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An Overlooked Key to Conflict Resolution

Donna Hicks

I was in my office one afternoon, working on a project for an organization in Northern Ireland, when the phone rang. I picked it up, and on the other end of the line was a consultant who had been working for a major U.S. corporation for several years. For a minute, I was concerned that he had called the wrong person, but the more he talked, the more I realized he was knowledgeable about my approach to resolving conflict with dignity. At this point, my curiosity was piqued. Why was he calling me? 

He explained that the company had been plagued with problems between employees and management for several years, and a senior vice president had given him the task of finding “a unique and creative approach” to resolving conflicts. The consultant told me that he had read online about my dignity work and was wondering whether I would be interested in meeting with him and the senior vice president to discuss longstanding conflicts in the organization. I was initially taken aback, because I had never consulted in the corporate world; for more than two decades, my career had focused on facilitating dialogues for parties in intractable international conflicts. The more I listened to the consultant, however, the more I realized that the issues that were dividing the employees and management of the company were dignity related. Could it be that the approach I had developed for my work in international conflicts around the world was applicable to the corporate environment? 

Soon thereafter, I met with the consultant and the senior vice president, and we launched a five-year project with the company. I quickly discovered that conflicts in the business world share many of the same core drivers that are present in international disputes. The common denominator is the human reaction to the way people are being treated. I learned that when people experience violations to their dignity in the workplace, they feel some of the same instinctive reactions that parties in international conflicts experience—a desire for revenge against those who have violated them. People want their grievances listened to, heard, and acknowledged. When this doesn’t happen, the original conflicts escalate, which only deepens the divide. 

Also similar is the role that leadership plays in these conflicts. Although significant and complex forces always contribute to the breakdown of relationships, the extent to which leaders pay attention to, recognize, and understand the dignity concerns underlying people’s grievances makes an enormous difference as to whether these conflicts can be resolved. 

As simple as that sounds, it is an enormous challenge, largely because most people do not have a working knowledge of dignity. I have found that most people are unaware of their own inherent value and worth, and are usually at a loss for how to recognize it in others. This ignorance causes a lot of emotional pain and anguish as well as failed relationships of all kinds. Nevertheless, everyone seems to have an instinctive feeling about dignity. We may not have words to describe it, but the truth is, it is deeply embedded within us. What we do know is that we all want to be treated in ways that show we matter, and when we are not treated this way, we suffer. An understanding of dignity—what I call dignity consciousness—can take us a long way toward relieving that suffering.

From Leading with Dignity by Donna Hicks, Ph.D. Published by Yale University Press in 2019. Reproduced with permission. 

Donna Hicks, Ph.D. is an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. As a conflict resolution specialist, she has facilitated diplomatic efforts in the Middle East and other high-conflict regions and conducted numerous training seminars worldwide.

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