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All Great Leaders Obsess Over This 1 Thing

Almost everything leaders do wrong in the workplace results from misunderstanding–or just not caring–about employees’ dignity.

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BY Leigh Buchanan - 06 Aug 2018

All Great Leaders Obsess Over This 1 Thing

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Amazon in the U.K. reportedly gives warehouse workers insufficient time for bathroom breaks. The former CEO of Uber loudly berated one of the company's drivers. In Silicon Valley 66% of senior-level women report being excluded from important networking events because of their gender.

Tales of discrimination and disrespect in the workplace are ubiquitous today. Leaders struggle to fix broken cultures, policies and--in some cases--their own pernicious behavior. While that work is difficult, the guidelines are simple, says Donna Hicks, an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard. At the heart of every conversation about diversity and empowerment, toxic workplaces and equitable treatment, lies a single concept dating back to the earliest religious and philosophical writing.

It's a word virtually never heard in business settings and one that company leaders find difficult even to define, says Hicks. Her book, Leading with Dignity: How to Create a Culture that Brings Out the Best in People, publishing August 21, from Yale University Press, applies to companies lessons that she learned in 25 years working in international conflict resolution.

"For a leader to understand what it means to lead with dignity, they first have to recognize that every human being has value and worth," says Hicks. "And that value and worth are vulnerable to being harmed."

Some leaders get impatient when employees complain about hurt feelings. But employees' reactions when their mistakes are publicized, their ideas disparaged or their contributions ignored are very real, says Hicks. Neuroscience shows that the part of the brain illuminated when people experience a violation of their dignity is the same part affected when they experience physical injury. "When you cause people embarrassment or shame it has a significant effect on us physically," says Hicks. "It is not just a psychological it-is-all-in-your-head type of thing."

From hundreds of interviews, Hicks identified 10 elements of dignity and what it looks like when leaders honor or violate those elements. Three elements emerged repeatedly during her work with companies.

1. Safety

About 80% of employees Hicks interviewed are uncomfortable or downright scared to complain to their bosses about ill treatment, she says. It's hardest when the CEO or another high-level leader is at fault.

In the worst cases, employees fear that bringing up such behavior may cost them their jobs. More often they're afraid of inciting resentment and tainting relationships that affect both their daily lives and career trajectories. The fear chokes off critical feedback. "Nine times out of 10 the leader is not even aware they're doing it," says Hicks. "Employees have invaluable information that can help you with your own personal development and leadership skills."

Leaders must create environments where people feel comfortable reporting--without fear of repercussion--words and deeds that undermine their worth. Leaders should acknowledge employees' concerns and, if appropriate, take corrective action. When the CEO herself is the problem she should suppress her defense mechanisms and treat the feedback as a growth opportunity. Throughout their conversation, both CEO and employee should prioritize protecting and promoting a strong working relationship.

2. Fairness

In hierarchical organizations, employees differ in status. They don't differ in innate worth. Preferential treatment for an individual or group of employees hurts the dignity of those not afforded it. A sense of injustice sows anger and resentment against both the employees favored and the leaders who favor them.

Favoritism can be a problem, particularly for entrepreneurial CEOs who often have much closer relationships with early employees than with those hired much later. But such founders also have an opportunity to create--from scratch--an organization whose practices and policies are governed by fairness.

"With every policy you are developing, consider: Does this discriminate against one group or another," says Hicks. For example, how will unlimited parental leave affect employees who are left to cover for an absent colleague? How will the company determine who is eligible to work from home? "Just ask the simple question: what effect will the policy have on this group and this group and this group?" says Hicks. "And is that fair?"

3. Acceptance of identity

Hand in hand with fairness goes equal treatment and acceptance for all, regardless of race, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation or disability. Hicks points out that some people arrive in new jobs with their dignity already damaged by past bias. Leaders should be sensitive and strive to counteract the effect of those old hurts.

Simply hiring a diverse workforce and creating non-discriminatory policies, while necessary, is not sufficient, says Hicks. "Employees must be made to feel free to express their authentic selves without judgment," says Hicks. "The goal is to honor everyone's individuality and to unify the company around that."

Of course leaders are themselves protective of their dignity and may experience criticism as a violation. That can escalate into conflict as both employee and leader grow defensive. Borrowing a term from Harvard professor Ron Heifetz, Hicks suggests leaders under such circumstances "get off the dance floor and onto the balcony" to gain perspective. "You mentally elevate yourself so you can see the broader picture: what is happening with you, what is happening with them," says Hicks. "Go up to the balcony. Calm down."

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