How to react to a colleague’s microaggression

Should you intervene when one coworker is being insensitive toward another?

Credit: Joey Guidone

Jane L. Risen and George Wu | Apr 12, 2019

The fourth installment of our quarterly Business Practice feature invites you to imagine witnessing a slight in a group meeting:

You work as a product manager at OmniTech. Once a quarter, the product managers for the different technology teams meet to set goals, solve problems, and coordinate their work.

OmniTech is a fairly flat organization. However, Ryan Miller, the most senior product manager, ends up being a de facto leader because his opinion generally carries the most weight. Greg Brooks, the manager who has been at OmniTech second longest, runs the meetings. In addition to you, Ryan, and Greg, there are six other team leaders: Michael, Steve, Yong, Becky, Ishaan, and David.

As Greg is getting ready to start the meeting, he turns to Becky and asks, “Will you take notes during the meeting and then send them to everyone afterward? I know you did it last time, but you’re good at this sort of thing. Most of the team leaders are better at focusing on the big-picture issues.”

Greg’s question was not directed to you, but you may nevertheless want to respond in some way—either in the moment or later. Would you respond to this event? If so, who would you approach, when, and what would you say?

For this scenario, readers were invited to propose strategies for responding. These strategies include the usual script of words that they would utter, as well as certain other elements such as timing of response, target, follow-up, etc. And unlike in our previous scenarios, a permissible response was to do nothing. As with past scenarios, readers who submitted answers were then able to rate other people’s responses.

Why is this question difficult?

Greg’s request that Becky take notes is commonly termed a microaggression, described by Columbia’s Derald Wing Sue and his coresearchers as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative . . . slights and insults.” The term, as coined by the psychiatrist Chester Pierce, refers to an action that denigrates a racial group; but in this case, Greg’s request can be seen as disparaging Becky and women more generally. Scholars such as Joan C. Williams of the University of California, Hastings College of the Law have observed that women get “stuck” disproportionately with administrative tasks, such as taking notes, ordering lunch, and scheduling meetings, and research by Carnegie Mellon’s Linda Babcock and Laurie Weingart, Maria P. Recalde of the International Food Policy Research Institute, and Lise Vesterlund of the University of Pittsburgh has found women are more likely to be assigned or volunteer to take on “nonpromotable work.” (Women may also receive different performance management than men: our previous installment of Business Practice found that readers reacted differently to an underperforming Stephanie than her otherwise-identical male alter ego, Stephen.)

Interpersonal conflict is seldom pleasant, and this scenario is especially tricky because Greg may not have meant to slight Becky. A confrontation, particularly a public one in front of other product managers, could therefore lead Greg to be defensive. Finally, the situation is complex strategically: Should you speak to Greg now or later? Is a subtle approach or a more direct confrontation appropriate? Should you talk about the specific behavior or provoke a larger conversation about culture and norms?

Scenario participation

We posted this scenario on February 13, 2019, and closed the survey 15 days later. We received 218 responses, ranging in length from 1 to 440 words, with a median length of 52 words. The responses were rated 4,106 times. Each response was rated on average 28.4 times (median: 28), with 139 responses (64 percent of them) receiving 10 or more ratings. (The infrequently rated responses were submitted late in the cycle, close to when the survey was closed).

Ratings

Responses were rated on a 1 (“Strongly disapprove”) to 7 (“Strongly approve”) scale. A histogram of all ratings is shown below. 

The mean rating was 3.62, the second lowest for any of our four installments. This situation is challenging.

We next turn to the average ratings of each response submitted. The following analysis is restricted to the 139 responses with 10 or more ratings. The histogram below plots the average ratings for each of these responses. The average rating is 3.58, with responses ranging from the worst rated (1.33) to the best rated (4.92). Fifty-three (38 percent) of the 139 responses had an average rating of 4 or higher. Once again, there were many responses that might be viewed as good, but an absence of responses that were universally seen as outstanding.

