Donna Hicks has 25 years of international conflict resolution experience under her belt and uses her expertise to improve workplace culture within companies. Hicks believes conflict in the business world is similar to international disputes when one thing is violated: dignity.
In her new book, “Leading with Dignity: How to Create a Culture that Brings Out the Best in People,” the associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University discusses the significant role of dignity and provides a guide for leaders to achieve a culture of dignity. Chief Learning Officer editorial associate Aysha Ashley Househ spoke to Hicks about leaders’ role in establishing dignity in the workplace and how chief learning officers can implement her advice.
Chief Learning Officer: What is your meaning of the word dignity?
Hicks: It took me a long time to be able to define what I thought dignity was because when I first started researching this topic all the work on dignity had basically taken place among philosophers and theologians. They were going back and forth and doing this complex analysis of what it is and isn’t. I was interested in a simple definition because I wanted to use dignity in order to try and address the very difficult conflicts I was working on across the world. I knew the parties’ inability to resolve a conflict were hidden and never addressed violations to people’s dignity. I came up with the short definition: dignity is our inherent value and our inherent vulnerability at the same time. We’re all born worthy, we’re all born valuable. As simple as that definition sounds, most people don’t know that.
CLO: You make a clear distinction between dignity and respect. What’s the difference between these two words?
Hicks: Inevitably, people say they want to treat people with dignity and respect, as if it were just one word. It’s important to make a distinction between dignity and respect because when I was working in the international arena, both parties would say, “We demand respect from the other side.” And I would tell them, “Wait a minute you can’t demand respect, respect has to be earned.” But what you really want to be telling the other side is that you demand to be treated with dignity. You demand to be treated as an individual with inherent value and worth.
I made that distinction for people because it was much easier to get people to honor each other’s dignity even if they disagreed. But to say I’m going to try to facilitate these parties respecting one another, that was a bridge too far. But I could take them to a place where they would be able to honor each other’s dignity and still disagree if they had to – this was so true for the workplace as well.
CLO: What’s your advice to CLOs?
Hicks: Chief learning officers are actually positioned beautifully to really do this dignity work and to promote it. The whole concept of a chief learning officer is to keep people open to learning all the time, stay up-to-date on what’s new and what the best strategies are for leadership. For a learning officer to understand what I call our “highest common denominator,” that their employees desire to be treated well, and how to promote this. So how do I treat someone if I want to treat her or him with dignity? What does that look like? I came up with ten different ways to honor people’s dignity.
This is the most cost-effective way of doing business because this doesn’t cost anything. This is just educating people about what it looks like to honor each other’s dignity. The chief learning officer is in a great position to try to develop a culture of dignity in the company and avoid systemic indignities. They can work with the executive leadership team to say not only is it important to honor all of the dignity of our employees, but you also have to create policy that is dignity honoring.
CLO: Can you provide examples of systemic indignities?
Hicks: I’ve worked with companies where the executive leadership teams unknowingly favor one group over another. For example, this one happens all the time where the pay inequity between men and women is blatant, yet they don’t see it that way. And again, we’re not talking about bad people making bad policies. We’re talking about people who aren’t aware of the impact of this. I had a client the other day who told me an employee who recently became a father wanted paternity leave. His company only gave maternity leave to their workers, but this father said, “I’m a 21st century father. I want to be involved in my child’s early caretaking.”
Hicks: The key element is educating everyone in the organization, not just the leadership, even though leadership has to be on board in order for a culture to be sustainable. I didn’t understand the sensitivity around dignity until I started writing about it, until I started recognizing the role it plays in conflict. They haven’t been exposed to it. This is not something you learn in school or universities – well it is now because I’ve had that influence. And yet, when I share the dignity elements with them and talk about how to resolve their conflicts to increase morale in the workplace and employee engagement, they say, “This is so obvious. I’ve known this all along.” It’s common sense when you hear it, but it’s not common knowledge. My whole approach to this is educate, educate, educate.
CLO: You say one temptation to violate dignity is gossiping. So, violations of dignity happen between co-workers as well, not just from leadership?
Hicks: Absolutely. If you’re in a leadership position and you have that authorized power to affect people positively, if you can show them and educate them about what it looks like to treat their employees with dignity, that’s going to be a company that thrives. Some colleagues of mine have been doing some research and they found that when people are treated with dignity in the workplace, employee engagement increases, productivity increases, loyalty increases and low and behold, profit also increases. This is why I say this is such a low cost way of doing business and getting the most positive returns on your policies. It just shows how important it is for people to develop what I call “dignity consciousness.”
CLO: What are the consequences of a lack of dignity in the workplace?
Hicks: I know there are dignity issues in an organization when the gossip has become toxic. When you have conflicts where people don’t feel safe to speak up about the ways in which they are being mistreated, you’re going to see gossip flourishing because the negative energy of somebody treating you badly has to go somewhere. And if you don’t take that energy and don’t address it with the perpetrator, then it goes into the gossip mill. So the presence of conflict and gossip are connected. People are not aware of the impact of their actions on other people.
CLO: What do you want people to take away from your book?
Hicks: When I went into the workplaces and organizations, I discovered the ignorance surrounding this topic. This remarkable gap in our knowledge about what it means to be a human being, how significant these minor changes to the way we treat one another can have a profound change and impact on relationships and how we feel about ourselves as leaders. I want people to take away this idea that our ignorance is encyclopedic when it comes to dignity and what we have to do is educate ourselves and then watch how our relationships improve.
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