Micro Vexes

You've probably heard of the idea of micro aggressions: small, almost imperceptible acts that signal to people that they are not welcome or that they are disliked. Examples include not inviting someone to a team lunch "by accident" or not bothering to learn how to correctly pronounce someone's name. They're small, persistent, and can really take their tole on people. But, crucially, they're so small that it often feels like any action taken to prevent them is disproportionate.

You can see how this comes to be. So, someone fails to pronounce your name properly. Imagine how hard it must be to go to your supervisor or line manager and say:

"Excuse me, Allan, I know you're very busy but Janine keeps calling me Pardeep but my name is actually Hardeep. Yes, I know it's very similar but I... no I think she's doing it on purpose. Well actually I don't think I'm being over sensitive at all."

So these micro aggressions just continue causing stress and anxiety and, like the loose stitch in a piece of clothing, go undealt with just long enough for everything to unravel.

The thing is, it isn't just humans who can do this kind of damage to one another. In our work at Sabre Tooth Panda we've found that very often the machines we work in are filled with tiny inconveniences, what we call micro vexes, that have pretty much the same impact.

Take something very small like a process that has a single duplicated step in it. Something that takes only a few seconds every time to complete. Maybe a certain detail needs to be input in two different places because, when the process was first designed, someone missed a memo.

This process might take no more than a few seconds longer to complete each time because of this unfortunate micro vex, and maybe over the course of a year that adds up to a couple of hours for an employee. Not something, on the face of it, that's worth fixing. The cost of fixing it would never be repaid if we're looking simply at hours saved.

But that's just the external cost, the added time and workload that we can see and count on a spreadsheet. Much like a micro aggression this micro vex seems too small to bother with. But from the standpoint of the experience of the human this small thing is like having his name mispronounced again and again. It's a slow puncture in his productivity inner tube. Over time, it deflates him.

Inside the human mind small things can take on great significance. We know this instinctively and we use it both to regulate our own wellbeing (go on, lower your shoulders and take three deep breaths) and to antagonise others (see micro aggressions) as well as many others things. A label inside a shirt that's scratchy, a damaged piece of packaging when we receive a birthday gift, a small pause when you ask someone what they think of your haircut. In our minds these small things become big. And so they become distractions, stressors, and ultimately prevent us from performing at our best.

Which, if you think about it the right way, offers us a fairly hefty opportunity.

It follows that if micro vexes can cause disproportionate harm to our performance then eliminating micro vexes can bring about disproportionate improvements.

We know, for example, that good lighting can improve focus, that well chosen fonts can increase recall of written information, and that being thanked more often can raise wellbeing at work. And those are simply the generic small but actually big things that businesses often fail to do. But what about your specific ones? What would it cost to find out what micro vexations your employees are silently or not so silently dealing with and to begin to eliminate or alleviate some of them?

When you think of an organisation as a machine for working in then it seems obvious that these small things should be dealt with. The humans, as users of this machine, should expect it to be designed to fit their needs.