The Millennium Group
46169 Westlake Drive
Sterling, VA 20165
by Ron Beckwith, Ph.D.
Have you ever walked away from a conversation or staff
meeting in your organization feeling somewhat uncomfortable,
perhaps marginalized? You couldn’t put your finger on it. In
fact, no one said anything offensive to you or criticized you in
any way. But, somehow, you feel unmistakably devalued.
There seemed to be a “message in there” somewhere.
No doubt many of us have experienced this feeling at some
point and found ourselves wondering if we were simply
paranoid or seriously lacking competence in some indiscernible
way. Certainly, if you were to mention that you felt
uncomfortable because of the way the boss “looked” at you
during the meeting, you very well may be subject to hallway
What is Microbehavior?
Welcome to microbehavior, a workplace phenomenon that has
attracted the interest of many organizations seeking to
improve employee engagement and performance.
Microbehavior consists of micromessages, those small, semi-
conscious messages we send and receive when we interact
with others. They can be positive or negative. We send 40 -
80 micromessages in a 10 minute conversation or 2,000 –
4,000 verbal and non-verbal micromesssages in a day. They
convey through facial expressions, tone of voice, hand
gestures, choice of words, and eye contact. Since they are
semi or unconscious behaviors, there tends to be a disconnect
between their “intent” and their “impact.” No matter what you
think you are saying, your tone, facial expressions and hand
gestures can communicate something entirely different.
Some examples of positive micromessages include, approving
eye contact when speaking with you, acknowledging your
idea…asking questions, soliciting your opinion during a
|Microbehavior in Organizations
Sweating the Small Stuff
The term Microinequities first surfaced through the 1970’s and later groundbreaking work of
Professor Mary P. Rowe of MIT. Through decades of studying workplace discrimination, Rowe finds
that microinequities are the subterranean counterforces derailing diversity initiatives. That is, as we
create policies and initiatives to encourage diversity and inclusion, people continue to use daily
microinequities to wall out differences in small devaluing ways driven by social conditioning that says
‘different’ is inherently ‘less than.’ Despite our best intentions otherwise, microinequities tend to
telegraph our true feelings about difference.
During a recent microinequities training session, a female African American participant shared the
I was sitting-in for a coworker in another department when
one of our [internal] customers came in looking for the person
he usually deals with. After looking around briefly, the individual
looked directly at me and said, ‘I guess nobody’s here, huh?’
On hearing this story, another session participant quickly asserted,
If it had been me I would have said, ‘No’ [sarcastically agreeing that no one was there despite her
own presence]. ‘Why don’t you leave and come back when somebody’s here.’
The point of this story, of course, is that the minority woman was being defined as invisible or ‘less
than’ through a microinequity. Her colleague is simply saying, since you devalue me as ‘less than,’
then I will act ‘less than’ and not offer any possible assistance.
While women and minorities historically receive disproportionate shares of workplace microinequities,
all groups receive them and all aspects of work are affected. Being on the wrong side of the merger,
style of dress, age, physical size, the people you choose to befriend, and even your attractiveness
are common reasons for receiving devaluing microinequities.
Microbehavior on Engagement and
Organizations are coming to better understand how
microbehavior can have serious effects on employee
engagement and performance, especially as related to
leadership effectiveness. It is well documented that
leaders affect engagement and performance in
significant ways. “Almost all manager activities drive
employee effort” according to the Corporate Leadership
Council (2004). Leaders shape engagement and
performance through the routine micro-signals they
unwittingly send from their power positions. The
approving eye contact when speaking with you,
acknowledging your idea, asking questions about your
proposal, soliciting your opinion during a meeting, all let
you and others know that you are valued without the
leader stating anything of the kind. You comfortably
offer new ideas, take risks, and do whatever it takes to
ensure organization success.
On the other hand, when the boss routinely
acknowledges your idea after it is restated by someone
else during her staff meetings, renders a blank stare as
you give operational updates, rolls her eyes whenever
you ask a question, and invariably cuts you off, it seems
obvious that something is wrong with you. Constantly
off-balance, you retrench while struggling to figure out
your situation instead of leveraging your potential
towards team success.
