Leading with Dignity

A Q&A with Donna Hicks

Desda Moss By Desda Moss September 19, 2018
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Leading with Dignity

Dignity. Everyone wants it. But how can organizations create a sense of dignity in the workplace? Donna Hicks, an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, offers some insights in her book Leading with Dignity: How to Create a Culture That Brings Out the Best in People (Yale University Press, 2018). Hicks draws on reserarch and case studies to show leaders how to create cultures that honor people's dignity and reduce conflict.

Hicks recently spoke to the HR Magazine Book Blog.

How do you define dignity? Is it the same as respect?

Dignity is not the same as respect. This is the most common misconception that I encounter when introducing the concept to people and organizations. Dignity is something we are born with—it is our inherent value and worth. We have little trouble seeing it when a child is born; there is no question about whether she or he is something of value. In fact, we would say that infants are invaluable, priceless and irreplaceable. How do we treat something that is invaluable, priceless and irreplaceable? We give it our utmost care and attention. Even though we are all born worthy of this care and attention, we are born vulnerable to having our dignity violated. Treating others with dignity, then, becomes the baseline of our interactions. You don't have to do anything to deserve dignity. Respect, on the other hand, needs to be earned. If I say I respect someone, that person has done something remarkable to earn my respect. I feel admiration for her. She is a role model for how I want to be in the world. 

What is dignity consciousness, and why is it important?

People have no idea how much dignity dominates our desire to be treated well and to be in relationships that make us feel safe, seen, heard and valued. When we learn how to honor dignity, it creates strong, healthy relationships and an enduring sense of well‑being. Dignity consciousness gives us the internal, emotional scaffolding that enables us to live our lives in full extension and to contribute to the well-being of those around us.

Your background is in international conflict management and diplomacy. What do international conflicts have to do with what happens in the workplace?

When human beings are mistreated, when our dignity has been violated, we are hard-wired to react to threats to our well-being. Our self-preservation instincts are triggered, and we want revenge and to get even with those who have hurt us. This human reaction happens whenever we feel threatened by others, no matter where we are. It happens in intimate relationships, families, workplaces and the international arena. We have a hard time letting go of assaults to our dignity.

Why is honoring dignity so important, especially for people in leadership positions?

Leaders play a crucial role in creating a culture that brings out the best in people. They need to know how to honor the dignity of their people as well as how to create policies that are sensitive to dignity issues. The leadership team needs to be on board with dignity awareness if it is to become part of workplace culture, both by modeling dignified behaviors and by creating an awareness of the effect leaders have on all employees.

What's the most common way leaders violate people's dignity at work?

When I do an assessment of the ways employees feel their dignity is violated in their workplaces, the most common response, no matter where I am, is a violation of their sense of safety (one of the Ten Elements of Dignity). It is not that they don't feel physically safe; they do not feel psychologically safe to speak up when something bad happens. They are terrified of speaking out about ways in which their managers and leaders have violated their dignity. The fear is that if they do speak up, they might face reprisals such as a bad performance review and, in extreme cases, perhaps losing their job.

What are some signs that a workplace culture has a dignity problem?

Two things: conflicts and gossip. My experience has shown that most conflicts in the workplace have underlying, unaddressed violations of dignity at their core. A robust gossip network also demonstrates that people do not feel safe to speak up when something bad happens to them and the negative effects of those violations go straight to the gossip mill. According to University of Toronto Assistant Professor Organizational Behavior Matthew Feinberg, "Gossip represents a widespread, efficient and low-cost form of punishment." If you are too afraid to confront the person who violated you, gossip is one way of getting even.

When it comes to resolving conflict, you say we don't need "common ground." We need "higher ground." What do you mean by that?

When people engage in dignity-violating behaviors that are at the core of conflicts, we are driven by base, self-preservation instincts that bring out the worst of what we are capable of. We can do so much better than that. What we need is to elevate the interactions with an understanding of dignity—that which we all yearn for and is our highest common denominator. The way to this higher ground is dignity consciousness.

One of the key components of leading with dignity is taking responsibility. Please explain that.

It goes back to the hard-wired, self-preservation instincts that we are all born with (which I call the Ten Temptations to Violate Dignity). When we make a mistake, these self-preservation instincts do not want us to take responsibility for it. Looking bad in the eyes of others is something we all avoid. Instead, our instincts want us to cover up, lie, and blame and shame others instead of coming clean. Dignity consciousness allows us to override our base instincts and take responsibility for our actions and, in so doing, maintain our dignity.

What is the one thing you hope leaders will take away from your book?

I would like them to think about how much time and effort they have committed to their professional education—advanced degrees and work experience that has gotten them to where they are. If they were to dedicate a fraction of that time to educating themselves about dignity, they would improve their capacity to become not just a good leader, but a great one. 

Desda Moss is managing editor of HR Magazine.


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