A little personal history:
In 1988 I took on the challenge of reinvigorating an historic university-owned hotel in the grip of a downward economic spiral. The deteriorating physical condition of the property was an issue which could be fixed with time, attention, and money. The larger problem was the need to improve the efforts of a demoralized staff.
Among my initiatives to address the hotel's issues, I drafted a one page statement of standards - The Principles of Employee Relations - to guide the management staff in their treatment of employees. The first principle I wrote was, "All employees will be treated with dignity and respect." Though the word "dignity" came easily to mind, I had no true idea of its import and its critical role in human relations - that is, until now.
Donna Hicks and a deeper understanding:
Donna Hicks has given us a beautifully written and profoundly important book. Her nearly two decades of work in international conflict resolution as an Associate at Harvard University's Weatherford Center for International Affairs has provided her with a unique perspective on the dynamics of conflict.
Dr. Hicks has worked with such luminaries as Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu and Harvard Professor Herbert Kelman on some of the world's most intractable conflicts, the Palestinian Question, the Troubles of Northern Ireland, and the civil war in Sri Lanka. Based on her extensive research, she has formulated a unique and keenly insightful New Model of Dignity which allows us to explore the essential role of personal dignity in human relations. Her premise is that when a person's dignity is violated, as it so often is in various personal and public settings, deep-seated resentments then lead to conflicts seemingly beyond resolution.
According to the author, "When we are treated badly, we get angry, feel humiliated, and want to get even - often without being aware of the extent to which these primal reactions are driving our behavior." Despite the impressive intellectual achievements of our species, our psyches are quite fragile and easily damaged by both real and perceived slights.
But, as Dr. Hicks says, "We do not deliberately hurt each other just for the fun of it. We are often unaware of the ways we routinely and subtly violate each other's dignity." To overcome this universal behavioral failing we must do three things:
1. Become aware of the problem,
2. Learn that there are ways to handle the problem, and
3. Make the changes necessary to honor individual human dignity.
"If we continue to ignore the truth and consequences of [dignity] violations," says Hicks, "we will remain in an arrested state of emotional development." This simple, yet far-reaching truth can cripple the progress of relationships at every level of human affairs.
The book's structure:
In the book's introduction, the author explains The New Model of Dignity and the theoretical research supporting her conclusions.
She then lays out the Ten Essential Elements of Dignity and in successive chapters discusses each element with examples from her conflict-resolution experience.
To further illuminate the dignity model, Dr. Hicks also posits the Ten Temptations to Violate Dignity, and provides anecdotal support, powerfully moving in emotional content, to reveal how people come to grips with assaults on their dignity and how they struggle to find resolution.
The final section of the book entitled, How to Heal Relationships with Dignity, is a potent testament to the healing power of identifying dignity violations, acknowledging vulnerability, and making a genuine commitment to honor the dignity of others.
Why is this important to business leaders?
Beyond the moral issues of honoring each person's dignity - their basic human worth - there are important practical implications for the recognition of dignity in the business arena.
No business can operate efficiently or provide high levels of service to its customers without the willing commitment of its employees. But the leadership challenges of achieving this commitment are significant. As Roger Enrico, former Chairman and CEO of Pepsico said, "The soft stuff is always harder than the hard stuff."
So what are we talking about when we speak of the soft stuff? In short, it's the "people skills" - those aptitudes, abilities, and relationship skills employed to assure the significance of each employee's contribution. It is the exercise of leadership involving the highly nuanced interactions within a diverse workforce that results in motivation, high levels of morale, enthusiasm, focus, commitment, organizational cohesiveness, and group success.
Given the essential role that a person's dignity and sense of self-worth plays in an employee's contribution to any enterprise, leaders must become aware of the Ten Essential Elements of Dignity and the Ten Temptations to Violate Dignity. Finally, leaders at all levels of an organization must work to change their subtle and unintentional affronts to the dignity of others.
Bottom line - Because people matter, it pays to treat them well by honoring their inherent dignity, but leaders have to know how!
This is an important book with broad implications beyond conflict resolution. It should be read and studied by any leader who cares about followers and who wants to elicit his or her employees' highest level of commitment and contribution.