Small Acts of Kindness: Micro-Affirmations and Campus Climate

Posted by On Wednesday, July 16, 2014

While studying how to improve workplace conditions for under-represented groups, MIT ombudsman Mary Rowe discovered the pernicious effect on morale and performance of small acts of disrespect, which “seemed to corrode some professional relationships like bits of sand and ice.” She called these events, “micro-inequities.” They often arose around issues related to sex, gender identity, race, sexual orientation, gender expression, and national origin — “wherever people are perceived to be ‘different’.”

Rowe’s concept of “micro-inequities” is akin to “micro-aggressions,” an idea that has gained considerable coverage in the media recently (for instance, here, here, here, here, and here).  Schools trying to create safe and supportive campus environments for their students should take this idea seriously and consider ways to address these small poisonous acts.

Awareness is one possible approach. Professor Derald W. Sue, one of the foremost researchers on micro-aggressions, speaks about the importance of encouraging students to reflect critically on their own worldviews and to “become increasingly aware of the worldviews of people who differ from them.” Including discussion of micro-aggressions in bystander training could also help discourage these behaviors. Not only would this increase awareness about the issue, but it would help students gain the confidence and skills to speak up when they or a friend was in some way disparaged. Indeed, Rowe writes that “it it is not just inappropriate remarks by individuals that sting, but the silence of a wide array of bystanders.”

Micro-Affirmations and Bystander Training

Rowe observed, however, that micro-inequities were often committed unconsciously or automatically, making it hard for individuals to catch and correct their problem behaviors, and making awareness a more elusive educational goal.

Rowe, therefore, recommends another complementary approach to eliminating these behaviors. Instead of just trying to catch ourselves in the act or discourage inappropriate behavior, Rowe suggests actively cultivating and practicing what she calls “micro-affirmations.” “Micro-affirmations,” Rowe explains, “are tiny acts of opening doors to opportunity, gestures of inclusion and caring, and graceful acts of listening.” By affirming and practicing good behaviors, Rowe suggests, we may be able to block unwanted ones. After all, she points out, “attitudes may follow behavior just as behavior may follow attitudes.”

BJ Fogg, a researcher of behavior design at Stanford, suggests a similar approach to Rowe’s. Fogg considers trying to stop old behaviors instead of creating new ones as a common mistake in behavior change. He coaches individuals trying to change their behaviors to “focus on action, not avoidance.”

This advice seems worth considering as schools develop their sexual misconduct training: don’t just tell students what attitudes to question and what behaviors to avoid, tell them what attitudes they should endorse and what actions they should perform. In other words, when trying to cultivate a more positive and supportive environment on campus, it’s at least as important that we tell students what to do as what not to do.

Similarly, an effective bystander doesn’t just prevent problem behaviors but also affirms and supports positive behaviors. If students see someone else speak up, they should praise them. If an individual makes a positive change, colleagues can support that change. As Rowe  succinctly explains, “the hypothesis is that ‘on the spot’ help and affirmation from bystanders may be especially effective because it is an immediate, positive, often unexpected reinforcement.”

For more on micro-affirmations and micro-inequities, read Rowe’s articles on the topic:

Rowe, Mary. (2008). “Micro-affirmations & Micro-inequities.” Journal of the International Ombudsman Association. 1(1)

Scully, Maureen, & Rowe, Mary. (2009). “Bystander Training within Organizations.” Journal of the International Ombudsman Association. 2(1).

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