Ombud’s Corner: second letter from Ombudsland

A few weeks ago I attended the 2015 annual conference of the International Ombudsman Association. It was the second time that I had participated in this conference (see here my report from last year) and, once again, I would like to share some of my experience with you.


The annual conference of the International Ombudsman Association offers its participants – Ombuds coming from the private sector as well as from various universities and organisations – a valuable opportunity for networking and sharing best practices and experiences. The various presentations and workshops are designed to raise questions about how to continually improve our ways of handling conflicts and provide insights into innovative ways of promoting a work environment based on mutual respect and collaboration.

This year’s conference featured many interesting contributions and one topic that caught my attention in particular was the talk by the MIT Ombudsperson, which focussed on the importance of being aware of what she called “micro-inequities”. What are micro-inequities? These are the little issues, “little acts of disrespect and failures in performance feedback that seem to corrode some professional relationships like bits of sand and ice”. Often, we think that the only issues that we need to manage are the ones that generate big conflicts, but the little inequities, the apparently negligible acts of unequal treatment or disrespect that gnaw away at our morale and motivation on a daily basis also need to be addressed. Examples of these micro-inequities include names mistakenly left out of invitations to meetings, failures to give credit or acknowledge contributions, assumptions made on the basis of people’s nationality or gender, ineffective ways of giving feedback or indeed not giving feedback at all. All these things can, in the end, have a “cumulative, corrosive effect” on people’s sense of self worth and, in particular, on their perception of whether or not their contributions are valued.

Most of the time, these ‘micro-inequities’ behaviours are unconscious and the people who behave like this do not even realise their impact on others. In fact, it is precisely because this behaviour is unconscious that it is very difficult to change. As the speaker went on to say, even when this behaviour is pointed out to people, they cannot see the problem and tend to laugh it off, and it is only if they are confronted with a video recording that they are able to recognise the negative impact it may have on colleagues.

So what can we do to catch ourselves and prevent this type of behaviour? The solution proposed by the speaker was to put in place a practice of ‘micro-affirmations’ or “apparently small acts or gestures of inclusion and appreciation that include listening, acknowledging and providing fair, specific, timely feedback aimed at helping people to build on their strengths”.

Whereas many ‘micro-inequities’ are unconscious and therefore hard to avoid, a conscious practice of ‘micro-affirmations’ can lead to three positive outcomes: it will be motivating for the other person, it will help us to block these behaviours and prevent even unconscious slights because our focus will be on positive aspects, and, in the longer term, this consistent affirmation of others may prove to be contagious and widespread.

“Micro-inequities – apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, and frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator.

Micro-affirmations – apparently small acts, which are often ephemeral and hard-to-see, events that are public and private, often unconscious but very effective, which occur wherever people wish to help others to succeed.”

Mary P. Rowe, Ombudsperson, MIT, USA, pioneer in the field


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by Sudeshna Datta-Cockerill