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How to honor your workers’ dignity

3 min read


This post is by Donna Hicks, an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University and author of “Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays in Resolving Conflict.”

My work has brought me up close to leaders of all kinds. They all report the same major leadership challenge: knowing what to do in charged, emotional situations. Despite collecting degrees and intellectual capital, they rarely feel confident when facing people who are outraged, who think they are being treated unfairly and whose unacknowledged grievances have made them irate fighters. They don’t know what to do when facing people who have experienced repeated violations of their dignity.

While I witnessed the powerful impact that a violation of dignity created, I also saw how ill-equipped most future leaders were in handling these emotional upheavals. Their default reaction was to use their authority and position power to control the situation, often leaving the aggrieved people angrier, more resentful and less willing to extend themselves in their jobs or roles. Their dignity violations remained unaddressed, contaminating the work environment.

People in leadership positions need to be educated in all matters related to dignity, both the human vulnerability to being violated and the remarkable effect it has on people when they feel seen, heard, understood and acknowledged as worthy. The emotional impact of treating someone well and honoring the person’s dignity has benefits that are incalculable everywhere people cluster — in families, communities, workplaces, churches and nations. It’s the easiest and fastest way to bring out the best in people. The opposite is equally 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 leaders recognize this and willingly embody what it looks like to treat others well, to know what to do with people when they have been violated and to know what steps to take when they have violated them.

Here are five steps that leaders can take to create a culture of dignity.

  • Commit to learning about the role dignity plays in establishing a healthy and productive work environment.
  • Be aware of the power you have to affect others. Know that if you treat them with dignity, it will strengthen your relationship — and that treating people badly will have immediate negative consequences. Leaders set the tone in the work culture.
  • Make an effort to honor the dignity of your employees, in everyday interactions and in policies you create, using the 10 elements of dignity as a guide: accepting identity, recognition, acknowledgment, inclusion, safety, fairness, independence, understanding, benefit of the doubt and accountability.
  • Create a culture in which people feel safe to speak up about dignity violations they are experiencing. Invite them to talk to you regularly about ways that you or company policies might be harming them. Inherent in hierarchical structure is the possibility that leaders are insulated from taking responsibility for their hurtful behavior, and those experiencing violations from them do not feel safe to speak up for fear of retribution.
  • Take action to address the situation when it is reported to you that other managers are violating the dignity of others. Make it company policy to take responsibility for the harm one causes others. No one is immune to accountability.