Examining the Impact of Exclusionary Behaviors on Team Dynamics


Tufts CSDD study finds that acts of microaggression negatively impact psychological safety and performance.


Underrepresented minority groups are more likely to experience exclusionary behaviors in the workplace than their majority counterparts. To examine the impact that exclusionary behaviors in the form of microaggressions can have on work outcomes, Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development (Tufts CSDD) surveyed professionals working in the drug development industry, asking them about common forms of exclusionary interactions they encounter and what effects these dynamics have on team outcomes. Results confirmed that regularly experiencing microaggressions is negatively tied to psychological safety and reduces performance outcomes. Implications from this study are further discussed and recommendations are provided for leaders and managers to help build inclusion on their teams.

This study received funding from the following organizations: Abbvie, Amgen, BMS, Chugai, Genentech-Roche, Labcorp, Novartis, and Parexel.


An increasing body of research is confirming that underrepresented minorities are far more likely to encounter exclusionary forms of interactions than their majority counterparts in the workplace. Numerous studies have shown that women and racial minorities report experiencing microaggressions defined as subtle behaviors and comments that most often unintentionally demean or putdown individuals based on some aspect of their gender and/or racial identity and that this experience can be particularly salient in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) domains where women and racial minorities remain underrepresented especially at the leadership level.1,2

These forms of exclusionary dynamics often manifest as microaggressions defined as verbal and nonverbal slights that intentionally or unintentionally convey hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to certain individuals or groups based on some aspect of their social identity.3 Although most microaggressions manifest as subtle, brief encounters, their impact is anything but small. Repeatedly experiencing interactions that cause the target to, for instance, question their competence or scientific expertise has been linked to negative affect, cognitive overload, and even negative behavioral changes, such as withdrawal and eventual turnover, all of which can hinder effective team performance. Importantly, these effects are compounded over time.

Much of the research on workplace microaggressions and their impact has remained qualitative, relying heavily on interviews and focus groups.1,4,5 Though qualitative studies provide in-depth nuance into the lived experiences of professionals who must navigate these interactions, generalizability of the study results is limited given the relatively smaller sample size compared to survey studies that can be scaled and distributed to a larger sample, thereby increasing the application of the study findings.

To address this gap, Tufts CSDD conducted a survey study among drug development professionals to quantitatively measure the frequency of workplace microaggressions and tie them to relevant psychological work outcomes and behaviors. We built on a previous study in which we interviewed a range of professionals working in drug development to understand their experience navigating microaggressions manifesting as exclusive behaviors.5 Using the themes uncovered from this qualitative study, we developed a survey that measured how often people experienced dynamics of exclusion (i.e., “I am interrupted by others while I speak”) and tied those to work outcomes, including psychological safety and performance.

Evidence that microaggressions can hinder effective team performance

The survey was administered among drug development professionals with the support of a working group comprised of representatives from sponsor and contract research organizations (CRO) who provided input on the content of the survey and helped socialize and distribute it across their organizations. The final sample totaled 543 responses. More than 70% of the responses were from women; about 60% of the respondents were White, followed by 25% Asian, 6% Latino/a/e, 6% Black, and 4% other, which included those with multi-racial and ethnic backgrounds as well as those of Middle Eastern/North African and Indigenous descent. Respondents were mainly from sponsor and CROs, representing primarily clinical research and clinical operations.

More than a quarter of the sample shared that they experienced microaggressions on an ongoing, daily basis. Among different racial groups, Black respondents were more likely than any other group to frequently experience microaggressions compared to non-Black respondents. Among those who experienced microaggressions frequently, individuals who worked remotely shared that they experienced significantly less microaggressions than everybody else, including those who worked on-site and those who had a hybrid work arrangement, suggesting that remote work arrangements can help provide a buffer against experiencing exclusionary behaviors.

There were distinct patterns of microaggressions experienced among different racial groups. For example, Black professionals were more likely to have their technical or scientific competence questioned by others and receive comments about their physical appearance compared to their White colleagues. In a field that prioritizes and highlights scientific and technical accomplishments, it can be damaging to work with colleagues who do not authorize or acknowledge the expertise one brings to the table due to pre-existing stereotypes people have about Black professionals.6 Moreover, this finding highlights ways in which Black professionals may burnout as they try to overcome these biases and behaviors by over-performing to counter the stereotype, a concept that has been documented in the psychology literature among women working in male-dominated areas.7

The latter finding focusing on physical appearance also highlights a unique challenge experienced among Black female professionals who have shared in previous interviews the exclusion they felt by comments from colleagues focusing on their hair. Specifically, Black women shared that they felt alienated by White colleagues who only talked to them when they changed their hairstyles. Thus, this finding may help highlight opportunities to shape DEI training that not only sheds light on the thought and behavioral process among Black professionals in response to this type of microaggression, but also encourage more inclusive, and less exclusionary behaviors by majority counterparts.

