Train Wreck

Destroyed bridge with wagons, crash on railway

‘For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.’ – H. L. Mencken

Learning and Development is always looking for a new word, trend, and model. And while some models are not useful, the biggest problem is misapplication of concepts.

If someone gave you a bottle of nitroglycerin – highly volatile and explosive – you’d be very careful holding it. Microaggression training should be treated with the same care. Unfortunately, many organizations have not thought through the consequences of conducting microaggression training.

The concept of microaggression training is well-meaning and part of a psychologically safe environment. In a perfect world, where people were highly aware of their communication nuances, microaggression training would be simple.

The idea is to recognize and deal with someone saying something that FEELS hostile or offensive to some aspect of our identity. These might be questions, assumptions, generalizations, or insensitive statements. I’m 6’4”, and many a time I’ve been asked by supervisors, male and female, in work situations, ‘Can you help us move this desk big boy.’ And while I’ve never thought much of it, in a world of hyper-sensitivity and ambulance chasing lawyers, microaggression training might not have the result an organization desires.

A reactionary comment of ‘that’s crazy’ about an idea shared in a meeting can be taken as a microaggression. Even a simple HR intervention spreads the story like wildfire. The most likely outcome – disengagement by everyone.

The current environment is a perfect storm for a L&D (Learning and Development) disaster with microaggression training:

  • Less than 25% of employees believe training improved their performance
  • More than 70% report they don’t have the skills need to do their jobs
  • Less than 12% apply new skills in their job
  • Over 75% of manager are dissatisfied with their L&D function

Professor of economics at George Mason University, Bryan Caplan says employees are not learning to learn, they are learning to ‘signal’ with CEU credits for a promotion. And this corruption of intent is used by some employees to signal by any means possible. They’ve discovered ‘the squeaky wheel’ gets the grease – and by grease they mean money.

Offering microaggression training in reaction (reactive versus proactive) to employee complaints is like putting out a fire with kerosine. The reason is a lack of program commitment and development. I understand in our new ‘Kardashian’ and social media world bad behavior has become the norm and rudeness the duty of the day. It’s difficult to get through a day without seeing someone aggressive to employees or even employees aggressive with each other.

Microaggression training is not a one-hour, half-day, or even full day class. This program must be part of an extensive organizational development project to be effective.

For microaggression training to be effective, participants need a strong foundation in the skills of psychological bias, conflict resolution, de-escalation, reading body-language and micro-expressions, emotional intelligence, questions, and negotiation. Facilitators of microaggression training need to be even more skilled in all these areas and more.

If your employees are complaining about microaggressions, they are focused on the symptom of the problem. Rather than creating a new program about microaggression, rethink your entire learning and development delivery model and work with management on transparency, healthy conflict, social responsibility, emotional intelligence, and communication skills.

And if you insist on a microaggression program in your learning portfolio, make it an awareness piece for discussion or incorporate it into an extensive organizational development program for business development through employee engagement. As Mr. Miyagi says, “Walk on road. Walk right side, safe. Walk left side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later, get squish, just like grape.” (Do you understand the problem now?)

Don’t be that company that offers programs in psychological safety and excludes instructors by any factor other than merit. It’s like removing railroad ties and spikes and expecting the trains to not careen off the tracks.


© 2022 Jeffrey Hansler

Jeffrey Hansler, CSP, CMP, is expert at organizational development, leadership, and persuasive communication, which includes skills of innovation, influence, negotiation, sales, body language, micro-expressions, finance, and authority. He may be reached at

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