to answer in a generic way.  It all depends on where the “resistance” is coming from – – why do they not “want to take it on”?

One reason could be that they do not see the business benefit of taking on such a challenging topic – – that, in their view, there are more downsides than upsides.  If that’s the situation, then the “classic” answer would be to make a business case.  There is a ton of research that can be drawn upon to make this case.  In my experience, going that direction is a tough route – – senior leaders can be very skilled at pushing back on numbers that don’t fit their viewpoint.  It can be more powerful if you have evidence (even if it’s qualitative) from your own organization/company of the benefits of D&I and/or negative consequences of not addressing it.

I think the tougher situation is if you have a senior leader or collective senior leadership team who are ideologically opposed to the premise of D&I.  When this is the case, the result is often a cursory coverage of D&I in corporate values statements, without any real investment or actions in making it real.  Other than a Board deciding to make changes, getting real commitment to D&I may require mindset-shifting development & experiences for the senior leaders.

The most common scenario, in my experience with senior leadership teams (as with the general employee population, and society as a whole), is a combination of the two situations above, along with an often silent minority of senior leaders who are actually advocates of D&I.  In this case, the leverage may be in facilitating those voices (along with other influencers in the company) to no longer be silent.

Q: So a number of female sounding names have shared a similar experience – being told to communicate differently.  Is this just a female experience or have any males also had a similar experience?

JG: Historically, this has been an unfair response to women that are assertive but seen as bossy, passionate, but seen as emotional, and empathetic but seen as passive or weak.  What is typically seen as positive presence for men is translated differently for women.  It is a pervasive problem that we must constantly work to dismantle.  Sometimes men can have a similar experience when another aspect of their identity is brough into play.  For example, an African American man may be asked to calm down or play nice so as to not be seen as threatening, or a gay man can be advised to act more masculine so as not to make others feel uncomfortable.

FL: Yup… I’m a male and heard that feedback growing up (I’m 61 now, so that was some time ago), and occasionally throughout my career.  I am an introvert (tend to listen and think through my thoughts before speaking), typically soft-spoken (not a loud, booming voice), and have been known to publicly shed a tear-or-two when something has touched me.  So… growing up, my male “mentors”, particularly my father and sports coaches, were clear to me that this communication style was not going to “cut it” if I wanted to be successful.  And, also growing up, often coming from peers, I would hear various forms of “stop being such a girl” or “are you gay or something” (although a more pejorative term was typically used instead of gay).  I heard similar “corporatized” versions of that feedback, occasionally, early in my career; although I would have to say it’s been rare in the last 20-25 years (or I just don’t pay attention to it anymore).

The bias that’s behind this feedback is that the best way to communicate and the best way to be heard is with a strong, loud, confident (even when you’re not), lean forward kind of way, where the only “allowable” emotion would be anger (which is interpreted as “passion”).  This is a particularly western cultural bias, not so true in many eastern cultures.

Now, I believe that bias has tempered a bit (in the past 20-25 years), at least in some corporate settings, as it’s been applied to males.  The concepts of vulnerability, compassion, and empathy have become a bit more acceptable for, and even “taught” to, males.

So… to come back to the female side of this story… I believe it’s true that women in corporate roles are often the target of that same original bias.  The difference is this… Much like when I was growing up, women may be told that they need to communicate differently in order to be heard.  But… something different happens if they do…  When a woman raises her voice, takes a firm stand on her opinion, shows some anger, she’s often not viewed as a passionate, confident leader, but rather the “b-word”.  So… it can be a no-win situation.

I think the corporate world is slowly shifting on this particular bias.  I discuss it often with my wife who has also been in and around the corporate world for the last 40 years, and my daughter who has joined it more recently.  I hope so.  Maybe my 1-year old grand-daughter will have a different experience.

Q: Do you feel the word “microaggression” masks what it really is – and that’s racism?  Racism needs to be addressed and calling it a microaggression seems to make it easier to do.  What are your thoughts on that?

JG: Yes, a microaggression can be rooted in or totally align with racism.  But not all microaggressions are about racism.  They can also be the result of bias related to gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, education, religion, etc. However, if a behavior is racist, let’s call it that.  Look into Ibram X. Kendi’s book, “How to be an Anti-Racist”.  Professor Kendi offers insight that will help anyone understand how to get a foot in the door with these types of necessary conversations.

FL: A couple of thoughts… The first is that a microaggression is driven by a bias that could be related to any identity/characteristic – – race, gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, etc.  And… a microaggression is an interpersonal act (one person to another) that leaves the receiver feeling othered.  Racism, and all of the other ism’s, is a systemic issue – – also originated in bias, but manifested in a pattern of microaggressions and micro-inequities, with structures, policies, practices, etc. that result in power and privilege for one group and oppression of another.  So… I believe a racial micro-aggression is a subset of the broader issue of racism.  Said another way, dealing with racial microaggressions is a positive move, but it does not fully address the broader, more complex issues of systemic racism.

