Microvalidation: The New Trend in Inclusive Leadership

As a leader, you’ve likely attended several HR training courses about inclusive language. One important part of inclusivity in the workplace is recognizing microaggressions. A microaggression is a subtle or indirect act of exclusion that discriminates against someone who belong to a historically underrepresented or devalued group — whether because of race, gender, sexual orientation, or other identity. These actions and statements can negatively impact learning, growth, and overall emotional well-being for workers.

Simply recognizing and working to avoid these actions is not enough. They need to be counteracted. Research shows that in addition to the microaggressions and other forms of discrimination they experience, individuals from marginalized groups typically experience a lack of positive interactions compared to their majority-group coworkers.

To address this inequity and build positive relationships in the workplace, we must not only stop negative interactions, but we also need to encourage positive ones. So, how do we do that?

The answer is microvalidation.

Microvalidations are small but powerful statements and actions that can offer encouragement, affirmation, and support. These actions can include things as simple as acknowledging and validating someone’s experience of microaggressions or discrimination in the workplace, or giving encouraging, constructive feedback, and sincere compliments.

Researching this subject for over 20 years, the Center for Positive Organizations has found that highlighting and praising an employees contributions and strengths can lead to happier, healthier, and more engaged workers. Workers who feel validated and appreciated perform better and stay with your organization longer.

Here are five subtle acts of inclusion leaders can start practicing right now:

1. Acknowledge their presence.
Non-verbal communication -- including tone, facial expressions, body language and posture, and eye contact -- accounts for 65 percent of all communication, according to a review published in Image and Vision Computing. Eye contact holds a special place in the non-verbal category, though, and is generally associated with honesty and caring.

Employees in marginalized groups often report that they feel that when they are speaking, they are not given full attention or are often interrupted. To combat this, when someone is speaking, give them your full, undivided attention. Make eye contact, nod, and be conscious of your facial expressions and posture.

2. Uphold consistent employee standards.
People in marginalized groups are often held to lower standards in subtle ways. For example, they are given low-level tasks, micromanaged, and they are given feedback based on negative stereotypes. These microaggressions can cause doubts about their skills and potential.

However, compliments based on stereotypes can also fuel discrimination. For example, telling an African America or Asian American employee that they speak English well leads to an assumption that you may think people of their race are less intelligent or less educated. This comes across as praise because your upper management didn’t have high professional expectations for you to begin with.

Hold your entire team to the same high standard, and frequently encourage and assure them that you know that they can meet those standards. When giving challenging assignments make sure that you are also providing encouragement, adequate resources, and constructive feedback. Remind and assure them that you know that they can handle the level of work they are given.

3. Voice gratitude for employee contributions.
Expressing gratitude will improve all aspects of your life, but it is especially necessary in the workplace. Frequently voice appreciation for workers, specifically mentioning their individual contributions to the betterment of the team and praise their good work.

Another way to do this is something Harvard public policy professor Iris Bohnet refers to as micro-sponsorship. This is when you highlight an employee’s expertise and skills when speaking with other members of your organization.

We tend to take care of and advocate for people wo look like us, leaving marginalized communities with a lack of credit, leading them to feel overlooked and undervalued.

4. Validate their identity.
We are all complex beings with a variety of different identities attached to us. Race, gender identity, job title, and many other factors make up how a person perceives themselves, and how they would like to be perceived. However, these identities are often minimized and ignored in the workplace.

For example, you may give an employee a nickname because their named is “too difficult” to pronounce, or you might automatically assume that a mans spouse/partner is a woman.

To combat these subtle discriminatory actions, make sure you are always aware of how that person wants to be perceived. Have a line of open and honest communication with your employees about these identities. Be sure to call people by their preferred pronouns, and don’t give unwelcome nicknames or attempt to anglicize someone’s name so it is easier to pronounce.

Simply take the time to learn the correct pronunciation and encourage other team members to do the same. Be sure to acknowledge and educate yourself about their backgrounds, and validate their life experiences and cultures, no matter how different they are from your own.

5. Be clear about opportunity and status.
Non-prototypical leaders (in other words, non-white, non-male leaders) often experience pushback in their authority, which means that people reject, disregard, and challenge their leadership ability, decisions, and potential. This can quickly lead to a lack of representation and diverse leadership.

To help make sure that all employees at all levels are given the respect they deserve, be vocal about your faith and trust in their abilities. Acknowledge the challenges they have faced as a marginalized employee. Make introductions to important contacts in the organization and provide them with
coaching, encouragement, resources, and support to help them succeed in leadership roles. You can also make sure to use their formal titles in public settings (Dr., Professor, etc.) as they have worked hard to earn those.

These small acts are not going to completely change your organization. However, they will change how your employees view you as a leader. It has been proven that negative comments stick with someone far longer than positive ones.

Leaders must balance these scales by offering appreciation and validation to their employees. This must also be followed with support and action.

Intentionally implementing these changes at all levels within your organization can help bring about real change in your workplace and help shift longstanding (and possibly discriminatory) power imbalances in your organization and community.

Contact Us

LeaderStat specializes in direct care staff, interim leadership, executive recruitment, travel nursing and consulting for healthcare organizations nationwide.