There were also similarities in experience shared across different racial minority groups. For example, both Black and Asian professionals were more likely to be interrupted during a meeting than their White counterparts, whereas both Asian and Latino/a/e participants were more likely to have their leadership status questioned than their White colleagues.

Finally, we found a significant negative relationship between microaggressions and psychological safety and performance. Psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up, asking questions, or making a mistake.8 Our results provide evidence that working in an environment where you are constantly made to feel lesser than your peers can hinder people from speaking up and voicing their thoughts freely, which can also reduce effective team performance. In fact, our data confirmed that those who experienced microaggressions on a frequent basis were more likely to report lowered ability to effectively collaborate with the offending party.


Cross-functional collaboration has become increasingly necessary for producing high-quality science and this is no exception in drug development, which has grown more complex and nuanced, requiring talent and skills from a diverse array of backgrounds, including biological science, engineering, project management, and data science, to name a few.9 For effective cross-functional work to occur, certain conditions need to be met, including a team climate that allows for the free exchange of information, ideas, and feedback among members without fear of backlash or repercussion.

What we have demonstrated is that microaggressions—behaviors and comments that most often unintentionally exclude and demean minority members—can hinder teams from creating a psychologically safe environment where all members can thrive and reduce effective team performance. Based on the study results, we recommend managers and leaders to pay closer attention to the dynamics within their teams and/or functional areas, focusing on, for example, who is interrupted during meetings; who does most of the talking; and who is authorized and legitimized as the leader.

By addressing microaggressions and explaining why such behaviors are not conducive for effective team performance, leaders and managers can set the tone of what behaviors are condoned and what behaviors are not, helping to create a psychologically safe environment. Through these efforts that can be compounded throughout different areas and levels within organizations, leaders can help their employees show up in the way that is most meaningful to them. However, these efforts are only as good as the tools that organizations use to ensure that such efforts stick. An effective way to ensure the sustainability of DEI efforts is to regularly measure the frequencies of these dynamics using surveys, such as the one developed by Tufts CSDD for this study and use the results to inform and guide employee development practices. Tufts CSDD extends an open invitation to organizations who wish to use our instrument to assess their team’s diversity climate and build this assessment capability into their organization’s business strategy.


1. Kim JY, Meister A. Microaggressions, interrupted: The experience and effects of gender microaggressions for women in STEM. Journal of Business Ethics. Published online 2022. doi:10.1007/s10551-022-05203-0

2. Eaton AA, Saunders JF, Jacobson RK, West K. How gender and race stereotypes impact the advancement of scholars in STEM: Professors’ biased evaluations of physics and biology post-doctoral candidates. Sex Roles. 2020;82(3-4):127-141. doi:10.1007/s11199-019-01052-w

3. Sue DW, Capodilupo CM, Torino GC, et al. Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist. 2007;62(4):271. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.62.4.271

4. Holder AMB, Jackson MA, Ponterotto JG. Racial microaggression experiences and coping strategies of black women in corporate leadership. Qualitative Psychology. 2015;2(2):164-180. doi:10.1037/qup0000024

5. Kim JY, Botto E. The Impact of Gender Microaggressions on Team Performance in Drug Development. Applied Clinical Trials. Published online May 19, 2022. Accessed February 2, 2023. https://www.appliedclinicaltrialsonline.com/view/the-impact-of-gender-microaggressions-on-team-performance-in-drug-development

6. Miles ML, Brockman AJ, Naphan-Kingery DE. Invalidated identities: The disconfirming effects of racial microaggressions on Black doctoral students in STEM. Journal of Research in Science Teaching. 2020;57(10):1608-1631. doi:10.1002/tea.21646

7. Block CJ, Cruz M, Bairley M, Harel-Marian T, Roberson L. Inside the prism of an invisible threat: Shining a light on the hidden work of contending with systemic stereotype threat in STEM fields. Journal of Vocational Behavior. 2019;113(August):33-50. doi:10.1016/j.jvb.2018.09.007

8. Edmondson AC. Psychological safety, trust, and learning in organizations: A group-level lens. Trust and Distrust in Organizations: Dilemmas and Approaches. 2004;(12):239-272.

9. Reardon S. Scientific collaborations are precarious territory for women. Nature. 2022;605:179-181. doi:10.1038/d41586-022-01204-1

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