Home | MIT Sloan Fellows | Leadership Blog

Transforming workplace culture with micro-affirmations

Mary RoweEarlier this year, a group of undergraduates launched Random Acts of Kindness (RAK) Week at MIT. Members of the community encountered various “kindness crews” dispensing an array of happy surprises—from hugs to hot chocolate. RAK, which has burgeoned into something of an international phenomenon, illuminates the pioneering work of IWER’s Mary Rowe, adjunct professor of negotiation and conflict management at MIT Sloan’s Institute for Work and Employment Research.

An economist and conflict management specialist, Rowe joined the Institute in 1973, becoming MIT’s first ombudsperson. In that role she encountered, defined, and worked to help resolve workplace inequities (large and small) that often had not been identified or articulated. Issues raised in Rowe’s office led to the establishment of MIT’s anti-harassment policy, one of the nation’s first.

Some of Rowe’s reports to the MIT community discussed the ubiquitous phenomenon of micro-inequities—small, thoughtless unfairnesses, often unintentional and difficult to prove, toward those who are perceived as different. Neglecting to invite someone to a group event, for example, or not introducing someone—the only person who appears as “different.” Such slights are often the result of unconscious bias or not understanding another culture. In the aggregate, however, they can isolate and alienate those on the receiving end.

How can we change unconscious biases?

The question was—and is —if some of our biases are “unconscious,” what can we do about them in ourselves? Rowe began to observe MIT managers and members of the faculty who appeared successful in achieving diversity and inclusion. From this research she developed hypotheses about micro-affirmations as one antidote to micro-inequities. If we are consistently proactive about affirming the efforts and achievements of others, she concluded, we might be less prone to micro-inequities.

Based on her research, Rowe outlined the implications of a culture rich with micro-affirmations:

  1. Block unconscious bias. Practice affirming the achievements of others. If you consciously and persistently look for excellence in the work of others and are universally respectful, you may be able to block your own unconscious bias from emerging.
  2. Ameliorate damage. Your micro-affirmations might make up for, or balance out, some of the damage caused by micro-inequities in the workplace.
  3. Meet a core emotional concern. Appreciation and affirmation are morale boosters, so micro-affirmations should lead to a more motivated and productive workplace.
  4. Evoke reciprocal affirmation. Micro-affirmations can be contagious. When we compliment someone, he or she often is then inclined to compliment someone else.
  5. Create a role-modeling effect. People are especially sensitive to the behavior of their immediate supervisors. When supervisors adopt the practice of micro-affirmation, they are important role models for colleagues and employees.
  6. Rectify our own unconscious bias. Behavior is shaped by attitudes and vice versa. When we practice micro-affirmations, we may actually change some of our own unconscious biases.

Since Rowe’s work on micro-affirmations and micro-inequities, much independent social science research has corroborated her findings, and the infectious nature of micro-affirmations sometimes finds its way into the culture. MIT RAK Week is just one example.

“In my childhood,” Rowe remembers, “I learned about Frank Laubach and his mantra: ‘each one, teach one.’ When I came to MIT, I riffed on that and tried ‘each one teach one—each one reach one.’ I could see how random acts of kindness could indeed be contagious. My hope is that MIT RAK Week will go viral.”

Read more about micro-affirmations and MIT’s first ombudsperson Mary Rowe.

Find out about MIT’s Institute for Work and Employment Research.

Chicago Sun Times: The search for a kinder workplace.


Comments are closed.