Q: How do you distinguish between a microagression and a simple mistake?  What are the differentiators?

JG: A simple mistake and a microaggressions can be the same thing.  Often times, due to our unconscious bias, a microaggressions is a mistake.  There is a difference between a malicious act, done on purpose and a moment of ignorance or jest, that still causes harm, but didn’t come with the intent to do so.  This is where intent and impact really play a part in helping someone understand that we can call a behavior or an action a mistake, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also a microaggression.  And leaning on Maya Angelou’s quote, but paraphrasing, when and if we know better, then we must do better.  This is where we start to understand that mistakes still require responsibility and accountability, especially if they are also a microaggression.  Ultimately one of the biggest differentiators is what is the recipient calling it?  Do they see the interaction as a simple mistake?  Calling something that someone sees as hurtful (impact) a simple mistake (intent) can come across as an excuse.  The best thing we can do is own it, stay open and honest, and then work to keep it from happening again.

FL: From the viewpoint of the receiver at the moment of the microaggession, there really is no difference.  In the webinar, we talked about the dynamic of intent vs. impact, and it’s the impact that lands on the receiver.  When a “microaggressor” defends their behavior as a “simple mistake”, the impact is often heightened.  If, instead, the “microaggressor” takes responsibility for their behavior, seeks to understand the impact of that behavior (which could include a meaningful conversation with the other person), and takes steps to learn from the situation, then trust can be built in the relationship.

Remember the example Stace gave in the webinar about the person wearing boots stepping on the person wearing sandals?  Even when there is an environment where CARE and trust exist, there still may be times where people “step on toes” (by mistake or accident or circumstance).  But, in a safe, inclusive environment the conversation might sound something like… “You know you just stepped on my toes.  I was wearing sandals and you were wearing boots.  And, it really hurt.  In fact, I think my toe might be broken.”  And, the response would be… “Oh my.  I’m so sorry.  I’m going to make sure that doesn’t happen again.  What can I do to help with your toe?”

I know that sounds overly simplistic.  But, play around with the conversation.  Substitute an example of a microaggression, and listen to how it could play out for both sides of the story.

Q: Can I have the details mentioned in each category of the care model?


C stands for curious, staying interested in the other person while we work to suspend judgment.  Care might sound like, “Can you tell me more about how I made you feel excluded?”

A stands for Authentic, showing up as the best version of yourself every tie.  Authentic might sound like, “It is never my intent to make you feel this way.  I can see how my joke was not appropriate.”

R stands for responsible, taking responsibility for our impact, regardless of intent.  Responsible might sound like, “I am sorry.  Thank you for helping me become more aware.”

E stands for expand understanding, remaining humble and open to learning and growing even more.  Expand understanding might sound like, “How can I do better moving forward?”

Q: What in your experiences does the culture / climate need to look like to encourage and support use of the CARE model?

FL: One where there is equal value placed on results and relationships; company success and every individual’s success; difference and commonality.

Q: How can you have honest conversations without fearing for your job?

JG: Fear of losing your job over having a meaningful, necessary conversation seems illogical, but it is a real concern for a lot of workers.  I would first work to identify what is driving the fear, find the root cause.  Once you can uncover that, then work to see what safeguards can be put in place to reduce that fear or worry.  For example, if the fear is that your words will be misconstrued or retaliation will result from the conversation, ask to have an HR representative or a trusted, neutral leader to be part of the conversation.  If the fear stems from possibly saying the wrong thing and making the situation worse, then script out your discussion and practice it with someone you trust, whether at home or at work.

FL: If you are in an environment where that is the reality and/or a strong perception of the reality, then safe, confidential forums and vehicles need to be created for these conversations to take place.  And, policies and practices need to be created, communicated and followed that clearly explain what behaviors are expected vs. what behaviors could cost you your job.

One tricky part of this question is in the context of peoples’ learning and growth in the area of D&I.  Some of the most powerful learning experiences I’ve been a part of (as both a participant and facilitator) have involved very open forums where participants share their experiences and beliefs.  This could include stories from both sides of a microaggression.  At times, that means a person experiencing a microaggression could feel threatened for speaking up.  Or, the flip-side… a microaggressor might speak about one of their personal bias’, or it emerges out of the unconscious during the discussion – – and, it could be “ugly”.  In the context of a developmental experience, this can result in some very deep and meaningful personal growth.  None of this will happen if there is a fear that these stories will be repeated outside of the developmental experience.  So… great care (and CARE) needs to be taken in the design and facilitation of these types of sessions.