More importantly, leader microinequities help define “A”
players and “C” players and make them become
realities. Recipients of the boss’s positive
micromessages get credit for your idea. They become
defined as innovative “star” performers and receive
systematic development, whether they are really “A”
players or not. They are motivated by the totality of
positive micromessages from their leaders. Moreover,
recipients of positive micromessages are relatively
unrestrained in their approach to their performance.
Contrarily, recipients of microinequities are defined as
“C “players” and limited by the leader’s apparent
expectations of them through the well researched Self-
Fulfilling Prophecy affect. They are likely to receive few
developmental assignments, lose confidence, and
actually become what they are defined through the
leader’s microinequities, which also influence others to
treat them in subtle exclusionary ways. Alternatively,
good talent that is subject to a culture of
microinequities is likely to leave the organization. As
always, the leader sets the tone.
Better Management by Perception: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy or Pygmalion Effect, ACCEL Team Development.
Retrieved June 1, 2009 from the World Wide Web: http://www.accel-team.com/pygmalion/index.html.
Corporate Leadership Council (2004), Driving Performance and Retention Through Employee Engagement: A
Quantitative Analysis of Effective Engagement Strategies, Washington DC.
Heathfield, Susan M., The Two Most Important Management Secrets: The Pygmalion and Galatea Effects, About.
Com.: Human Resources, Retrieved June 1, 2009 from the World Wide Web: http://www.humanresources.about.
Hilton, Eric (2003), Microinequities: When Small Slights Lead to Huge Problems in the Workplace,” Diversity,
Rowe, Mary P. (1990), Barriers to Equality: The Power of Subtle Discrimination to Maintain Unequal Opportunity.
Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, vol. 3, No. 2, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Young, Stephen (2007), Micromessaging: Why Great Leadership Is Beyond Words, McGraw-Hill, New York.
Ronald Beckwith, Ph.D., TMG Senior Consultant has over twenty years of human capital
leadership experience with focused expertise in staffing and retention, workforce planning,
training and development, and workplace diversity. Dr. Beckwith is an established authority on
workplace microinequities. He works with TMG clients to raise workforce awareness of
microinequities and improving effective communications practices. Dr. Beckwith delivers TMG's
professional development seminar entitled Microinequities in the Workplace, a highly
interactive session that draws rave reviews. In addition, Dr. Beckwith has developed and led
enterprise-wide Workforce Planning initiatives that projected future talent needs, e.g., skill
supply-demand gaps, in response to a rapidly aging corporate workforce and tight labor markets
for one of the largest integrated energy companies in the US. He also developed long-term
human capital plans including a new Workforce Planning strategy group to manage on-going
projections and talent management solutions that saved $2 million in annual staffing costs,
avoiding $62 million human asset investment exposure, and avoided $82 million in projected
turnover cost in 2007-2012.
Dan is the Director of marketing for a mid-size educational and training firm. During an evening
social event following the firm’s annual leadership update meeting, Dan was enjoying cocktails
with several members of his marketing team when the president of the firm walked up. Hi Bob, Dan
says. Hey, I’d like you to meet a couple of people on my team. Turning to the person on his right,
Dan says, this is Andrew Beamer who is one of our Senior Marketing Representatives. Andrew is
responsible for designing, producing and distributing our print and media promotions. With
beaming eye expression, and energetic tone, Dan elaborates. You may recall that successful TV
spot last fall promoting our new E-learning capabilities throughout the northeast region. Patting
him on the shoulder, Dan says, Andrew here was the brains behind that home run. Bob engaged
Andrew around several questions before Dan turned to introduce Carla.
Gazing somewhat blankly past her, Dan says with neutral voice tone, Carla Williams is our Market
Researcher and has been on our team for… maybe… three years. With his back now slightly
toward Carla, Dan turns to Bob and says, you know Bob, we faced tremendous challenges this
quarter and our team overcame every one of them. It took a while for the E-leaning strategy to
show promise but we can now see the light, thanks to our powerful media promotions. We expect
it to become a top revenue performer by next year.
Several other people join the conversation sharing war stories and sports banter.
