Self-Awareness of Your Privilege & Power: Leading Inclusively to Address Microaggressions

“Where are you really from?”  

“I don’t understand why you don’t drink alcohol!” 

“Are you sure you’ll be able to handle this meeting on your own?”  

“Can you provide your credentials; you look too young to be in this role.”  

Here are a few of the many statements I have heard over my career that though may not have been ill-intentioned they left a negative mark and impact on me. It’s astonishing how frequent statements and behaviours like these are. Subtle, yet the impact is loud and severe on the recipient. Working with leaders and by evaluating the current research, we know that inclusive leaders can play a significant role in countering such practices and behaviours. In a fast-paced work environment, behaviours and practices that might be subtle yet hurtful can be deeply embedded in the workplace. You may have witnessed them, heard about them, or experienced them as well. As leaders, these behaviours might have been reported to you or brought to your attention. We can understand these behaviours and practices as microaggressions.  

Microaggressions are subtle behaviours – verbal or non-verbal, conscious or unconscious – directed at a member of a marginalized group that has a derogatory, harmful effect. These behaviours and practices can be both overt; for instance, using a racial slur or asking to touch your colleague’s textured hair. These behaviours can also be covert. Covert microaggressions would include telling your team member “it was just a joke” when they report to you an inappropriate or insensitive joke that was directly related to their identity. Overt or covert, microaggressions are hurtful and can have a significant impact on employee well-being and mental health. More specifically, microaggressions can result in a loss of self-esteem, feelings of exhaustion, mistrust, and decreased engagement in work.  

As leaders and change agents, it’s crucial that you not only address microaggressions when brought to your attention but build an organizational climate that proactively minimizes the risk of microaggressions occurring. Determining your own privilege and organizational as well as social power can be key in instilling a culture of inclusion which proactively minimizes the occurrences of microaggressions. An awareness of your privilege and power is a critical component in helping you lead inclusively.  

So how do you get started? How do you build an organizational climate which is inclusive and breaks down systems that support the occurrences of microaggressions in your workplace?

Recognizing and Leveraging Your Privilege & Power 

A self-aware leader is one who is an advocate for those who experience marginalization and a leader who also embraces the “willing to learn” attitude and an open-minded approach. Self-awareness entails recognizing the stripes of privilege you carry. We all may have privilege due to some parts of our identity, some of us have higher concentrations of it as compared to others. Leaders recognize and acknowledge their privilege and leverage it to support those who do not have the same stripe of privilege as them. For example, a leader who is white but is self-aware of their privilege continuously works on heightening their levels of awareness of behaviors and statements that might not be offensive or hurtful to them, but can be to their racialized team members. A leader who is able-bodied will not only be aware of their privilege but will take proactive steps and responsibility to ensure an inclusive design and climate for team members living with a disability. This leader will be more vigilant about office layout and design, accessible softwares, and even their pace of speech. Having privilege does not make us good or bad, wrong or right. With privilege and with leadership comes responsibility and accountability.  

Though our privilege leads us to having social power in our societies and workplaces, it is also important to consider here the impact of your organizational power. Within the organizational hierarchy, power is distributed based on your position within the hierarchy. Leaders usually have higher amounts of positional power due to their formal role. In order to cultivate an environment of inclusion and respect, and minimize the risks of microaggressions, a leader recognizes their positional power and does not take advantage of it. A self-aware leader is one who advocates for a just workplace regardless of where folks are on the organizational hierarchy. Inclusive leaders anchor their practices and behaviors in prioritizing and honoring human dignity. By doing so, leaders are intentional and mindful of their own behaviors as well as the behaviors of others.  

Tangible Practices to Address Microaggressions  

Leaders must also address microaggressions when they show up in the workplace. Here are tangible practices you can implement to promote inclusion and address microaggressions. 

  1. Promote awareness: Be at the forefront of educating their team members about microaggressions, explaining not only what they are but also their impact. Support your team in understanding that even though  oftentimes the intent may not be to cause harm, it is the impact that truly matters. Encouraging open discussions and creating psychologically safe spaces allows employees to also share their experiences and gives an opportunity to everyone to exchange their experiences and their learnings.

  2. Implement policies and guidelines: Develop clear and explicit policies that prohibit microaggressions in the workplace.

  3. Encourage learning and accountability: Establish mechanisms for reporting microaggressions, such as anonymous reporting channels or designated individuals to approach. Prioritize the sensitivity and confidentiality of these scenarios. Ensure that reports are taken seriously and addressed in an appropriate manner which aims to address the microaggressions and in making sure that those microaggressions do not occur again in the future.

  4. Support Affected Individuals: Provide support and resources to team members who have experienced microaggressions. This can include pointing them to the resources available through benefits, employee resource groups, or mentorship programs.

  5. Be an Ally: Most importantly, as an ally and an inclusive leader you can also provide support by providing an ear, validating the experiences others have had, and asking what you can specifically do to support. Remember that the intent is not to “save” others, but to ally alongside them and support them in breaking down biased and oppressive systems.

A self-aware leader who is aware of their own privilege and power- both social and organizational- can support in cultivating inclusion and be at the forefront of addressing microaggressions. This is an ongoing act of intention and mindfulness. It may require you to pause more, it may also require you to allocate time and resources that you might not have given thought to; these initiatives will result in a reduced risk of microaggressions and a workplace that progressively inches towards a respectful and an inclusive space.



Effects of Microaggressions | The University of Edinburgh