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Research: Why do Some Resist Microaggression Training?

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Greg Glasgow

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Microaggression Research

As managing partner at Orange Grove Consulting, a Boston-based company that offers diversity training and assessment in the workplace, Kelly Watson has learned that people tend to receive two responses when they confront others about microaggressions.

“It’s either, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry; how can I make this right?’ or it’s, ‘Everyone is just so sensitive these days; everything’s a microaggression. I can’t believe I have to deal with this,’” said Watson, a student in the Executive PhD program at the Daniels College of Business. “The problem with those two sides being so polarized is that when we get adults into the training room, one group is open to learning and ready to go, and the other group is blocked, because they still don’t think this is a problem.”

Watson describes microaggressions as small, subtle behavioral manifestations of unconscious bias or implicit bias that reinforce a power dynamic difference between groups. Examples include complimenting an Asian American on how well they speak English or assuming a woman isn’t knowledgeable about math and science.

Kelly Watson
Kelly Watson

Looking for ways to identify people’s openness to learning about microaggressions before a training even begins, Watson decided to focus her Executive PhD dissertation on identifying the factors that make someone more or less likely to engage in an open conversation about what microaggressions are and how to avoid them.

“I investigated 10 different factors, including whether or not someone has had previous training in microaggressions, whether or not someone has experienced a microaggression, and levels of moral awareness, cultural intelligence and emotional intelligence,” she said.

Surveys and scenarios

Watson conducted her research through a series of surveys, asking more than 200 respondents questions about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) topics. She also used existing scales of factors, such as moral awareness and cultural intelligence, to determine what makes people more or less receptive to learning about microaggressions. Her findings identified which factors are the most important.

Findings could drive changes in training

Watson is still at work compiling her research and finishing her dissertation—she’s slated to complete it this summer—but, already, she is surprised at some of her findings. For example, she discovered that the most significant factor in someone’s openness to learning more about microaggressions is whether they had previous training on the concept, be it in the workplace or at school.

“As a training practitioner, this is fascinating. I didn’t expect it to be such a significant factor,” she said.

Other important factors include moral awareness and a sense of social justice, said Watson, who plans to use her research to increase the effectiveness not just of her DEI training, but of diversity training across the board.

“The findings validate that training is very important,” she said. “Adding a moral component to the training also has potential, because both ends of the political spectrum value ethics and morality. I think we can strike a similar chord if people understand this to be a moral issue. There are a lot of people who are not horrible human beings and who otherwise don’t want to hurt people, but they have trouble with the concept of microaggressions. Those are the folks we’re trying to get to.”

Modifying existing training so people are more receptive to it can help the training become not only more effective, but potentially transformative, Watson said.

“This is a starting point for digging beyond bias awareness,” she said. “If we start to parse the behavioral factors or the context for each individual, we’re going to be more effective at actually bringing people through behavior change. Everybody takes that online sexual harassment training every year and the company gets to check the box— and no one learned a thing. It’s time to get to the next layer—and this is going to help us get there, because we’re going to start to understand the mechanisms that drive this behavior change.”