Micro-Affirmations: How Small Actions Can Yield Big Results

“I’d like your opinion about … .”                  A genuine smile                “Congratulations on your promotion!”                  Saying someone’s name correctly

These small statements and gestures may seem unimportant, but they deliver powerful outcomes. Micro-affirmations (also referred to as micro-moves, micro-gestures, and micro-advantages) include nods, facial expressions, choices of words, and tones of voice that convey inclusion, caring, and listening.

Before you dismiss this idea as too sentimental when there is so much “real” work to be done, solid research supports the power of these seemingly unimportant actions to improve performance, help with change management, and support diversity and inclusion in organizations.

Mary P. Rowe, Ph.D., an adjunct professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, has been studying under-representation in workplaces since 1973. She identified the outsized role that small, often unintentional acts play in discrimination. Unconscious bias can occur wherever people are perceived to be different. Confusing a person of a certain race with another person of the same race; forgetting to introduce an older colleague; or shaking hands only when greeting men are all subtle behaviors that send a message of disrespect. While confronting these micro-inequities through education and awareness is helpful, Dr. Rowe found the most effective way to change these practices was to substitute better behaviors—micro-affirmations. (Rowe, 2008).

What does it take to practice micro-affirmations? You’re probably already using them. Recognize the large impact these small gestures can have on those around you. Here are some examples:

  • Ask others for their opinions
  • Recognize the achievements of others
  • Use friendly facial expressions and gestures
  • Take a genuine, professional interest in someone’s personal life
  • Pay attention
  • Make eye contact (yes, this means putting down your phone)
  • Give credit to another’s ideas
  • Nod and smile

While small and often unconscious, these acts move your organization toward inclusion and away from discrimination. They re-frame the conversation and encourage workplace respect.

Micro-affirmations also convey fair, timely, and clear feedback that helps a person build on strength and correct weakness. You may have heard that performance appraisal is dead, but evidence from peer-reviewed journals shows that more frequent conversations between managers and employees lead to success. Gallup’s work studying exceptional workplaces identifies the Q12 survey question, “Have you received recognition or praise for doing good work?” as a critical factor in employee engagement. The CliftonStrengths assessment and Marcus Buckingham’s strengths-based coaching model support the impact of small, positive actions on employee engagement and retention.

Research into successful change initiatives (Golden-Biddle, 2014) proves that micro-moves are essential to facilitating engagement, initiating a cascading vitality for change, and providing hope that one’s efforts will make a difference. The principles of Appreciative Inquiry are also relevant to micro-affirmations: leading rather than pushing and building on strength and success rather than first identifying faults and weakness. Change is a struggle for many organizations, and employees with trusting, effective relationships are more likely to weather this storm.

It’s particularly helpful for managers and leaders to model affirming behavior. People are especially sensitive to the behavior of their immediate supervisors. When supervisors adopt the practice of micro-affirmation, they become  important role models for colleagues and employees.

If you want to get the very best work from every person, inspire loyalty and confidence, and achieve outstanding results for your organization, remember, it’s the little things that count. Thank you for listening.

Employers Council offers training opportunities for your organization: Communicating Effectively in Difficult Situations; Unconscious Bias: Surfacing Hidden Assumptions; Cultivating Kindness in the Workplace; and Workplace Respect.