Leadership starts with dignity

If you violate someone's sense of self-worth, you'll find it almost impossible to work with them, says Harvard's Donna Hicks.

by Donna Hicks
Last Updated: 06 Jun 2019

I’ve spent a lot of time in the corporate world, consulting on the many conflicts experienced in the workplace between management and employees. What quickly became evident was that some of the core drivers to these conflicts in the business environment were the same as what I saw facilitating international conflict resolution dialogues in the Middle East, Sri Lanka, Colombia and the US/Cuba.

What all these intractable conflicts had in common was that violations of dignity, experienced by both sides, created a seething resentment and desire to get even that kept the conflict alive.

Human beings react the same to being treated badly. Everyone wants their grievances listened to, acknowledged, and redressed. People want to be treated as if they mattered. They want to be treated with dignity – to have their inherent value and worth recognised and honoured.

When that happens, we react positively. It strengthens relationships as people feel safe to be their authentic selves and are willing to extend dignity to others. The magic is that when we honour other people’s dignity, we strengthen our own. We look good when we treat people well.

Leaders have a crucial role to play in creating a culture where dignity is honoured, and when they lack an understanding of how to do so, it’s most likely that the work environment will suffer from unaddressed violations.

Sadly, many of the leaders I worked with did not have a working knowledge of dignity. These were all good people who simply had not given it a thought, and therefore unintentionally harmed others.

My research shows that people feel their dignity is honoured in several ways:

1) When their identity is accepted, no matter their race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation

2) When they are shown recognition for a job well done

3) When their concerns and grievances are acknowledged for the suffering they have endured

4) When they feel a sense of inclusion and belonging

5) When they are treated fairly

6)  When they have independence and are empowered to act on their own behalf

7) When they feel understood

8) When they are given the benefit of the doubt

9) When they are given an apology when their dignity has been violated

These are good guidelines for workplace relationships, "rules of engagement" for interacting with one another.

My research also shows that when people are treated with dignity in the workplace, several things happen: their engagement increases, trust in their leaders increases, they are willing to give discretionary energy, they are more loyal to the company, they experience a sense of well-being, and they feel that their work is meaningful to them. Last but not least, profits increase.

It becomes obvious that knowledge of dignity is crucial to good leadership. That may sound like common sense, but it is not common knowledge. Leaders have to commit to learning how to honour the dignity of others to enhance the relationship between management and its employees. Knowing how to leverage this knowledge should be a fundamental part of any leader’s repertoire.

Donna Hicks is associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, and author of Leading with Dignity: How to Create a Culture that Brings Out the Best in People, which explains how to develop the interpersonal skills to lead with dignity as well as how to create systemic organisational policies to support it.

Image credit: Pile of plush toy via Pixabay


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