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| January 22, 2019

by Jim Bruce

…  the right of every person to be valued and respected

Last December’s first Tuesday Reading was Let’s Choose to Be Civil.1 There I used Georgetown University professor Christine Porath’s definition of “incivility” – disrespect or rudeness including mocking or belittling someone, teasing in ways that hurt, offensive jokes, arriving late to meetings, focusing on your smart device in meetings, harassment, taunting, yelling, making insulting remarks, etc. – to help us understand what being civil to one another is all about.
Treating one another with dignity is closely related to being civil. Wikepedia2 defines dignity as “the right of a person to be valued and respected for their own sake, and to be treated ethically.” Monique Valcour,3 writing in the Harvard Business Review, notes that dignity exists when people are listened to and taken seriously regardless of their position – and when they feel that they can disagree respectfully and be heard, without fear of reprisal. Donna Hicks4 puts it even more succinctly: “Dignity is our inherent value and worth as human beings; everyone is born with it.”
Hicks, an Associate at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, is also author of Leading with Dignity – How to Create a Culture that Brings Out the Best in People.4 In her book she notes that we all have a deep desire to be treated as being of value, as worthy of being treated with dignity. She believes that this is our highest commonality. In her paper, What is the Real Meaning of Dignity,5 she notes “This shared desire for dignity transcends all of our differences, putting our common human identity above all else. While our uniqueness is important, history has shown us that if we don’t take the next step toward recognizing our shared identity, conflicts in our workplace, our personal lives, and between nations will continue to abound.”
Hicks continues, “The glue that holds all of our relationships together is the mutual recognition of the desire to be seen, heard, listened to, and treated fairly; to be recognized, understood, and to feel safe in the world. When our identity is accepted and we feel included, we are granted a sense of freedom and independence and a life filled with hope and possibility. And when we are given an apology when someone does us harm, we recognize that even when we fall short of being our best selves, there is always a way to reconnect.  ‘I’m sorry’ are two of the most important words anyone can utter.” 
In her book Leading with Dignity,4 Hicks identifies ten essential elements of dignity:

  1. Acceptance of identity. If you embrace the concept of inherent worth, bias and prejudice are obsolete. When you don’t experience prejudice and bias, you don’t feel that your dignity has been violated and your work productivity increases.
  2. Inclusion. Make others feel they belong.
  3. Safety. Leaders keep people safe, both physically and psychologically.  Only people who feel safe will speak without fear and address the difficult issues like the proverbial “elephant in the room.”
  4. Acknowledgment. Dignity enables you to see and listen to people with your full attention. When you do this, others feel safe and appreciated, are more honest and vulnerable, and therefore are more motivated and willing to contribute.
  5. Recognition. Leaders need to develop empathy for those they work with and in doing so understand and appreciate what their contribution means from their perspective.
  6. Benefit of the doubt. Start by trusting people and believing they have good motives. If you begin from the point of not trusting, they will feel unsafe, unappreciated, and excluded.
  7. Understanding. Believe that what others think really matters. Make an effort to carefully listen and understand.
  8. Independence. Give those who work with you as much control over their work and lives as possible. Create a space of possibility, creativity, and shared vision.
  9. Fairness. Treat those you work with fairly, applying “rules” equally. Not doing so leaves people feeling helpless and frustrated which will poison the environment.
  10. Accountability. Be responsible for your actions. Apologize when you violate another’s dignity, commit to change any destructive behavior. 

Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity, including those who lead. If you start with this premise that dignity is inherent in every man and woman, that everyone has an inherent worth and value, and act on it, you can expect to see significant positive changes in your own behavior as well as that of those around you.
If I were to ask you to identify a notable technology figure who did not treat people with dignity, you might think of Steve Jobs, particularly in his early days. In his essay, 5 Practices for Treating Others with Dignity and Respect, John Kador6 suggests that Steve is the poster boy of arrogance and rudeness. And, that was certainly true, particularly in the early days of Apple. Walter Issacson,7 however, makes it clear in his biography of Jobs that by the time he was back at Apple after NeXT and Pixar, Steve had changed his management style. He had accepted the fact that his perfectionism and desire to work with the very best could coexist with a more empathic leadership style.
Bob Sutton, professor of management science at Stanford, suggests in his book, “The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt,”8 that such people learn that to be really successful they have to first fix themselves. His book provides a five-step action plan:

  1. Beware of contagion. Research has demonstrated that rudeness spreads like a virus. If you are modeling impatience and casual arrogance, you can be assured that others will begin behaving as you are. 
  2. Check your privilege. Having responsibility for others increases the risk that you will start treating others like a means to an end. Practice humility. Remove barriers between you and those with less power.
  3. Understand the risks of overload. Being overloaded, burning the candle at both ends, increases the likelihood that you will behave arrogantly and not be respectful. 
  4. When you are called a jerk, believe it. Sutton says that it takes a lot of guts to confront a powerful person. When you are confronted, listen carefully. The worst possible thing you can do is blame the messenger. Cultivate truth-tellers who have the courage to speak up.
  5. Then apologize and change. People don’t expect you to be perfect. They do expect you to be accountable. When you are wrong, apologize and repair the damage. The result may be a better relationship; it just might become stronger than before.

There’s a lot here! Donna Hicks gives us 10 essential elements of dignity, behaviors we need work to develop and have as good habits in order to treat others in a dignified manner. And, to this, Bob Sutton adds five actions we need to be prepared to take when we are seen as not treating those around us with dignity and respect.
You may find it helpful, as a regular practice, to hold these two lists up, say in a time of reflection at the end of the day, and measure how you did during the day. And, if there are places you identify where you need to go back to an individual and apologize for or clarify what you did, put it on your calendar for the next day. Don’t let it fall through the cracks. And, for the longer run, these are skills you need to make a part of your toolkit.
Make the week great for you and your team.
.  .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Jim Bruce, Let’s Choose to Be Civil, Tuesday Reading, December 4, 2018,MOR Associates.
  2. Definition:  Dignity, Wiipedia.
  3. Monique Valcour, The Power of Dignity in the Workplace, Harvard Business Review, April 2014.
  4. Donna Hicks, Leading with Dignity – How to Create a Culture that Brings Out the Best in People, Yale University Press, 2018.
  5. Donna Hicks, What is the Real Meaning of Dignity, Psychology Today, April 2013.
  6. John Kador, 5 Practices for Treating Others with Dignity and Respect, The Chief Executive, January 2018.
  7. Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs, Simon and Schuster, 2011.
  8. Bob Sutton, The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Lie Dirt, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, September 2017.