Imagine you’re on a project team, working on upgrading the organization’s technology infrastructure. In meetings, you find you are often interrupted—you feel your voice isn’t heard. You receive an e-mail about the project, and notice you’ve been left off of an e-mail chain that goes back weeks to the rest of the team. Then you notice the entire team has gone for lunch without you. You feel excluded, devalued. You are experiencing the impact of microinequities.
According to Brigid Moynahan, founder of the Next Level, a leadership training firm, micro-inequities are the small, subtle behaviors that devalue other people. “What’s the difference between rude behavior and micro-inequities?” she asked. “They become microinequities when it happens consistently enough to start really walling the person out. They’re subtle, and they’re often semiconscious, which makes them unbelievably powerful because we often don’t know why we’re feeling that the climate we’re in is cold or we’re feeling demotivated, or we’re feeling like we don’t have any creativity. We’re developing attitude problems, and we don’t know that what’s happening are subtle discounts that are building up inside and making us feel like we don’t have value.”
The term “microinequities” was originally coined by Mary Rowe, now ombudsperson and adjunct professor of Negotiation and Conflict Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management. She began her work on the subject in 1973, when she said she expected to find that the chief concerns in the workplace for people of color and for women would be big things—pension plans, dependent care support, etc. “Of course, those things all do matter, but I also heard from a great many visitors to my office about apparently little things—the kinds of things you could not take to a grievance procedure, and you maybe weren’t sure it even had happened,” Rowe said. “The classic example was having one’s name left off a list or a supervisor that would go around the room giving out assignments who skipped the one nontraditional person in the room.”
After collecting hundreds of examples of such incidents, Rowe said she began to imagine hypotheses about how together, these behaviors could damage people’s goals and undermine their self-confidence. She collected them in a paper, which she revised numerous times. The first paper was written in 1973, but first published in 1991, she said.
While they are small and subtle behaviors, microinequities can have a macro impact on the business. Rowe said, “Theoretically speaking, a businessperson wants to organize a meritocracy so that people get rewarded for excellence. Favoritism obviously distorts a meritocracy, and micro-harassment, micro-aggressions and microinequities are a negative distortion. Anytime a very good person is deflected or loses confidence or decides to leave or is just undermined, then, theoretically speaking, the business may lose.”
Moynahan said microinequities can have a number of business impacts. For organizations with diversity initiatives in place, there may be a lack of understanding of what is driving their diverse workforce to leave. “As human beings, we don’t really know how to value difference; we know how to reject it,” Moynahan said. “And we do it not by overt acts of discrimination, but by the subtle stuff that we may not even be conscious we’re doing. I just forget him or interrupt her, and it happens consistently enough so that it undermines the effort to value difference, and organizations are spending billions in this diversity industry to get people to start valuing each other, but our daily behaviors want to devalue and exclude—very subtly, but we do it all the time.”
These behaviors can have a major impact on productivity, Moynahan added. “If I do not feel that I’m being a valuable contributor, I’m going to stop coming up with ideas. I’m going to stop taking the risks. I’m going to stop giving my all,” she said. “In fact, the worst-case scenario is I’m just going to be taking up space.”
Learning executives are in the key position to stop microinequities from undermining their organizations’ goals. Companies like Chubb, JPMorgan Chase, Shell Oil and Johnson & Johnson have made microinequities training a central part of their diversity initiatives.
The first thing learning executives need to be aware of is that this is a human behavior, Moynahan said. “We’re not going to stop this stuff, but we have to understand the power of the impact of it and take responsibility to try to reduce it because of what it does to an organization,” she said. “But it will never go away because as human beings we’re going to continue to create insiders and outsiders.”
The key is awareness. “Remember that the phenomenon, if you believe it’s there, is subjective in its being, so it’s very hard to prove that anything ameliorates the problem of microinequities,” Rowe said. “But that said, lots of very good organizations have worked hard at this, partly by naming the phenomenon so that people will be on the lookout for it, and partly by setting up structures where people can talk with each other about what they see, either so they can act effectively on the spot or support each other after the fact.”
Part of acting effectively is taking a positive, valuing approach, rather than a negative approach, which can bring on defensiveness. “I have a program called ‘Count Me In,’ which says it’s also important to talk about the valuing behaviors we want to use with each other—not just the devaluing behaviors,” Moynahan said. For example, instead of pointing out to a colleague that he has interrupted a co-worker, you might suggest that the co-worker had a good point that no one heard yet and ask her to repeat it.
Learning to be a good bystander is vital. “When we do training, what matters?” Rowe asked. “I think it matters to teach us all how to be effective bystanders and peers. I think it’s helpful to learn how to interrupt unacceptable behavior, to role-model appropriate behavior rather than accuse people.”
Moynahan added that it begins with effective leadership. “Everyone is watching the leader to see who’s in and who’s out,” she said. “We want to know that—we look for it. The minute we see it, we start playing that game. So if the leader microinequitizes somebody and doesn’t value, then other people will stop listening to that person too.”