Just over half of the responses came from men, and 32 percent of the responses came from participants who used a ChicagoBooth.edu email address. For the fourth straight time, female responses (3.97) scored higher than male responses (3.5) and Booth-affiliated responses (3.87) were rated more positively than others (3.52).

If you provided a response, we have sent you: (i) a histogram of the ratings for your response, (ii) your average rating, and (iii) a percentile ranking that indicates where your response fell in the distribution of all submitted responses.

Sample responses

We have posted responses in random order for you to peruse. 

 
 
 

To give you a sense of the range of ratings, we’ve listed a few responses spanning from unfavorably rated (5 percent, 10 percent, and 25 percent in the distribution, meaning that 95 percent, 90 percent, and 75 percent of responses are rated better), to average (50 percent in the distribution), to favorably rated (75 percent, 90 percent, and 95 percent in the distribution). All responses included in this article were subject to light editing for grammar and style.

5 percent response
Answer: “No Response.”
Average rating: 1.97

10 percent response
Answer: “I would not respond and let Becky handle this with Greg.”
Average rating: 2.37

25 percent response
Answer: “In a bland and neutral voice, say, ‘Do I have a choice?’ And be ready to express the choice‚ ‘I would prefer that we take turns/ask for volunteers/ask each person to post a brief summary of the meeting/etc.’”
Average rating: 3.17   

50 percent response
Answer: “I’d go to Greg directly after the meeting and ask if he could see how what he said could be seen as patronizing at all. Depending on his answer, I’d respond to either enlighten him on how it could be misinterpreted or I’d encourage him to apologize to Becky.”
Average rating: 3.72

75 percent response
Answer: “In delicate situations like these, it’s probably best to respond in the moment so as not to lose the impact of the situation. On the same note, it would also be best to frame the response in a mutually beneficial manner for the team. Something to the tone of: ‘Hey, Greg, maybe we can rotate note-taking duties among the team leaders starting today? It may give each team leader a chance to practice collating ideas and disseminating information to the team.’”
Average rating: 4.21

90 percent response
Answer: “Yes, I’d respond in the moment: ‘I noticed you asked Becky to take notes last quarter and I assumed we’d be rotating that role. We all know that taking good notes means the notetaker might have less time to focus on strategy. I’ll take notes this time and circulate; next time, and we’ll set up a rotation going forward.”
Average rating: 4.50 

95 percent response
Answer: “I would likely suggest that we consider each taking turns with the note-taking so that everyone has the opportunity to fully participate. After the meeting, I would speak with Greg directly about his approach and encourage him to think about the impact of his request as well as the bias implied.”
Average rating: 4.64

The two most negatively viewed responses above involved no response. Overall, 18.3 percent of participants indicated that they would not respond—but the no-response rate was considerably lower for females (8.7 percent) than for males (20.8 percent). The average rating for no-responses was 2.38, compared to 3.88 for responses that would engage in some way. A little more than half of raters scored a no-response 1 out of 7! And, as the graph below shows, only 1 of the 112 responses with some form of engagement scored lower than the average rating for no-responses.

The responses above also varied in terms of the tone of the language. Some responses used direct confrontation. (“That was patronizing.”) Others invoked a more subtle strategy. (“I’ll take notes.”) Finally, some participants combined these approaches. The graph below shows the frequency of tone, as well as the average rating for responses of each type. Direct responses were viewed most negatively. Subtle responses were rated .35 points higher, on average. Interestingly, the most highly rated responses were ones that mixed subtle and direct language, scoring .52 points higher than direct answers and .17 points higher than subtle submissions. Women were considerably less likely to use direct language than men (22.7 percent versus 35.7 percent) and almost twice as likely to use a mixed approach (15.9 percent versus 8.9 percent).

Responses also varied in whether a response was evoked during the meeting or later on. More than 70 percent of responses were immediate, and unsurprisingly, immediate messages tended to be considerably more subtle. In fact, 85.3 percent of immediate responses included a subtle approach, whereas 52.4 percent of delayed responses were direct. The graph below shows that immediate responses were judged 0.25 points higher on average than delayed messages. 

