This post looks at microaggressions managers use against their team members to reinforce destructive power dynamics, justify inequality in the workplace, submerge conflict, construct false superiority/entitlement and maintain control over employees.

Microaggressions are the “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities” that help perform and maintain power dynamics, inequities and stereotypes. Microaggressions often humiliate, surveil, insult, police and silence their targets.

Much of the pivotal early work on microaggression focused on its role in racism, and has been applied to other systems and their interrelations. These microaggressions have sexist, racist, and classist impact — it is useful to understand their common role across intersecting systems. I am purposefully adopting a broad definition “microaggression,” which has been examined in varying degrees of focus and granularity.

Here are five categories of microaggression in management and examples of how they play out.

Body Language and Touching

Managers often use body language and touching to construct power over employees. Here are some examples:

  • Managers will often initiate touch with their employees in aggressive or patronizing ways, such as patting forearms, hands, shoulders or thighs and touching/massaging the necks and backs of employees. Often, managers are able to initiate touching their employees but employees will almost never initiate touching a manager because it would violate the implied power structure.
  • Managers will slouch excessively and flagrantly in meetings with their “subordinates”. This and other performances of over-familiarity and exaggerated casualness send the message that managers do not need to display the politeness/ attention gestures reserved for equals. Relatedly, hyper-masculine, sexualized posturing is a core part of mainstream performance of masculinity and power (think: crotch-grabbing in pop music). How this relates to the way men in positions of power sometimes posture is an uncomfortable topic, but bears examination. Have you ever been in a meeting with men in position of power who sit with their legs wide apart, slouching, drawing attention to their crotch area and using it as a gestural center of their body? This is especially aggressive towards women, and is designed to assert masculine, hyper-sexual power while creating discomfort that cannot be spoken about openly — a form of silencing.

Unequal Visibility and Accountability

Commonly, there is a huge inequality in the accountability that employees have to managers vs. the accountability managers have to employees. There is a similar gulf in the relative degree of visibility that transacts between the parties. These gaps in visibility and accountability create an uneven ground for interaction — constructing a context that is simultaneously parental, patronizing, surveilling and discomforting. Some examples:

  • Employees will often have to document and share in explicit detail everything they are working on in a way that is easily accessible to their manager (status reports, project management trackers, etc.), while the manager neither documents nor shares their action items. All activities an employee does in the workplace may be subject to explicit or implicit/assumed monitoring by the manager, while all activities done by a manager may be nearly opaque to their employees.
  • Managers may define employee’s roles, responsibilities and action items in explicit or even excessive detail without negotiating with their team members on what THEIR role, responsibilities and action items as a manager are. Thus there is no way for teams to evaluate or discuss if a manager is meeting the contract with the team.
  • “Managing by walking around” is a generally unexamined practice that has the distinct flavor of surveillance culture. “Walking around” may be intrusive and surveilling of employees when it is a one-sided activity performed only by those in power. When managers are assumed to have inarguable and immediate access to the personal space of their employees at any moment, a culture of invasiveness and micro-management can flourish.

Derailing and Gaslighting

In a system of management where the manager must maintain disproportionate power, things like dissent, disagreement, and conflict present crisis. Many managers will address dissenting employees by derailing and gaslighting them in order to discredit criticism or critical examination. Here are common strategies:

  • The dissenter is characterized as “difficult to work with”, “aggressive”, “insubordinate,” “not a team player” or “not a culture fit”. Often, specific examples of such behavior are either explicitly not provided or extraordinarily weak. The result creates self-doubt in the dissenter while destroying their credibility in the eyes of the broader team and management.
  • The dissenter is made to feel that there is criticism from other members of the team or company, but that criticism is provided in an inactionable or vague way that is impossible to critique or examine. This leads employees to feel paranoid, surveilled, and insecure.
  • Any disagreement or critique is transformed into a symptom of pathology on the part of the dissenter. Managers may imply that the individual is unstable, emotionally disturbed, or has a mental disorder. Commonly, this includes overtly stating or implying that the dissenter is “too emotional”, should “take some time off”, “has an anger problem,” is “hostile”, is “overly aggressive”, “takes things too seriously/personally” or “has a problem with authority”.

It is particularly notable that these tactics are very commonly used against women by male managers, as dissent by women not only threatens the manager’s authority and position but also normative gender roles.

Performances of Excessive Confidence

In one form of workplace microaggression, managers engage in performances of over-confidence, arrogance and false omniscience. These microaggressions eliminate discussion, ignore or even claim good ideas from other members of the team, and leave no space for dissent, discovery or collaboration. In a system where they are supposed to be more knowledgeable, more competent and more capable of choosing the best course of action, managers experience strong motivation to embody the mythology. Here are some ways this plays out.

  • Asserting opinions as inarguable fact. This eliminates the emotional and intellectual possibility needed for healthy discussion. It constructs the manager as more intelligent, more experienced, more competent — even unassailable. Often, managers will speak with a complete lack of hedging words and behaviors; use a louder and more forcible tone than other teammates and state conclusions without revealing the train of logic behind it, with the expectation that the conclusion be accepted as self-evidently correct.
  • Making extremely fast judgement calls about strategy and courses of action. Managers may very quickly render a decision when faced with a situation or opportunity, demonstrating they can process information at a faster rate and have a much greater degree of foresight/intellect/instinct than their peers. While destructive to team dynamics, this can also lead to poor decision-making.

Preferential Treatment as a Reward and Division System

A great deal of stress is inflicted on targeted employees when managers exhibit preferential treatment. Managers may use the provision or denial of affection and praise to divide a team, punish dissenters and reward people who fit team norms and support the manager’s power. Here’s some examples.

  • If a given employee dissents from the manager’s opinions, operating mode, or is openly critical/questioning of how the team is functioning, managers may treat that person differently in public settings as a way to both punish and warn against such behavior. A manager may ignore the employee during team meetings, transparently avoid contact, discuss the conflict with other team members behind the individual’s back, or exclude the individual from team activities, projects and discussions. Isolation and public punishment can serve to regulate not only the individual’s behavior, but that of the broader team, who seeks naturally to avoid such consequences.
  • Especially prominent in teams where there is a male manager and a mix of female and male employees, a male manager may engage in public hetero-normative male bonding and displays of affection with the male members of the team. This includes activities such as fist-bumping, chest-bumping and play-punching or mock-fighting. This creates a display of closeness and preference between male managers and male employees that very explicitly discludes women and others who aren’t “masculo-normative”. In contrast to the previous discussion of dominance-based touching, this is exclusion-based touching.

This is not an exhaustive account of microaggressions by managers against employees. For a fuller list, check out the discussion thread on Twitter. Thank you to everyone who responded, helping me put this post together.

It is critical to emphasize that microaggressions are disproportionately and sometimes exclusively used against employees who are not white, male, straight and masculine.

In order to break the self-perpetuating cycle of microaggression in the workplace, we need to re-imagine and re-implement the concept of management. Management should be a job description that pertains to a particular type of work done on a team related to facilitating the team and enabling it to be as successful as possible. Management should NOT be an honorific, based in an unequal power dynamic, and associated with superiority, entitlement and hypermasculinity. When managers locate their value and contribution to the company in the latter system, microaggression against the very team they are supposed to be part of becomes the default mode.

If you are a manager, parts of this post will probably hit a little too close to home.Please remember these behavioral patterns are an integral part of the way we are taught to manage. It is unrealistic to expect revolution overnight. However, it is realistic to continually interrogate and critique the ways we define and enact management.

I hope you will.