Changing Our Culture, One Step at a Time | From the Ombuds

NOV. 28, 2022

Lately, I have been speaking with many folks on campus about our culture and how to change it for the better. I alluded to this in my last post, which posited that the grass isn’t necessarily greener anywhere else. Wherever you might end up, you will likely face obstacles to your happiness. And here, at least you don’t have to worry about being snowed in during the winter, so for most of us, the logical option might be to try to make this a better institution rather than roll the dice on a new one.

But what will it take to make our institution better? What are we aiming for? Ultimately, the goal should be to align all of our processes with our stated values. In other words, if we value access and equity, how can we ensure that our policies and procedures help create a campus that is as accessible and equitable as possible?

Realigning the administrative connective tissue of a major university that is bound by system, state, and federal guidelines seems like a Herculean, if not Sisyphean, task, certainly too big for any one person. So it might be tempting to give up, to let inertia carry us through the week.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we are serious about changing the culture, there is a simple tool that anyone can use: microaffirmations.

“Microaffirmations” aren’t as well known as “microaggressions,” which have received much attention over the past few years. A quick Google Trends query shows that “microaggression” has been, by far, the more searched-for term. The related “microinequity” was neck-and-neck with “microaggression” until 2014, when the latter search term soared in popularity. Odds are many of us aren’t quite familiar with microaffirmations (which read as a consistently flat line across the past 18 years of web searches), even though the name itself gives us a general idea.

So what exactly are microaffirmations? They are the antidote to microinequities. Mary Rowe, an economist and ombuds at MIT, has been writing about microinequities, which she defines as “apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, which occur wherever people are perceived to be ‘different,’” since 1973. Microinequities can include cases of unfairness where the victim is not directly aware, such as talk behind their back or being guided by bias in personnel decisions. How do they compare to microaggressions? In a nutshell, Rowe sees microinequities as “unfair micro messages” and microaggressions as “hostile micro messages.” While both stem from similar biases, the victim is not always aware of one, but is painfully aware of the other.

Whether done consciously or unconsciously, with the victim’s knowledge or without, microinequities are a formidable barrier to creating a positive culture at any institution.

To counter the negative undertow of microinequities, Rowe proposed microaffirmations, which she defined as “apparently small acts, which are often ephemeral and hard-to-see, events that are public and private, often unconscious but very effective, which occur wherever people wish to help others to succeed.” In other words, they are the flipside of microinequities. In Rowe’s estimation, these small positive acts might ameliorate or even overwhelm the steady drain of microinequities.

The best part about microaffirmations is that you don’t need permission from anyone to do them. You don’t need a planning grant. And you don’t need to wait until next week. You can start today, by simply affirming the worth of people around you. It doesn’t have to be overly sentimental, either: just a simple, sincere acknowledgement of their efforts is a good place to start.

Not sure where to start? Here are a few possibilities if you are in a leadership position:

  • Call someone out for their positive behavior and/or attitude in a group meeting
  • Email someone just to remind them that you appreciate their contribution
  • Include everyone relevant in policy discussions—let them know that their input is valued
  • Be generous when it comes to giving credit
  • Notice the little things
  • Take a moment to demonstrate that they have your support

No matter what your role, there are a few things you can do to start inculcating a culture of microaffirmations around you:

  • Say nice things about people when they aren’t around
  • Give timely, clear, and positive feedback (or feedforward) when appropriate
  • Make an effort to pronounce someone’s name correctly
  • Strive to be inclusive

I am hopeful, as is Rowe, that the cumulative effects of these small actions can shift a culture, can make an institution more equitable and welcoming for all. I will be doing my best to practice microaffirmations, and I hope you will as well.

The best part about microaffirmations is that they may be self-sustaining. When one person starts taking the time to notice the little things or give an extra word of encouragement, it is more likely that their “target” will do the same, initiating a chain reaction of confidence and goodwill. If enough people make it a practice to offer microaffirmations, it won’t be long before we reach a critical mass of small positive interactions, which will measurably make this a better place.

Of course, our scattered good intentions are only a starting point, and there are sure to be conflicts along the way. Luckily, whether you are a student, faculty member, or other UNLV employee, the Ombuds Office has many resources available to help you through any stage of a conflict. If you are having an issue and are uncertain where to go, it is an excellent zero-barrier first stop.  If you would like to talk privately and confidentially about any work- or campus-related concern, please make an appointment with the Ombuds. You might even find yourself receiving a microaffirmation.

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