The power of micro-messages and micro-inequities

As a communication professional who worked in financial services during the crisis, I reflect more on the things we did not say to customers in those dark days than what we did say. While the market fell in 2008, remarkably few voices in the financial industry offered caring and compassionate advice to traumatized investors.

In a heavily regulated industry such as financial services, communications are intricately planned and thoroughly vetted before they reach the public. When Lehman Brothers fell, the industry was dealing with an array of unprecedented issues, among them was the challenge of communicating through a period of prolonged and intense volatility.

As a result, advisors and investment managers said very little when investors felt most vulnerable.  This absence of empathy fostered distrust, which continues to hamper the industry four years later. According to Barron’s, investors pulled an estimated 7 billion out of stock mutual funds in 2012, despite a year of relatively stable market performance.

Micro-messages & micro-inequities
Communication is commonly understood as something that is said. However, the absence of communication can deliver a far more powerful message.  Failure to demonstrate empathy conveys that someone else’s problems are not relevant.  That inequality sends a potent message that is not soon forgotten.

Mary P. Rowe, Ph.D., an economist at MIT, coined the term micro-inequity in the 1970s to describe small actions and messages that promote workplace inequality.  She defined micro-inequities as: “apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, which occur wherever people are perceived to be ‘different.’”

According to Sharon McMillen Cannon, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Management and Corporate Communication at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,

Wherever you observe a difference in power, those in power can send poorly executed behavioral messages to those with less power.  During the financial crisis,  the messages of people perceived as powerful within financial institutions sent ‘micro-messages’ that created mistrust in the public.

Dr. Rowe’s research on workplace equality at MIT, led to her discovery of micro-inequities and their converse, micro-affirmations. Over the years, researchers have applied these terms to other instances where an imbalance of power exists, such as the doctor/patient relationship and the relationship between doctors and nurses. In the financial crisis, when average Americans felt extremely confused and vulnerable, micro-inequities were pervasive.

Communicate to promote balance

Although an imbalance of power is a consistent component of workplace dynamics, it is an inconsistent component of marketplace dynamics. Depending on the circumstances, customers may feel more or less vulnerable to a business. Therefore, when the balance of power tips to an extreme, businesses must become agile communicators in order to avoid an erosion of trust.

Another important reminder for communicators is that while trust is not established through verbal communications, it can be destroyed verbally.  In the spring of 2010, while oil gushed out of the Gulf of Mexico, a particularly inept communicator conveyed the most poignant inequity of recent times when he exclaimed, “I’d like my life back.”

This one comment catapulted Tony Hayward to the top position among corporate villains, where he’ll likely remain in the collective conscious of Americans, and particularly those whose lives were genuinely shattered by his company’s error.

However, Mr. Hayward’s full quote from that day illustrates a slightly different intent.

I’m sorry. We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back.

If Mr. Hayward could have omitted the last two sentences, his apology would not have become a historic teaching moment for business leaders. Looking closely at his message, it’s clear that Mr. Hayward tried to identify with those who were suffering. However, he forgot about the imbalance of power; the fact that his life had not been destroyed, it was merely disrupted. Therefore, any message about his own experience was destined to accentuate the imbalance of power and fuel animosity.

Yes, it’s arguable that Mr. Hayward’s statement was not exactly a micro-message, however, it highlights the relevancy of imbalances of power in communication. Essentially, the things we say and don’t say can augment or diminish imbalances in power. Communicators should strive to minimize customers’ and employees’ sense of vulnerability, particularly during a crisis, and should therefore remain vigilant of micro-inequities and the dangerous messages they convey.

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