Leading with dignity in the workplace

My work has brought me up close to leaders of all kinds. There is one thing they share: highly developed technical and intellectual capacities, many of them graduates of some of the world’s most prestigious educational institutions.

They also share something else; what many of them report as a major leadership challenge: knowing what to do in charged emotional situations. In spite of their technical expertise, they rarely feel confident when faced with subordinates who are experiencing outrage; who feel they are being treated unfairly; whose unacknowledged grievances have changed them into fighting men and women. In other words, they don’t know what to do when faced with people who have experienced repeated violations of their dignity, which are, by definition, highly charged emotional events.

Their default reaction is often to use their authority and the power of their position to control the situation, often leaving the aggrieved people angrier, more resentful, and less willing to extend themselves in their jobs or their roles within an organization. The dignity violations remained unaddressed, contaminating the work environment.

A reason why the default reaction is to exert authority and control over a volatile emotional situation is that they are afraid of it. They are especially fearful of being exposed and embarrassed by a bad move or a flawed policy for which they were responsible.

I have seen otherwise brilliant leaders get caught in all of the predictable traps that ignorance of how to best handle dignity violations creates. They are not bad people who deliberately try to make life difficult for those whom they lead; they simply don’t have the knowledge, awareness and skills they need to navigate through emotional turmoil. Without an education in matters related to dignity, a most vulnerable aspect of being human, even technically gifted and well-intentioned leaders can unknowingly create an undignified work environment.

The need has never been more urgent for people in leadership positions to be educated in all matters related to dignity; both the human vulnerability to being violated, and the positive effect it has on people when they feel seen, heard, understood, and acknowledged as valuable and worthy.

The emotional impact of treating someone well and honoring their dignity has benefits that are incalculable. It’s the easiest and fastest way to bring out the best in people. The opposite is equally as true: treat people as if they don’t matter and watch how fast a destructive, if not violent, emotional storm erupts.

Leading with dignity means that leaders recognize this; that they are willing to embody what it looks like to treat others as valuable, to know what to do with people when they have been violated, and to know what to do when they have violated them. Below are some steps leaders can take to establish a culture of dignity in the workplace:

1. Make a company-wide commitment to learn about the role dignity plays in establishing a healthy and productive (and profitable) work environment.

2. Make a conscious effort to honor the dignity of your employees; both in everyday interactions and in the policies you create.

3. Create a work environment where your employees feel safe to speak up about the dignity violations they are experiencing. Make it easy for them by inviting them on a regular basis to talk to you about ways that you or company policies may be unknowingly harming them.

4. When it is reported to you that other managers and supervisors are violating the dignity of others, take action to address the situation. Make it company policy to take responsibility for the harm one causes others. No one should be above accountability.

There is no greater leadership challenge than to lead with dignity, helping us all to understand what it feels like to be honored and valued and to feel the expansive benefits that come from experiencing it. Employees yearn to see good leadership from their executives and managers.

They all knows how difficult it is for their leaders to take courageous steps that could leave them vulnerable such as overriding the need to save face by admitting to having made a mistake; stepping beyond what is safe and comfortable by apologizing for hurting employees; confronting a fellow leader who has repeatedly violated people; championing one’s employees when their voices are not strong enough to speak up to a failed policy that violates their dignity.

While we all recognize how difficult leadership can be, we still have the expectation that the title of leader means something. We want it to mean that by watching dignified leadership, we, too, can expect more of ourselves and not succumb to the all-too-familiar default mode of making excuses for not opting to do what is right.

Donna Hicks,Ph.D., is an Associate, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. She is the author of “Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays in Resolving Conflict.”

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