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Compounding Effects: How Language Plays a Key Role In Creating Inclusive Workplaces

Originally posted on abfjournal

Presented by Thompson M.

Organizational psychologist and diversity, equity and inclusion expert Ella F. Washington explains how company leaders can create more equitable environments and limit turnover by focusing on inclusive workplace language, decision-making and feedback.

Creating an inclusive workplace takes much more than just hiring a more diverse range of candidates; it also requires the creation of an environment where employees feel safe, supported and respected. The compounding effects of slights or insensitive language, no matter how small, can have compounding effects and ultimately damage the well-being of team members and lead to higher rates of turnover.

Ella F. Washington, Ph.D. is an organizational psychologist and expert in diversity, equity and inclusion. Washington, who is also the founder and CEO of Ellavate Solutions, a professor of practice at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, author of “The Necessary Journey: Making Real Progress on Equity and Inclusion,” and the co-host of Gallup’s Center of Black Voices Cultural Competence Podcast, spoke with ABF Journal to explain how even minor and potentially unintentional slights, also called microaggressions, can create hostile work environments, how employees and employers can recognize and eliminate such behaviors and what competencies are needed to be a truly inclusive leader.

Will you please tell us about yourself and your experience in the diversity, equity and inclusion space?

Ella F. Washington: I’m an organizational psychologist and all of my career has been focused on helping to make workplaces better for everyone in them. My specific focus area is diversity, equity and inclusion, meaning I am focused on making workplaces more equitable and inclusive for every single person to be able to have an opportunity to thrive.

Let’s start with the basics. What are microaggressions and how do they manifest in the workplace?

Washington: Microaggressions are everyday verbal, non-verbal and environmental slights, snubs or insults which communicate a hostile, derogatory or negative message to a target person based on their membership in a marginalized group. A few caveats though: Microaggressions can be intentional or unintentional. So, they’re not always something that is intentionally done, but that does not take away the impact that they have. In addition, microaggressions are generally made toward people of marginalized identities, but the humanizing factor is that we all have committed microaggressions and we have all been on the receiving end. So, no matter your background, even if you’re not a member of a marginalized group, you can have a microaggression committed against you.

How do microaggressions impact employees and their well-being?

Washington: Research has shown us that microaggressions are actually not so micro and that there is a culminating effect of experiencing these slights against your identity over and over again throughout the course of your career and your lifetime. While one may just be a comment that someone can move on from, experiencing that daily or on a consistent basis does have a negative impact on the psychological and sometimes even physical well-being that people experience. There’s been lots of research showing instances of depression, higher levels of stress, and high blood pressure and other things of that nature as a result of being in an environment where people have to experience these slights. Employees are also more likely to leave an organization where they don’t feel truly included and they’re experiencing these microaggressions. In addition, when you’re in an environment where you consistently have to deal with these microaggression, it can lead to things like imposter syndrome and self-doubt.

How are microaggressions leading to higher rates of turnover?

Washington: If you are experiencing an environment where you’re constantly having to defend your identity or question if someone is making a comment based off of who you are as opposed to the work that you’re doing, it’s demotivating and stressful. People are less likely to want to stay in environments where they continuously experience that.

What other negative workplace practices may be compounding these types of actions?

Washington: Generally, microaggressions are not something that happens one off and then that person never experiences it again, or the person that committed it never does it again. It usually has a compounding effect. Oftentimes, if there’s an environment where microaggressions are tolerated, you continue to experience them. But if there’s a larger challenge with the culture of inclusion, microaggressions are likely just one part of the issues. And if employees don’t have a sense of psychological safety or trust that these difficult conversations and situations will be dealt with at work, it can really be hard for them to grapple with other challenges with bias or lack of equity or lack of inclusion or lack of diversity. All of those things have a compound effect in terms of what the employee experiences. So microaggressions are generally a signal of a larger issue. And I wouldn’t say just microaggressions, as the acceptance and the pervasiveness of microaggressions are usually a symptom of a larger issue within the organization.

How can employees identify when they may be contributing to the creation of a hostile work environment via microaggressions and how can they improve their behavior to eliminate such actions, whether they were intentional or not?

Washington: There must be a level of self-awareness that we all have to take responsibility for when we have had a negative impact on a colleague or when we’ve said something that’s a little off-putting. Sometimes colleagues will tell us, but other times we must look at their body language or other factors that give us that signal of, “OK, something’s not quite right here; something didn’t land.” But the key to a culture of openness and transparency has to be employees having a level of comfort so they can call each other out or say when there has been a misstep, such as a microaggression.

