Thinkers: Make Dignity the Default
Treating people with dignity means acknowledging that they matter—something that’s all too easy for leaders to lose sight of in a business environment that’s still largely based on hierarchy and top-down authority. Yet as Donna Hicks, a specialist in international conflict resolution, observes, the failure to treat employees with dignity can have serious consequences for the health of the organization. Rather than doing their best work, these employees will focus on saving face with or avenging perceived injustices from their co-workers and managers.
During her more than 25 years of facilitating diplomatic efforts around the world, Hicks has developed a framework any leader can use to settle disputes and repair a toxic culture. Her dignity model is based on the fundamental idea that everyone matters and deserves to be treated fairly. Her book, Leading with Dignity, offers specific, practical tips for applying the dignity model in the workplace to resolve conflicts and build a corporate culture that brings out the best in every employee.
We asked Hicks how taking dignity into account when making decisions and interacting with employees changes what it means to be a leader.
Q: Why is it so important to distinguish between dignity and respect?
Donna Hicks: We constantly confuse the two, but respect is something you have to earn, while dignity is about your inherent worth and value as a human being. In my international conflict work, after constantly hearing disagreeing parties say, “We demand that you respect us,” I realized that they were actually saying, “You are treating us like we have no value.” Most conflicts would end if everyone treated each other as if they had value.
Q: Dignity is inherent in every individual: It can’t be given or taken away.
Hicks: Acknowledgement, recognition, accountability, and fair treatment are the bare minimum employees should expect from their leaders. Frankly, if you don’t believe that, you don’t belong in a leadership role.
It’s a simple truth: When people are treated badly, they suffer, but when they’re treated well, they thrive. And when people feel like they’re being treated as if they’re worthless, they have a strong negative reaction. They focus on looking better instead of doing better. They react to feedback like it’s a threat. They do the bare minimum and cast blame for mistakes. They look for ways to boost themselves at others’ expense.
Even the most well-intentioned leader can inflict tremendous damage and create a toxic work environment without knowing it. For example, if you don’t bother to take five seconds to greet your team when you get to the office, you send a message that you don’t care about them, only about their ability to perform.
Q: How can executives learn to think about leading with dignity without feeling like they’re sacrificing control or authority?
Hicks: They need to get past the idea that accepting feedback, admitting mistakes, and taking responsibility for outcomes loses people’s respect or makes them look incompetent. When people feel that they’re being treated fairly, there’s no need for you to control them or worry that they’ll see you as weak. In fact, your employees will be happier for you to lead them, because your ability to resolve conflicts while preserving everyone’s dignity helps your entire team work better toward common goals.
Q: What warning signs indicate that an organization does not treat employees with dignity, and what should leaders do first if they spot one of those signs?
Hicks: Frequent or intense conflict is obviously a flashing red light, but another, which may surprise many leaders, is a thriving gossip network. People instinctively respond to violations of their dignity by wanting to balance the scales. If they don’t feel safe to speak up and ask their bosses for recourse when they feel wronged, they’ll look for a way to get revenge. The easiest way to do that is often by badmouthing the person or group that is treating them poorly.
These signs indicate that the company has a problem with some or all of the elements of dignity. It might treat some people differently simply because of who they are. It might be bad at giving credit where credit is due or keeping all relevant people in the loop. Everyone might be wondering who’s next to get called on the carpet or feeling like they have no control over their work. Managers could be playing favorites or refusing to give people the benefit of the doubt.
Where a company has any of those dignity problems, it usually also lacks accountability. No one ever risks confrontation or apologizes. It’s human and automatic to stop trusting people when we feel they’ve betrayed us, especially people we previously felt connected to and empathetic toward. What rebuilds trust in the workplace faster than anything else is a leader who admits to mistakes, takes responsibility, and commits to doing better.
Q: How can a single member of the leadership team persuade the rest of the team to establish a dignity culture?
Hicks: As Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Even the best business plan can’t succeed if your corporate culture is so dysfunctional that it alienates your employees.
It only takes one member of the leadership team to champion dignity, and there’s a business case for it: It’s both cost effective and a competitive differentiator. Research shows that when people trust each other at work, they’re more committed to the organization and more willing to make a positive contribution.
In addition, it’s been proven that interpersonal trust is important to how well an organization functions and to whether it achieves its goals and objectives. It also increases productivity, cooperation, and employee retention. That’s critical, because in a competitive market, you have to attract good people, and the way to do that is to make your employees feel valued.
You’re not going to single out, say, the manager who yells at assistants. But you can suggest that both leaders and employees be trained to treat each other with dignity, to develop their interpersonal skills, and to create a dignity culture throughout the organization.