What are micro-behaviors and how do they impact inclusive cultures?
Caroline Arnold is a Diversity and Inclusion Consultant, specializing in equality, diversity and inclusion, and unconscious bias at EW Group.
The little things that make a big difference
You’ve probably heard of the term ‘micro-behaviors’, maybe in the same context as implicit bias or unconscious bias – but what does it mean and more importantly, what kind of impact can it have on the creation of inclusive cultures in the workplace?
Micro-behaviors are tiny, often unconscious gestures, facial expressions, postures, words and tone of voice which can influence how included (or not included) the people around us feel. The term ‘micro-behaviors’ was coined by psychologist Mary Rowe in the early 1970s. It relates to the concept of micro-inequities or micro-aggressions, which refers to the ways in which individuals may be singled out, overlooked or ignored based on an unchangeable characteristic such as race or gender. In a 10-minute conversation there might be 50 micro-messages transmitted between two people; psychologists call these positive and negative micro-behaviors.
- Verbal and non-verbal
- Very subtle
- Usually unconscious
- Influenced by our biases
How can micro-behaviors impact inclusion in the workplace?
More and more organizations are striving to create inclusive cultures in the workplace to help improve employee engagement, career progression and overall performance both on an individual level but also companywide. But there are some areas particularly hard to tackle because, much like implicit or unconscious bias, we are not aware of them.
A quick glance at the clock during a conversation. Checking your phone during a meeting. Implying you are busier than everyone else. These little actions can reveal a lot about what you’re thinking and can send powerful messages to the people around you. But it can often be hard to identify micro-behaviors. And when the targets do recognize these micro-behaviors, it can be difficult to explain why these little actions can result in big problems. Since these behaviors are ‘micro’, they are often labelled as insignificant.
Yet, micro-behaviors can significantly impact how the level of inclusion and value we feel. It can impact our motivation to be engaged with those around us and our work. Other examples of negative micro-behaviors include:
- Being dismissive of people more junior, e.g. “I didn’t have time to read that email”
- Not thanking people
- Using nicknames for some people, and not for others
- Consistently mispronouncing non-western names
- Interrupting a person mid-sentence
- Rolling your eyes
- Being consistently late to a meeting
Micro-aggressions can adopt other forms, including racial micro-aggressions.
On a positive note there are micro-affirmations which will help build a feeling of inclusion in a company such as:
- Paying attention to someone talking
- Letting someone finish their sentence
- Giving eye contact
- Demonstrating positive body language and facial expressions
- Calling out interruptions and asking the person who was speaking to continue
- Mentioning the achievements of all of those involved in a piece of work
- Putting your phone away during a meeting
- Remembering names and information
The impact of micro-behaviors on team performance
Check our post on how to build diverse and inclusive cultures to find out more about how micro-behaviors can help make you a more inclusive leader. Inclusive cultures and inclusive leadership go hand-in-hand; when senior leaders role model inclusive behavior this can have a major impact on positively impacting company cultures to become more inclusive, perform better, increase innovation and attract diverse talent. See our workplace guide on Inclusive leadership to learn more.
The next time that you are in a meeting ask everyone to put their phones away and actively listen to all the ideas contributed. Near the end of the meeting, rather than simply asking “any other business”, go around the table and say everyone’s name and ask them individually if there is anything else, they would like to contribute or alternatively if they’d prefer to share their comments via email. This creates the space for everyone to feel that they ideas and thoughts are valued, without feeling pressure to divulge anything on the spot.