The role leaders have in promoting wellbeing and addressing micro-incivilities

There’s no two ways about it; the role of a leader is a varied one. From strategic planning, to recruitment to motivating a team, it’s a fast-paced and varied job.

In recent times though, wellbeing has become an important consideration for employers, and the notion of wellbeing reaches every aspect of work life – including diversity.

We know that diverse teams are successful teams, and we know that the benefits of diversity are unparalleled. But as a leader, your role needs to go beyond building diverse teams, to proactively creating an inclusive and safe environment in which all can thrive. This means tackling subjects like racism, head on.

We see racism in many forms. It can be overt, expressed through hostile language or blatant discrimination. Or it can be more subtle, going unnoticed and often unchallenged. Micro-incivilities are one such example of this kind of subtle racism.

What are micro-incivilities and what is their impact on our mental health?

Boiling them down to their basics, micro-incivilities (MIs) refer to the kind of daily, commonplace behaviours or aspects of an environment that signal to members of minority groups that they do not belong or that that they are not welcome.

The intent to harm can be ambiguous in these instances, and discomfort about being around minorities can be displayed in any number of ways; some blatant, others more subtle.

MIs have a significant impact on wellbeing, and some believe that they can even have a greater impact on the victims than overt forms of discrimination.

Research has found that there are four ways in which the stress caused by micro behaviours impacts health and wellbeing:

  • Biological impact: direct physiological reactions, such as changes in blood pressure or heart rate, or changes in the immune system. Studies have reported that these changes then go on to impact physical health, possible even leading to increased hypotension, a decrease in the immune system’s efficiency and increased susceptibility to disease.
  • Cognitive impact: thoughts and beliefs about the meaning of the stressor. The small, ambiguous element of MIs can create a very specific type of stress as the recipient tries to make sense of what has happened. ‘Am I imagining this? Did they just say what I thought they said? Am I being over-sensitive?’ Of course, making sense of such ambiguity takes attention and focus, which, in turn, has the potential to create more problems, such as perceived inattention at work.
  • Emotional impact: MIs can cause feelings of anger, anxiety and depression or feelings of hopelessness.
  • Behavioural impact: coping strategies or behavioural adjustments, which may make the situation better or worse.

Why leaders should be empowered to become workplace wellbeing paragons

As a person in a position of power, leaders should set the tone by challenging any MIs they may have witnessed. This sends a powerful message about the seriousness of this type of behaviour – it is not small and insignificant and it does have consequences, whether intended or not.

It’s important that a leader is mindful to not ‘speak for’ those who have experienced the MI though, but instead, focuses specifically on the behaviour and its impact.

Highlighting the ongoing nature of such behaviour can be especially powerful: for example, ‘In the meeting I noticed you talked over Amit three times. You didn’t talk over anyone else.’

While leaders can play an especially important role in highlighting and naming MIs though, anyone who is a witness can play a part in ‘making the invisible visible’.

How can leaders reduce the impact of micro-incivilities?

We know that social support can be a powerful buffer against the stress caused by MIs. Such reassurance reduces feelings of isolation and lets someone know they are not alone.

At a practical level, supporters can share and explore potential responses to MIs. While, at the cognitive level support reduces ambiguity, and therefore rumination by providing additional validation of an experience. Such support from majority group members who identify MIs can be powerful in validating these experiences.

The role of mentors

Building and using a strong support network is one key way in which individuals can mitigate some of the stress caused by a MI. One mechanism for developing our networks is through mentoring. Research suggests that mentees benefit from mentoring through greater productivity, while they also gain networking skills and become better equipped to handle stress.These latter two benefits could be critical in navigating MIs within organisations and minimising their impact.

Mentors are also likely to be relatively senior, so, as well as being able to provide emotional support, they also have the potential to give more instrumental support (support relating to tangible help or assistance) to mentees experiencing MIs. They can be powerful allies and challengers of such behaviours, as well as providing advice on how best to deal with it.

Leaders have, and must accept, a considerable role in promoting wellbeing and addressing MIs. Though successful change has to start at the top, its ripples must reach every member of the organisation: making everyone accountable.

Louise Weston is managing psychologist at Pearn Kandola