We also inferred the goals motivating our readers’ responses. We identified four common goals:

  • Change Greg’s behavior (“I would have a pretty honest discussion with Greg around this . . . ‘Let’s make sure she agrees or volunteers.’”)
  • Ally with Becky (“‘Becky did do an awesome job last time but she isn’t here as a secretary or admin.’”)
  • Change group norms (“‘Let’s instead rotate notes, or why not each of us take our own notes.’”)
  • Defuse tension (“I would volunteer to take notes.”)

The most infrequent goal, changing group norms, used by less than 10 percent of participants, was also the most effective, scoring about half a point higher than any other responses. 

Finally, we examined the frequency of three commonly used elements:

  • Reaching out separately to Becky
  • Speaking with Greg privately
  • Offering to take notes

Offering to take notes was by far the most commonly used element. It was also the most effective. Interestingly, women were significantly more likely to offer to take notes (84 percent) than men (67.8 percent). All of the other elements and goals were equally effective, though women were much more likely to reach out to Becky (29.5 percent versus 14.2 percent of men) and much less likely to defuse the tension of the situation (25 percent versus 37.5 percent). 

Gender differences in evaluation

We also looked at whether men and women viewed responses differently. We restricted our analysis to the 57 responses with 10 ratings from men and 10 ratings from women. Overall, men and women agreed on the effectiveness of a particular response. (Specifically, the correlation coefficient, which measures the strength of the relationship between men’s and women’s ratings, was .79; the strongest possible relationship is 1.) However, there were some notable exceptions, in which men rated a script much more positively than women, or vice versa.

Response 1: “I would approach Greg alone.”
Average female rating: 3.33
Average male rating: 4.40
Difference: 0.93

Response 2: “I’d talk to Becky in private to gauge her feelings about the incident. I’d bring it up subtly with Greg in private. But I would be persistent in monitoring the behavior, being less subtle if it continued.”
Average female rating: 3.44
Average male rating: 4.22
Difference: 0.78

Response 3: “‘Becky, I wouldn’t mind taking notes this week since you took care of it last week. That might give you a better opportunity to focus on the big picture this time. What if we all rotate the note-taking role each week to give everyone a fair chance to be fully engaged?’”
Average female rating: 5.29
Average male rating: 3.81
Difference: 1.48

Response 4: “I would volunteer to take notes and explain that taking notes is a good way to reinforce my understanding of the big-picture issues. I would also encourage Becky’s full participation in the discussion.”
Average female rating: 5.31
Average male rating: 3.81
Difference: 1.50

Top-rated results

Now for the top three responses. We’ve listed names and backgrounds when we’ve gotten permission to do so.

#3
Response: “I think a response in the moment is important, to defend Becky and to help set a culture of openness for the whole team. I will assume that, although I’m not among the most senior team members, because it’s a flat organization, I have the credibility to speak as a peer to anyone on the team, including Greg and Ryan. I would say, ‘Hey Greg, everybody’s pretty multitalented here, maybe we should rotate some of those responsibilities. I’ll take notes this time if you want?’ 

“Tone is super important here; I would say this with a smile and an upbeat, casual feeling. I want Greg to be able to accept the offer without feeling reprimanded. I’d phrase the last part as a question to keep respect for his authority intact. No matter what his response, I would follow up privately and explain that Becky may have taken the comment the wrong way, and that’s why I intervened. We all have to continue working together on good terms!”
Average rating: 4.86
Participant: John Lockhart
Background: Health care

#2
Response: “Before Becky could respond, I would say: ‘You know what, Greg, I’d be happy to take notes this time. Spread the pain of that task around. It’s hard to focus on big-picture issues when you’re trying to write down the great ideas everyone else is throwing out.’”
Average rating: 4.92
Participant: Katrina Barnes
Background: Unknown

#1
Response: “At that exact moment, I will tell Greg that the task of taking notes in these meetings should be the responsibility of a different leader each time, so everyone can have the opportunity to be more focused on the meeting and thus have more diverse thinking. Then I will ask Ryan for a reassurance of my proposal and offer myself to be the one taking notes in this meeting.”
Average rating: 4.92
Participant: Gonzalo
Background: Other

Thanks for these responses. Each of the respondents will receive a Business Practice coffee mug. Display it proudly! 

