Organizations are about people and people are relational beings. It’s through relationships that we communicate with one another. It’s through relationships that trust is built. It’s through relationships that business happens. And it’s also through relationships that we experience our workplace lives—in both positive and challenging ways.

That’s why racism in the workplace is fundamentally a relational issue. As a founder or executive, you may think that you have a tolerant organizational culture, but racism and discrimination in the workplace isn’t always outwardly visible.

Racial microaggressions, which are experienced through subtle, daily interactions at work, can leave Black individuals feeling devalued. It’s the comment that may appear harmless to one well-intended person but offensive to another.

“Where are you from?”
“You’re so articulate.” 
“Can I touch your hair?”

Microaggressions have been found to increase stress in the lives of people of color, deny or negate their racialized experiences, lower emotional well-being, increase depression and negative feelings, create a hostile and invalidating work climate, impair employee performance, and take a heavy toll on the physical well-being of targets.

Given the immense harm they cause, it’s imperative for founders and executives to begin the process of disarming, disrupting, and dismantling the constant onslaught of microaggressions with anti-racism intervention strategies.

In “Disarming Racial Microaggressions: Microintervention Strategies for Targets, White Allies, and Bystanders” (2019), Columbia University Professor of Counseling Psychology Derald Sue describes “microinterventions” that we can take as white allies to support, encourage, and reassure our Black colleagues that we are with them. Microinterventions are interpersonal tools that are intended to counteract microaggressions by subtly or overtly challenging and educating the perpetrator. 

White ally training involves teaching how to use microinterventions that target microaggressions. For example, making the “invisible” visible to the perpetrator through challenging stereotypes or expressing disagreement, pointing out commonalities, and educating. As much as microaggressions are laced with unconscious bias, microinterventions, on the other hand, are conscious acts that powerfully counter – and can be learned.

As a licensed psychologist and Certified Gottman Therapist, I operate at the intersection of couples therapy and executive coaching. In the Gottman Method, the goal of conflict between couples is not always resolution—it’s greater understanding. We can apply the same model to workplace relationships. 

The process of greater understanding in your organization begins with dialogue where employees can feel safe enough to both identify and share their true feelings. Change starts at the individual level, asking “How can I do better?” and “How can I be better?” 

If you’re not sure how to address racism in your organization, truly listening and then validating an experienced reality — a microintervention— is a good start. As white allies, we can do our best to understand, even though we will never truly know what it’s like to feel marginalized because of the color of our skin. 

Listening may make us feel uncomfortable at times, so much so that we may want to run away, or may freeze or may even get angry, but it is through listening and then validating — a basic relational process — that positive change can begin.

This article was originally published on Founders Foundry.

Sue, D. W., Alsaidi, S., Awad, M. N., Glaeser, E., Calle, C. Z., & Mendez, N. (2019). Disarming racial microaggressions: Microintervention strategies for targets, White allies, and bystandersAmerican Psychologist, 74(1), 128-142.


  • Karen Bridbord, Ph.D.

    Licensed Psychologist and Organizational Consultant

    Karen Bribord, Ph.D. is the founder and CEO of Founders Foundry, where she offers executive coaching for company founders and organizational leaders. As a Licensed Psychologist and a Certified Gottman Therapist, Karen helps company founders and leadership teams build healthy, productive partnerships to facilitate business growth, eliminate obstacles to success, and reach their fullest potential. Throughout her career, she has specialized in organizational behavior, interpersonal relationships, and executive communications.