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  • Writer's pictureFletcher Consulting

Saying something nice

Microvalidations are habitual recognitions of belonging and appreciation—an antidote to the chronic othering and disrespect that characterize microaggressions. I was excited to see this concept highlighted by Laura Morgan Roberts, Megan Grayson, and Brook Dennard Rosser in the Harvard Business Review last month.

They summarize research of a “longstanding praise deficit” experienced between employees in dominant and non-dominant groups. “Black and brown children receive far fewer compliments and more disciplinary action than their white peers,” they note, and in adulthood, “workers from historically underrepresented groups are often subject to more scrutiny and less recognition.” This contributes to their lower rates of promotion, increased stress, and worse health.

Any one of us can counteract this trend just by giving a smile and a nod, correctly pronouncing someone’s name, or acknowledging someone’s contribution.

I love how simple and powerful microvalidations are. Why is it so hard for us humans to validate each other?

I live in the Northeast U.S. Other parts of the world are friendlier as a norm. I suppose we set our praise levels from our family upbringing. My extended family loves each other, but we almost always follow expressions of love with a joke or sarcasm. My upbringing means that giving microvalidations doesn’t come naturally to me. I have had to intentionally develop the skill over years. I did it because I knew it was important for my children. As it is for colleagues and clients.

If I can develop it, anybody can and, as the research indicates, it is important for inclusion and belonging in the workplace.

Still, even the super-nice among us have unconscious bias.

A friend of mine who is a senior leader in her organization realized she wasn’t consistently acknowledging colleagues when they made comments in meetings. “People always talk to me when I walk into a room,” she reflected. “I thought everybody was getting what I was getting.”

When we’re in a position of privilege and are consistently valued, welcomed, and respected, we might not notice when other people aren’t.

Others who withhold praise seem to believe that if other people are worthy of recognition they would get it. This is the myth of meritocracy—the faith that “cream rises to the top” and the best people make it on their own, in a kind of free market of human worth.

I call BS.

There are plenty of smart people who work hard and still aren’t recognized in the same way that others are. Good luck can play a role in success; usually it’s thanks to boosters and mentors who help someone along the way.

And group membership plays an undeniable role. People who don’t happen to be white and male and other high-status identities have equal merit—but they don’t have equal success or praise.

The best way to help cream rise is to sweeten it with praise, respect, and opportunities.

Pour on the microvalidations, and we all benefit.


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