Reducing Microaggressions in Healthcare: 4 Strategies for Leaders

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Microaggressions in healthcareMicroaggressions in healthcare cultivate toxicity and hate. This not only negatively impacts the health and well-being of the human spirit but, just as importantly, erodes the patient experience—including patient safety. To many, it is ironic how, in a professional environment like healthcare, microaggressions can remain unchallenged. We view this as “the ostrich syndrome” in which we sometimes bury our heads in the sand as though the problem does not exist.

Leaders are responsible for promoting a healthy work environment and ensuring that every team member feels physically and emotionally safe in the workplace. The difficulty is that microaggressions may not be acutely identified—by staff or leaders.  

Strong evidence accumulated in decades of research demonstrate that great leaders engage their teams in meaningful ways. One key expression of this is to provide support for addressing microaggressions. For example, sometimes the leader may overhear an amazing interaction that creates an opportunity to provide meaningful recognition. Don’t let these opportunities slide by. As difficult as it is with time constraints, take time to reinforce positively with two key methods.

  • First, state in behaviorally specific terms what the individual did.
  • Second, share how this contributed to your team’s or organization’s values.

At other times, the leader may hear a team member say something that could be considered a microaggression. Some we have experienced may sound like this:

“But where are you really from?”

“You can work late because you don’t have any kids at home, right?”

“Why are you women so sensitive?”

Why are these microaggressions?

The simplest answer is that these are passive-aggressive statements that “zing” a person in quite a condescending manner. Further, these “zings” have the potential of carrying resentment that leads to aggressive responses in return. In many ways, the cycle of abuse continues if left unabated.

Although sometimes subtle or not easily recognizable by everyone on the team, we define microaggressions as “any comment, question, or action that is based on the perception of a person’s identity. Often but not always, they are a result of unconscious bias. Microaggressions make the other person feel uncomfortable, disrespected, invalidated, angry, and confused.” Microaggression: The Hidden Threat

According to data from SurveyMonkey, 26% of employees have been on the receiving end of a microaggression at work; 36% of workers have witnessed one in their workplace. Racism, for example, is one way microaggressions may rear its ugly head in the healthcare arena.  How to Reduce Racism in Healthcare

For leaders, recognizing microaggression is equally as important as addressing it. In many situations, team members may not see the full consequence of their words or actions.  Microaggression can be seen as a form of nonverbal bullying because even facial expressions, body languages and avoidance are examples of how a team member’s behavior may impact a positive work culture Nonverbal Bullying that Drives Employees To Quit

What are top leader strategies to reduce microaggressions in healthcare?

  1. It starts with you.
    You set the example and what you say and what you do matters. The research from Kouzes and Posner identifies leaders who “model the way” as one of the top exemplary practice’s leaders engage. This builds trust that when a leader identifies a microaggression the staff will listen with intent and have a greater probability of changing their behaviors.
  1. Pay attention.
    Leaders must have their ears to the ground and listen for how these microaggressions impact the team or the patient. How are team members speaking to one another in professional settings and within breakrooms? Are you asking your team if they feel heard, included and respected by their peers? Keep your finger on the pulse of what’s happening on your unit!
  1. Take action.
    When you notice microaggression at work, it is important to respond and address the behavior with the offender. But maybe you’re thinking, “I don’t know if they meant it that way.” Regardless of their intentions, any comments that are making others feel uncomfortable need to be addressed. How to stamp out microaggressions (without offending your colleagues) | HRD Canada (
  1. Learn more.
    Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives are not just departments—these are values we integrate into the daily work of our teams and organizations. Share resources with your team. These may include in-service training opportunities, readings, podcasts, and videos. Take just 10 minutes at a staff meeting once a month to share this learning. Provide templates for how to have constructive conversations with others so that microaggressions don’t proliferate.

Microaggressions in healthcare exist in the workplace because it is condoned and not addressed. As leaders, it is up to us to become more aware and bring this awareness to others. Awareness is the first step; learning is the second; taking action is the third. These three approaches will lead to more positive, professional, and healthy work cultures—one where staff and patients will benefit.

Want more scripts, tips, and strategies to address disruptive behavior?

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