Dignity: The Essential Role it Plays in Corporate Success

Larry Lubin, Co-Founder and President, sat down with Donna Hicks, Ph.D., to discuss her work on how companies can drive success through dignity. Donna is the author of Leading with Dignity: How to Create a Culture That Brings Out the Best in People. She is currently an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, where she works to help resolve international conflicts.


L: Tell me a little about yourself and your work at the Weatherhead Center.

D: We tried to help resolve international conflicts around the world—in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Africa, Colombia. Our goal was to bring parties together for dialogue.  At every talk, in addition to discussing the political issues that divided the parties, there seemed to be another conversation taking place under the table, a non-verbal emotional reaction to what was being said. If I were to put words to it, here’s what they’d say:  How dare you treat us this way? Don’t you see that we’re human beings?” I realized that these emotional reactions were about their dignity, about not being treated as human beings.

L: I’d love you to talk about how the concept of dignity relates to a thriving corporate culture.

D: I got a phone call one day from a corporation that had been having longstanding conflicts between management and employees. I was asked if I would be willing to consult with them to see if the conflicts were dignity related.  Once I got in there, it became apparent that the reason people were feeling so upset at management was because there were dignity issues at the root of the conflicts that were virtually ignored.

L: Help me understand a little bit about how you have applied the concepts to corporations to help them.

D: My strategy is I assume that people are ignorant about dignity.  My experience has shown that very few people, even people with good intentions, know about dignity.  I start out working with management and employees and giving them a basic seminar on Dignity. I try to explore this with them in a way that keeps their mind open, so they don’t feel embarrassed about violating people’s dignity. And this isn’t just management we’re talking about. Employees are very good at violating the dignity of their bosses. We really have to make an effort to learn this just like we would learn anything else.

L: What are some of the lessons?

D: Number one is just asking oneself the simple question: “How do I make people feel?” Even really good people may not have the awareness to reflect on the effect they have on others.

The other thing that my research has shown is that when leaders actually own up and take responsibility for violating dignity, it develops a very strong bond between people. The more authentic someone is in taking responsibility for the harm he or she has created, the deeper the connection that gets created between them.

L: Everybody in corporations is so success driven—you can’t admit a flaw.

D: Exactly. But by admitting that you failed at something, you also give other people permission to be authentic when they make mistakes.  

L:  Now one of the quotes in your book, which I love, is that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” What do you think about it?

D: If a good executive team doesn’t understand how the corporate culture contributes to the way people feel inside the organization, they are likely to fail. Cultural alignment and strategy are inextricably tied if you want success in your company. Culture is what nourishes the strategy. That’s the fuel that keeps them going in the organization.

L: In terms of corporations seeking to thrive, are there general lessons learned?

D: If you don’t have dignity consciousness when you’re developing sweeping policy, that’s just as toxic as if you have a boss who is constantly violating his or her direct reports’ dignity.

This is not an overnight process. Everybody has to work at it. I still mess up sometimes. In fact, I consider myself a recovering dignity violator!  Before I researched and understood the profound effect dignity has on us, I would unknowingly violate others’ dignity.  The point is to take dignity seriously by taking the time to learn about it, and to know what to do when we do violate others’ dignity. Fortunately, there is a process that can be put into place to address the violations and repair the relationship.

L: Any last thoughts?

D: I have a quote from Victor Hugo that says, “There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come,” and I think dignity’s time is now. I think this is the time to raise our awareness about how important it is to treat people like human beings and to have a guiding set of ideas about what it takes to create a culture of dignity in organizations.