Q: You were ‘othered’ by someone in the leadership role, how do you bring that up and talk to them without feeling like you are rocking the boat too much and are a troublemaker.

JG:  Sometimes we have to get into what the late John Lewis calls “good trouble”, because being othered deserves an honest, direct conversation.  If we make someone uncomfortable, that is ok.  That is part of the process sometimes.  Our hope is that the other person will come to the moment with us with an open mind, a kind heart, and humility.  We know that isn’t always the case.  One of the ways we can get people to come to the table is to plan our approach, so that we can stay hyper focused on our goal without getting caught up in tangents, deflecting, or even emotions, despite our emotions being valid.  For addressing microaggressions, we can use the Fact and Impact tool.  Here is the breakdown of the tool with a gender bias moment example.

  • What was the statement/action?
    • Ex: “John repeatedly interrupted me when I spoke during the meeting.”
  • What assumption, stereotype, or belief might have prompted that statement/action?
    • Ex: Men are better at business and thus generate better ideas than women.
  • What message about me or my skills did it imply?
    • Ex: My skills, knowledge, and contribution are not valued.
  • What did I feel?
    • Ex: Hurt, angry, and insignificant.
  • How did it affect my behavior?
    • Ex: I stopped sharing ideas during meetings and now only submit them in writing to my manager.

Answers to the questions, are a great way to then shape a simple message to that person.

FL: Well… the greater responsibility for this, to not go in that direction, falls squarely on the leader.

But, that said, I think there are several questions/factors to consider.

  • So… to start with… if the ‘othered’ feeling includes a concern of physical harm, abuse, discrimination, harassment, etc., then you have every right to seek other support rather than addressing the situation directly with the leader.

If it does not fall into the above categories, then here are some other considerations:

  • What is your relationship with this leader – – what is the level of mutual trust? If it’s very low or non-existent, then, certainly the risk is higher.  In this case, you may want to consider seeking advice/information, from someone you trust, who knows this leader better than you do.  This additional background could help you define how best to address the leader, if at all.
  • If you choose to talk to the leader, consider using the “classic” best practices for delivering feedback – – make sure you are “grounded” before meeting with the leader; choose a private place for the conversation (in-person is best if possible; video-conference is second-best); ask the leader if they are willing to hear some feedback; state your authentic reason for giving the feedback; make a concise statement that includes the specific behavior/action of the leader (as if it were on a video-camera; not an interpretation), the impact it had on you, and how you felt in that moment. Then, and this is critical, pause.  Let the leader react, and hopefully, they will be curious and want to understand more.
  • If you deliver the feedback as described above, and the leader has a defensive response, you can acknowledge that it might have been difficult to hear, but you don’t need to apologize for giving the feedback. If they have an “offensive” response, then start back at number 1.

All of the above could be useful in addressing anyone who has “othered” you.  The extra “challenge” is the power difference (real and perceived) of the person being in a leadership role – – power that could be used for retribution.  So… my overarching advice for the situation is to follow your heart and take care of yourself.

Q: What can one do when your manager says you need to change the perception of yourself with no examples or why?

JG: We all want and sometimes need examples when we are told that we need to change our behavior.  Examples give us context.  If your manager is asking you to change and not providing examples regarding why, then seek feedback elsewhere.  Take what your manager is saying, stay open to it, and then evaluate its merit with people that you trust that will also tell you the truth.  If after seeking more feedback, you are able to find a connection to your manager’s feedback, then you can start to work on a plan to address it.  If you don’t find alignment, then keep the feedback in mind, and stay responsible to self-reflection or a pulse check on that feedback moving forward.

FL: So, I could see a few possibilities…

  • (I’m assuming you’ve done this one already.) Ask your manager for examples and why.
  • Based on what you know about this manager, what do you think is behind their need for you to change the perception of yourself. Given this question was asked in the context of the “Bias and Microaggressions” webinar, do you believe your manager is acting on a bias they hold?  If so, do some more exploration – – pay attention to other ways this manager may be demonstrating this bias.  If you see/hear other examples, and certainly if it’s playing out as a microaggression, then you may want to take some of the steps outlined in the previous question.
  • Ask a trusted colleague what they think it means.
  • If you have no interest in making a change in the perception of yourself, then consider just ignoring the comment, and moving on.

About the Authors

GP Strategies Corporation
GP Strategies is a global performance improvement solutions provider of sales and technical training, e-Learning solutions, management consulting and engineering services. GP Strategies' solutions improve the effectiveness of organizations by delivering innovative and superior training, consulting and business improvement services, customized to meet the specific needs of its clients. Clients include Fortune 500 companies, manufacturing, process and energy industries, and other commercial and government customers.

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