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Leading Around Dignity Landmines

Donna Hicks—

If there were ever a time when leaders needed to understand the role dignity plays in the workplace, that time is now. The pandemic forced us to work from home, disrupting our traditional notion of what work looks like: where to work, how to work, and when to work. The flexibility was a necessity, especially for employees who are parents tending to their children’s needs. Now that employers are deciding to return to in-office work, the dignity issues surrounding this decision are coming to the fore. What are those dignity issues and how can leaders navigate around their potential for destructive consequences?  

In my research, I have defined dignity as our inherent value and worth.  Everyone wants to be treated as if they mattered. I have identified ten elements of dignity: acceptance of identity, recognition, acknowledgment, inclusion and belonging, safety, fairness, independence, understanding, benefit of the doubt and accountability. These are all ways people want to be treated so that their inherent value and worth is recognized. Which of these elements are most at play during the transition from remote to in-person work?  

Before answering the question, I would like to frame my responses in the context of how working from home has changed us and our understanding of ourselves and each other. We can no longer rely on cognitive shortcuts to make meaning about ourselves as leaders and the people we lead. While working virtually, we have had a glimpse into each other’s private lives. During meetings, we have seen kids insisting on their parents’ attention, pets jumping up on our colleagues’ laps, all kinds of noises in the background that make up the reality of our lived experience while working from home. We have laughed at these moments, knowing full well that we could be next. Life is complicated and even more so when trying to work from home. Which brings me to the first element of dignity at play:  acceptance of identity.  

What has become clear is that when part of your identity includes being a parent and caretaker, much consideration needs to be made for employees who are struggling with the competing demands of this role, and the employers demand to return to in-person work. Will they even be able to find adequate daycare on top of figuring out how to return to unproductive and stressful commutes. The challenge for leaders is to embrace this complexity—employees who are parents, and disproportionately women, are juggling multiple roles and demands. However, this brings up an even more challenging decision: How to address the issue of fairness for employees who do not have children but still want to continue working from home? How do leaders acknowledge these competing realities while still making decisions in the best interest of the organization? How do they make it safe for their employees to speak up if something doesn’t feel right about the return to in-person work? How do they give everyone the benefit of the doubt that their reasons for preserving remote work is legitimate and that they should have the independence to meet or exceed expectations regardless of work location?    

The need for a deeper understanding of the lives of employees is crucial.  Taking the time to talk to them, listen, and hear their concerns is a good place to start. Getting the deeper story of their lives will take you to a deeper understanding of what they are up against. It would be a tremendous loss if we lost the “remote humanity” that we have developed during the pandemic where we came up with all kinds of creative ways to show our empathy and to stay connected; to fulfill the powerful desire to be in relationship with others and to experience a sense of belonging.    

While this may not feel like the kind of responsibility leaders have taken on in the past, it is a relational skill that will pay off in the end. Research has shown that when people feel seen, heard, acknowledged, and recognized by their leaders, they are more productive, more willing to give discretionary energy, more engaged and more likely to stay with the organization. It also helps to know that under these circumstances profits also increase. In the post-Covid world of work, knowing how to honor the dignity of others in the workplace is a skill leaders cannot afford to ignore. The pay-off is substantial.

My colleague, Jeffrey Siminoff, Senior Vice President of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, and I have joined forces to examine the issue of dignity and the transition from virtual to in-person or hybrid (part virtual, part in-person) work. His organization is launching a new Workplace Dignity program, rightly recognizing that human rights don’t stop at the workplace door. We both agree that there are many perils for employees who remain distanced from an office or organizational hub, whether by choice (they opt-in to a hybrid or all-virtual option) or circumstances (their work base is in a different location). The dignity element of inclusion and belonging must be considered. Not having the informal encounters with colleagues, the lunches together where relationships deepen, or the greater ease of having a voice heard in a meeting not to mention the advantage of spontaneous, face to face recognition and acknowledgment from our managers or the in-the-moment high impact assignments, can come at a cost. Some employees have expressed fears that if they were not present, they would be passed over for a promotion, stretch opportunities and otherwise suffer from what some call “distance bias.” Dignity-centered leaders recognize these challenges, take steps to solve for them and talk openly about them.

Finally, when working remotely, it is easy to be disconnected from the idea that deeper meaning of our work. It is harder to feel the connection to a greater purpose when we are isolated and away from the in-person culture that feeds the notion that our work contributes to the greater good. Is the sacrifice of some of our individual needs worth the feeling of fulfillment that comes with knowing that our work has meaning because we are contributing to something greater than ourselves?   

Donna Hicks, Ph.D., is an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. During nearly three decades in the field of international conflict resolution, she has facilitated dialogue between communities in conflict all over the world and has worked as a consultant to corporations and organizations, applying the dignity model. She is also the author of Leading with Dignity: How to Create a Culture That Brings Out the Best in People.

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