Action versus intention

This installment differed from previous scenarios in allowing readers to propose strategies for responding to a tricky situation. Doing nothing was explicitly one option. Fewer than one in five readers chose to opt out, and doing nothing was judged quite negatively relative to almost all other responses. Of course, submitting a response anonymously and online is quite different from actually saying something in a large group meeting in your workplace. In other words, intentions and action are different. Most of us know that there are uncomfortable situations in which we should engage, but somehow we don’t. 

Why Business Practice?

Words matter. The first year I taught negotiation, I ran into one of my students in the cafeteria. After a few minutes of small talk, she asked me: “What qualifies you to teach negotiation?” Ouch. I believe that she meant to ask: “Negotiation is an interesting class to teach. How did you come about teaching this class?” Words matter.

Preparation matters too. The “what qualifies you” question is one I did not anticipate, especially in my early days as a professor. But years later, I’ve heard many questions—straightforward, incisive and cutting, sincere but naive, tricky and lined with booby traps, difficult to answer, and just plain bizarre.

See more

In a recent study conducted by York University’s Kerry Kawakami,University of British Columbia’s Elizabeth Dunn, University of Toronto postdoctoral fellow Francine Karmali, and Yale’s John F. Dovidio, one group of participants experienced a white person uttering an antiblack slur and subsequently had to make a choice about partnering with that person. Another group of participants were presented with this scenario as a hypothetical and were asked to predict how they would react. The critical question: Would you partner with that individual? Only 17 percent of forecasters predicted that they would choose the perpetrator as a partner. In contrast, 63 percent of those who actually experienced the slur chose that person as a partner. Yes, there’s a difference between intending to do something and actually executing.

This research and similar work suggest that many of the 81.7 percent of our respondents who would hypothetically engage in some way with Greg would actually do nothing in the equivalent real-world situation. We can relate—both of us look back, ruefully, on past situations in which we should’ve acted but failed to engage. 

So how do we align our intentions and actions? We can’t give you a simple answer. Indiana University’s Leslie Ashburn-Nardo, Butler’s Kathryn A. Morris, and Wright State’s Stephanie A. Goodwin have proposed that actually confronting another requires all of the below:

  1. You interpret the incident as a slight.
  2. You view immediate action as necessary.
  3. You have a unique responsibility for intervening.
  4. You know what to do.

This is a stage-gate process in which confrontation is infrequent because it requires affirmative answers to all of the above. Interpersonal situations are often ambiguous. (“Is it just me?”—see #1 above.) Or, there might be a lack of urgency to do something now. (“I can deal with this later”—see #2.) Perhaps there are many people at this meeting. (“Why isn’t someone else doing something!?!”—speaks to #3.) Business Practice, hopefully, helps with #4. 

Strategic takeaways

  • Although it is difficult to speak up and easy to rationalize not speaking up, the majority of respondents strongly believe that action, preferably immediate action, is warranted here. 
  • Subtlety was an important element for those who chose to respond to Greg in the moment. A subtle approach not only reduces the chance that you’ll permanently fracture your relationship with Greg or harm the group’s dynamic; it also supports Becky without making her feel spoken for or further undermined.
  • Addressing the situation indirectly by suggesting a change in group behavior—for instance, that group members rotate note-taking duty—is not a first instinct for many people, but it was among the most effective strategies as evaluated by our raters.
Jane L. Risen is professor of behavioral science and the John E. Jeuck Faculty Fellow at Chicago Booth and George Wu is the John P. and Lillian A. Gould Professor of Behavioral Science at Booth.