So sometimes it is hard to know when you’ve offended someone if they don’t alert you, but there must be an environment that cultivates having those difficult conversations and not something that people shy away from. I think organizations have to also be supporting a culture of openness and cultural competence as a leadership strength. And so having trainings, sharing resources and those types of things should be a part of what the organization is doing, to not only equip leaders, nut to equip everyone in the organization with some of these conversational tools to lean into those dialogues when they happen.

How can employers identify and eliminate microaggressions in their workplace to create safer and more inclusive environments for employees, particularly people of color and women?

Washington: Organizations have to create clear expectations for what the company’s values are and what they expect in terms of how people will treat each other. Employees should also know what the course of action is if they report a microaggression or raise a concern. There should be lots of transparency around that process. Organizations should also practice taking regular temperature checks at the company cultural level through things like annual, quarterly or biannually surveys so that what’s happening within the organization is clear.

What are some of the key competencies of inclusive leadership?

Washington: Leaders should think about the language they use, the decisions they make and the way they give feedback. So, there are three areas: inclusive language, inclusive decision-making and inclusive feedback. So, for example, inclusive language could be as simple as using the pronouns that someone prefers or even thinking to ask your team when they introduce themselves to share their pronouns if they’re comfortable. That’s one way you are opening the door for inclusive language. It could also occur when you become aware that a term is outdated or gendered in a way that it shouldn’t be, causing you to shift your language and use different terminology. For example, instead of saying “you guys,” say “you all.” Simple shifts like that can be important. Language certainly does change. It’s a living, breathing part of our culture. However, it’s on the leaders: Once you know better, do better. It’s not about being perfect; it’s about making those shifts when you become aware of changes in language.

When you think about decision-making, it’s really important for leaders to make sure their decision-making is as inclusive as possible. We can’t always take group votes on every single decision or get everyone’s perspective, but leaders should be thoughtful about when there are opportunities for the group to make a decision or for everyone to give input on a particular decision. It’s also important for leaders to be extremely transparent about how decisions are made, even those decisions that they must make unilaterally because of their role. So, when possible, have everyone or general members of the team give input on a decision and have an increased level of transparency about how and why decisions were made, especially if people were not able to give input.

The third area is inclusive feedback. There’s tons of research that shows that people are usually most comfortable giving candid feedback to people that share their same backgrounds and demographics. It’s a natural bias that we all have. We’re more comfortable saying exactly what needs to be said when we have things in common with someone or a pre-established working or personal relationship with a person. As leaders, we have to make sure that we’re giving everyone on our team that openness and exposure and that candid feedback. If you often have lunch with the same one or two team members, that’s OK, but you need to make sure you’re providing other avenues to give informal feedback to team members year-round rather than just waiting for the annual reviews.

A lot of ink has been spilled on improving DE&I the last few years. How do you see the future of DE&I work evolving?

Washington: Well, for one, I think that we have to get to a place where there’s a standard of excellence even in DE&I work. As you mentioned, there has been an uptick in conversation over the past few years, but DE&I did not start in 2020. I think what’s important for organizations to remember is this is a long-term journey, not just a short-term effort because it was the flavor of the month or the flavor of the year in 2020. I’d really like to see organizations look back at that strategy they put together in 2020, those goals and metrics they set, and see how they’re doing. Quite often organizations get frustrated if they’re not seeing the results they want to see in one to two years, but we know to make real change, especially at the cultural level, it can take many years.

It’s important for organizations to have short-term and long-term goals that they’re tracking so that they can actually see the progress. As we look forward, we should be looking to see how the world of diversity is changing by different generations being in the workforce and how the needs of the workforce are changing based on more people working in remote or hybrid environments. There will always be a continuous evolution of how we meet the needs of our workforce, but I do think it’s important for organizations to have a strategy and to keep working towards those goals and metrics that they set. •

Ella F. Washington, Ph.D. is an organizational psychologist and expert in diversity, equity and inclusion. Washington is also the founder and CEO of Ellavate Solutions, a professor of practice at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, author of “The Necessary Journey: Making Real Progress on Equity and Inclusion” and the co-host of Gallup’s Center of Black Voices Cultural Competence Podcast.

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