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Great Leaders Keep an Eye on the “Little Things”

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By April Townsend
July 28, 2023

As a young child, I remember spending time with my grandmother in her flower garden and how she would tell me that it was the “little things” that made her happy. At the time I thought she was referring to me and, of course, her flowers. Years later when I was in the workforce, I realized the wisdom of what my grandmother was sharing. She was right—the “little things” do matter. As an adult, I learned that small actions, tiny messages or little behaviors can be used to reinforce a sense of belonging, or they can serve as subtle acts of exclusion.

The experiences associated with these micro behaviors are more than just a feeling. They have been researched, analyzed and validated and the result should come as no surprise—the cumulative impact of the “little things” can have a powerful effect. They can make the difference between a person experiencing a respectful organizational culture that values their contributions or one that has an undercurrent of negative prejudicial insults or slights.

Understanding the Influence of Micro-Messages

Current research in this area points back to the work of Dr. Mary Rowe, an MIT professor, who used the term “micro” to refer to these small behaviors or messages. She described them as “tiny acts of opening doors to opportunity, gestures of inclusion and caring and graceful acts of listening.” Since Rowe’s work in the 1970s, others have studied and expanded on her description of these small acts, identifying several variations of micro-messaging that involve small, subtle messages that can be supportive or negative which communicate our expectations or our values. These micro-behaviors are conveyed through your tone of voice, the words you use, your facial expressions, as well as eye contact (or avoidance).

One of the micro-behaviors that has received considerable attention has been micro-aggressions, which are considered subtle verbal or behavioral messages that convey to a person or group that they are invisible, unwelcome or incapable of performing well. Dr. Rowe referred to them as “little acts of disrespect.” Examples include shaking hands only when greeting men, not introducing a colleague, trivializing the negative experience of a person who has experienced bias or implying that the only reason a person of color has been successful is due to some special program, rather than their own skills or merit.

All too often, micro-aggressions discount, ignore or overlook people on our teams, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Over time, the accumulation of these subtle, devaluing messages has a very real impact on a person’s physical and mental health, including difficulty sleeping, headaches, increased blood pressure and even depression. Left unchecked, this can influence a person’s career as they experience a decrease in job satisfaction and increased burnout. Research has found that over 50 percent of workers acknowledge that micro-aggressions play a contributing role when deciding whether to leave their job.

Fortunately, not all micro-messages are harmful. In fact, micro-affirmations have been found to be an effective tool to support and reinforce the engagement of an individual or workgroup. Micro-affirmations are small, subtle acts that acknowledge a person’s success or value and can be used to intentionally include someone who has been excluded. Although brief in nature, these exchanges can convey support, inclusion, respect and appreciation. In a very real sense, these small, almost invisible acts play an influential role in reinforcing and affirming a person’s sense of belonging.

Tips to Using Micro-Affirmations

Each of us can make an intentional effort to create a more respectful and inclusive workplace by being more aware of when subtle negative comments are made and no longer allowing them a pass. Creating a positive culture is something every person at any level of the organization can do. It starts with small acts, such as:

  • Actively listening by leaning forward, inclining your head and making eye contact to show your interest and attention.
  • Intentionally making supportive comments that acknowledge the contributions of others, particularly those who may feel unwelcome or invisible.
  • Including a co-worker to ensure they aren’t left out, knowing that being forgotten can be one of the most hurtful experiences at work.
  • Smiling and nodding to encourage and reassure someone who may be hesitant to contribute or finding opportunities to solicit a colleague’s opinions and ideas.
  • Publicly recognizing a person’s hard work—in a meeting setting, make sure you’re giving credit to the “owner” of the idea.
  • Acknowledging someone’s presence by making eye contact and letting them know they are seen instead of ignoring them, which signals that they don’t matter.

The Cumulative Value of The Little Things

While it may be easy to dismiss such actions as not having any real impact, decades of research would show that these seemingly unimportant actions can actually contribute to improved employee engagement and performance. Micro-affirmations can reassure people that they are noticed and needed. The great thing is that each of us has the power to raise another person’s visibility and reinforce that they belong—it’s just a matter of paying attention to the little things.

Author: Dr. April Townsend worked in local government for over 30 years, holding a variety of executive leadership and management positions. She is currently owner of Townsend Consulting, LLC, providing leadership coaching and organizational consulting services and is a Research Fellow with the Utah Women and Leadership Project. She can be reached at April@ Townsend.Consulting.  Twitter handle: @AprilT2014

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One Response to Great Leaders Keep an Eye on the “Little Things”

  1. Robert A. Hunter Reply

    July 28, 2023 at 7:14 pm

    This is a timely and lovely reminder for us all. Thank you.

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