Chances are that Dan is completely unaware of the difference in the way he introduced his team
members. More importantly, he is unaware of its impact. It is undoubtedly clear to Andrew and
Carla, however, that Dan valued Andrew and she was all but invisible. Dan’s enthusiasm and
praise generated interest on the part of the president who likely perceives Andrew as an “A”
player while Carla will remain anonymous even though she was indeed introduced. Carla could
very well have been instrumental in targeting the successful market segment through her
research, a fact that failed to see the light of day in the introduction. Carla is left to feel mystified
and devalued despite her best efforts.
Chances are also are that Dan sends these micromessages on a regular basis in his interactions
with his team members and Carla receives devaluing messages while Andrew receives valuing
messages with regularity. Carla could probably actively contribute more to her team’s promotional
efforts based on her research vantage point. However, she has little reason to go out of her way
for the firm and will probably seek job opportunities elsewhere - quietly.
What to Do as Leaders
Microbehavior is a natural human characteristic. It is best approached in the workplace through
leadership awareness and behavioral self-management that reshapes the organization’s
communication culture. As a leader, make it O.K. to talk about microinequities in your organization
or in your team. Create a climate of trust, where mistakes are forgiven.
Notice Your Reactions -
- When am I listening?
- When am I shutting people out?
- Who am I including and excluding?
- Who am I encouraging and praising?
- Whose contributions am I taking for granted?
- Who do I consistently overlook?
- Ignore, dismiss, interrupt, or talk over others
- Critique with non-verbal behavior, e.g., rolling the eyes, sighing, shaking your head
- Become defensive when accused of a Microinequity. Ask questions. Try to look through eyes
of the receiver and ask,
|What did you observe?|
|Was that the first time you noticed this?|
|How do I act differently toward you?|
|Why haven’t you told me about this before?|
- Distraction of multitasking when interacting with others
Promote an Inclusive Climate with Micro-Affirmations
- Take time to listen with full attention and respect
- Seek input from others and acknowledge their contribution
- Share the floor with inclusive meeting procedures
- Credit ideas
Check Your Information Filters
- We tend to see what we believe and expect to see. We unconsciously filter from a set of
|facts those that fit our expectations/beliefs. We see certain elements and let others pass |
- Check stereotypical assumptions about people who are different
- Connect on a personal level
Make a Difference as a Leader
Notice Your Reactions
- When am I listening
- When am I shutting people out?
- Who am I including and
- Who am I encouraging and
- Whose contributions am I
taking for granted?
- Who do I consistently overlook?
- Ignore, dismiss, interrupt, or
talk over others
- Critique with non-verbal
behavior, e.g., rolling the eyes,
sighing, shaking your head
- Become defensive when
accused of a Microinequity. Ask
questions. Try to look through
eyes of the receiver and ask,
- What did you observe?
- Was that the first time
you noticed this?
- How do I act differently
- Why haven’t you told me
about this before?
- Distraction of multitasking when
interacting with others
Promote an Inclusive Climate
- Take time to listen with full
attention and respect
- Seek input from others and
acknowledge their contribution
- Share the floor with inclusive
- Credit ideas
Check Your Information Filters
- We tend to see what we believe
and expect to see. We
unconsciously filter from a set
of facts those that fit our
expectations/beliefs. We see
certain elements and let others
- Check stereotypical
assumptions about people who
- Connect on a personal level
Negative micromessages include such things as overlooking you when introducing your work team,
looking at her Blackberry while you’re talking, frequently confusing you with someone else of the
same demographic, replying to your email only when the manager is copied, a blank stare when
you’re speaking, acknowledging your idea after someone else restates it, and rolling of the eyes or
sighing whenever you ask a question. Because they are small, micromessages are nearly invisible
and certainly seem insignificant as individual events. As such, they make it nearly impossible for
recipients of negative micromessages to address.
|Contact us for
What are Microinequities?
Mircobehavior becomes microinequities when it evolves into collective patterns of
subtle, semi-conscious devaluing messages directed at you and not others. Through
their surreptitious accumulation, microinequities discourage and impair performance
which leads to damaged self-esteem and withdrawal. Much like the boiling frog
fable, recipients of cumulative microinequities in organizations are boiled lifeless over
time. As the fable goes, if you place a frog in a pot of boiling water, the frog will leap
out. If, instead, you place the frog in a pot of temperate water and slowly increase
the temperature to a boil over time, the frog will quietly succumb. Such is the
powerful effect of microinequities on valuable organizational talent.