Issue 3 – You get what you tolerate

Through the lens of the Rubiales kiss, I examine how microaggressions become macro. Welcome to BIG talk. 


Carlo Odicino, CEO at One TEAM Partners

November 8, 2023

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You get what you tolerate

Note: I call it the Rubiales kiss because it’s Luis Rubiales (former president of the Spanish Football Federation) who took the action. It’s not the Hermoso kiss. It’s not the Women’s World Cup Kiss. It’s the Rubiales kiss. His is the name that should be attached to this incident. 

Now that’s cleared up, let’s get into it. 

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, back in August, Luis Rubiales decided to plant a kiss on the lips of a female Spanish player. Her team had just won the FIFA Women’s World Cup, so the moment was broadcast to millions of viewers worldwide. What ensued was a nightmare battle of ‘he said, she said’ (despite there being video evidence of what happened), exposing – from what I could see – the misogynistic and sexist underbelly of the sport and its governing bodies. 

This event, and its entrails, struck a chord with many of us around the world. For a lot of us watching, it was a very overt example of what happens when culture is built on tolerance. 

Behind the kiss

If you watch the clip, Rubiales seems to have absolutely no idea that what he is doing is inappropriate. Of course, he should have known better. That’s a given. What needs further examination is the culture that led him to feel safe to do such a thing.

To me, this incident screams tolerance. Years of it, in different forms and to differing degrees, across multiple organizations and groups. It’s thousands of subtle moments gone unnoticed or ignored. Moments that – whether intentional or not – created a power imbalance; one where people in the majority (in this case, and many cases, men) felt protected, and those in the minority did not. 

Perhaps Rubiales didn’t think what he was doing was wrong, and he certainly didn’t think he’d get called out for it.

Understanding microaggressions

These subtle ‘moments’ I’m referring to have a name: microaggressions. Today, this term is understood to mean “A comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group” (Merriam-Webster). 

To be clear, what Rubiales did is not a microaggression. By definition, it is sexual assault. But to understand how someone in his position ends up sexually assaulting someone on live TV, we need to probe the ‘small’ stuff. 

Let’s start by unpacking who experiences microaggressions. 

The above definition of microaggression isn’t the original definition. It was first coined in the 1970s, by Harvard University professor Chester Pierce, to describe specifically Black experiences of subtle discrimination from white people (Psychiatry.org). It was only as part of Dr. Derald Wing Sue’s research into the causes, manifestations, and impact of microaggressions at Columbia University, that the term began to include all marginalized identities (Columbia.edu). 

Interestingly, this 2022 HBR article positions microaggressions as something anyone can experience. While that may be true, it’s missing the point. Yes, anyone can experience prejudice but the difference is that microaggressions against a majority (white, straight, cis, rich, able-bodied, etc.) don’t evolve to macro oppression.

Not-so-micro 

Examples of microaggressions at work include anything from repeatedly talking over or ignoring someone in a meeting to consistently mispronouncing a colleague’s name because ‘it’s difficult’ to say. 

Out of context or individually these might seem minor – in fact, one of the main criticisms of microaggressions as a concept is that society is becoming hypersensitive. Too ‘woke’. However, research shows that microaggressions over time can negatively impact the psychological well-being of those who experience them (Microaggression: More Than Just Race, Derald Wing Sue Ph.D.). 

Furthermore, and this isn’t my idea but it’s one I increasingly agree with, by naming (and treating) a moment as ‘micro’ we are minimizing the action and its impact (HBR). We are essentially saying ‘It’s not a big deal, don’t worry about it’. If that’s the message that micro-aggressors are receiving, day in and day out, directly or indirectly, it’s not surprising that some start to believe that other behaviors will be tolerated. 

From micro to macro

For years in the lead-up to the Rubiales kiss, men and women associated with the Spanish Football Federation had been reporting incidents of sexism and misogyny, to no avail (Women In Sport). 

Now, the institution is under the spotlight for being a macro-aggressor, and rightly so from my point of view. 

Did this all, in its entirety, stem from tolerance of microaggressions? Of course not. There are many other factors at play. For example, perhaps those in power do not believe that sexism and misogyny are problematic. But did tolerance of microaggressions play a part? Well, connecting the dots between the two isn’t difficult, is it?

Leaning into discomfort

Chances are, many of you have felt a little uncomfortable reading this. I felt it too as I wrote it, knowing that my privilege has protected me from experiencing microaggressions and that I’ve likely played a part in minimizing them over my career. 

I challenge you to lean into that discomfort. That discomfort is a call to action from your gut, telling you that you can do better.

To quote Dr Sue (the pioneer in the field of microaggression theory), “Because most of us consciously experience ourselves as good, moral and decent human beings, the realization that we hold a biased worldview is very disturbing; thus we prefer to deny, diminish or avoid looking at ourselves honestly.”

This isn’t how we grow. As leaders, we need to be able to look inward so that we can continually push for better across the organizations that we look after. 

The opposite of a tolerant culture is not ‘cancel culture’


It wouldn’t be a BIG talk without some exploration into how exactly we create change. So here goes:

Progressing from tolerance to inclusion begins with awareness, and should stem from a curious desire to re-imagine human interactions. When I say we need to stop tolerating microaggressions I do not mean that anyone who says or does the wrong thing should be ‘canceled’. 

The path to a more inclusive culture starts with awareness of what’s been tolerated, then structure around the commitment to change, and then building habits so that new behaviors become automatic. 

Awareness

Inclusive leadership and cultures require awareness and acknowledgment. If you’ve come this far in BIG talk, thank you. You’re already building your awareness. Next, it’s about deepening that awareness. Read. Listen. Ask questions. Seek out education and training, for you and your organization, cognizant of the change blockers who will view this activity as ‘hypersensitive’ (they’ll need more attention than anyone). 

Being aware of what microaggressions are and how people in your organization have experienced them will set you up for step 2.

Structure

Next, it’s about building structure into how you engage with microaggressions. First and foremost, you should consider what could be put in place to begin to eradicate them. For example, you might implement a monthly training session that explores a certain type of microaggression – centering the voices of those who have experienced them. 

At the same time, you’ll also need to define the process for if and when microaggressions do happen. People need to know how to report them, and what will happen once they have been reported. Again, this isn’t about canceling microaggressors. The process should build awareness and encourage conversation so that change comes from understanding (not force). 

I encourage you to include people from all levels of your organization as you build this strategy. 

Habit

Finally, it’s about committing to the structure you’ve co-designed with your people. As a leader, your buy-in is crucial. People will be looking at you to see whether this new way of doing things is going to stick. 

Of course, this is a crash course in building an inclusive culture, and microaggressions are just one aspect of it. If you are interested in learning more, please do reach out. One TEAM does people-first business transformation, and Awareness – Structure – Habit strategies are our bread and butter. 

We know that when people thrive, so do the businesses that we work with.  


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