Identity, Expertise, and Assumptions: Managing Microaggressions in Meetings

managing microaggressions in workplace meetings

As you know, companies are spending lots of money to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) among their workforce and in their company culture. There’s been a lot of talk about the need for fundamental cultural shifts in corporate America and deep soul-searching among executives. This is all absolutely worthwhile—if it’s done right and is not just an empty gesture. These are also really huge, expensive initiatives that are going to take months, years, or even decades to bear fruit.

We’ve been thinking about it from the other direction: What can we encourage people to do on a relatively small scale right now that will have a big impact on improving equity? And how can we demonstrate the business benefits of DEI as part of communication training? We’re working on an occasional DEI series of blog posts as our ideas are field-tested and refined. This one will be about managing the give-and-take in meetings in a way that makes people feel eager to participate rather than defensive, pigeonholed, or marginalized.

What does microaggression in workplace meetings look like?

Let’s say there’s a meeting consisting of mostly white men, but among the participants are two women—one of whom is Black, the other of whom is the oldest person in the room—and a South Asian man. Before the meeting even starts,

  • Both women’s experience is that if notes need to be taken or lunch needs to be ordered, they’ll be expected to do it.
  • Dev, the South Asian man, has gotten IT and technology questions in previous meetings—even though he works in marketing.
  • Susan, the older woman, is often not expected to understand technology, even though she was the project manager who conceived and executed the company’s digital conversion through the ‘80s and ‘90s.
  • The Black woman wonders whether her name, Jendayi, will be shortened to Jen again no matter how she introduces herself. The irony is that the meeting leader’s last name is Szmigielski, and everyone seems to have learned to pronounce it.

Each of these people arrives at the meeting with an extra layer of defensive armor based on experience. In addition to the actual meeting content, they’re thinking—either actively or subconsciously—about how to respond if those same experiences occur again. Do they speak up? Let it go and miss an opportunity (as well as swallowing a slight)? Accept other people’s lazy thinking that what they look like or who they are overshadows what they’ve accomplished and what they can do going forward?

What is the impact of microaggressions at work?

First, let’s think about the value that’s seeping out of that room because of the defenses the three people feel compelled to raise. They can’t focus entirely on the meeting topic because their life experience has led them to expect these microaggressions. Yep, that’s a buzzword right now, but it’s a real thing. The “micro” part is why they are so easily dismissed by people who don’t experience them, but when you add up a day’s worth—not to mention a lifetime’s worth—of micro, it gets macro pretty quickly. Dealing with microaggressions daily is a bit like trying to solve math problems in a cloud of mosquitos: your math skills don’t diminish, but you’re a lot less comfortable and able to focus than the person who’s in a mosquito-free environment. (This is a really oversimplified description. For an informative read on the topic of microaggressions, see Ijeoma Oluo’s book, So You Want to Talk About Race. (Seal Press, 2018.))

Second, let’s think about the effect on each of these people’s careers. If they are not evaluated on what they can do but instead are stereotyped for who they are, how do they progress and fulfill their professional potential? Finally, in addition to productivity issues, microaggressions also hurt like hell on a human level, and nobody should face that every day at work.

So how does this relate to effective business presentations and meetings? We’re challenging you to be intentional about diversity, equity, and inclusion as you lead your meetings. This means you should a) think about the assumptions and stereotypes that live in your own head—we all have them, even if we’re members of minority groups ourselves, and b) adopt some simple behaviors that will help clear those assumptions from your mind. There’s an obvious link to ROI here: the more comfortable people feel in your meetings, the more they will put forward their own good ideas, smart questions, and necessary requests for clarification.

Understanding how microaggressions in meetings would play out: an example

Now we’ll take a look at how this would play out in an actual meeting. Let’s say you’ve reached the Q & A stage in a presentation or the open-discussion portion of a meeting you’re leading. The topic is expansion into new markets both globally and domestically. Calling on someone because of who they are relative to the topic, as opposed to what they know about the topic, is a pretty aggressive microaggression. Susan, after all, does not represent all women over 50, and not all women over 50 are uncomfortable with technology. Making those assumptions is not only bad interpersonal communication, it’s bad business management. Calling on someone because of their expertise, role, or eagerness to participate should be your focus. Here are some examples:


Leading based on people’s identity Leading based on expertise and interest
When the topic turns to supply chain concerns in India and Bangladesh, you immediately turn to Dev. Why does his background make you assume he has expertise? This is a complex business issue requiring deep analysis. All you are doing is putting Dev on the spot, which is unfair and unprofessional. Asking, “Who knows or is willing to learn about these specific supply chain issues and report on it at our next meeting?” then letting all participants have a shot at it based on knowledge and interest, not ethnicity.
When talking about lower-income, urban markets, you turn to Jendayi. This is a pretty huge gaffe on your part—regardless of how and where she grew up. Now her focus is, justifiably, divided between doing her job and being ready for the next offensive assumption sent her way. Again, focus on expertise. Who’s got the research background to understand the subtleties of such work? Who wants to do it? If the person in the room who comes closest to representing a group or issue doesn’t automatically volunteer to take on the work, that’s their prerogative.
You can also microaggress by omission. Let’s say one of the meeting topics is investigating the creation of a global supply-chain app that will convert currency, time zones, and weights and measures across all markets. You ask, “Who wants to give it a shot—Jeff, Marcus, Seungju?” By not including Susan among those who might be qualified and eager to take on the work, you’ve stereotyped her by omission. Instead, make this one about qualifications, as in, “Who has app development experience and might want to look into specs and a timeframe for this?” Then anyone who’s interested and ready can raise their hand and explain why they’re right for the task.

In the meeting, the best way to facilitate this broader thinking is with action. Let’s go back to our fundamental engagement skills of eye contact and pausing.

  • Manage your eye contact so that you include the whole room when asking a question that you might connect with someone’s identity. Dev may want to participate and respond to the question about India and Bangladesh, but make it his choice, don’t make it your default assumption.
  • Pause often in discussions to check yourself and the conversation. Is everyone getting to contribute on all topics? Is the rest of the group making erroneous assumptions about who should do what or who’s an expert? Use your authority as meeting leader to redirect the conversation to include everyone who wants to speak—especially if you know they have something to contribute based on their role or experience:
    • “Susan, I know you’ve worn a lot of different hats at the company. What do you think about a global cloud-storage program?” Then she can contribute based on her applicable experience.
    • “Jendayi, weren’t you and Allan working on competitive intelligence in Europe last year? How does this coordinate with what you learned?”
    • “Who’s interested in this topic and wants to dive in? I want to make sure everyone has a chance to contribute.”

Corporate culture has a long way to go in terms of ensuring equity and inclusion for everyone. But you don’t have to rely on edicts from the C-suite to begin your own work in this area. Think about the microaggressions you might commit—and perhaps also experience—throughout your workday. Be intentional in using the practical tools available to you, like eye contact and pausing in meetings, to get the most out of all your colleagues, interactions, and initiatives in a way that’s fair and allows everyone to do their best work.


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