By Nick Jankel

Professional Global Keynote Speaker, Transformation & Innovation Catalyst, Leadership Theorist & Practitioner, 6 x Dyslexic Author, 3 x TV Coach, Co-Creator of Bio-Transformation®



This article is part 6 of 6 in the series 5 Must-Know Leadership Trends, Ideas & Ideals

Dignity (Not Just Diversity) & Inclusion

Finally, we turn to the great challenges of how to ensure we have more diverse, inclusive, and equal organizations: where people of all races, ethnicities, genders, abilities, neural wirings, cultures, and ways of seeing the world are welcomed… without losing the importance of meritocracy or attempting to flatten everyone and forcing everyone to be the same.

I believe that we also need to include, but transcend, the numerical approach to D&I, which, although essential, does not solve some of the deeper issues in the space. It can also take away from us our shared responsibility to be better humans and wiser leaders. This means going beyond the business case for D&I and “make the necessary investment because doing so honors our own and others’ humanity and gives our lives meaning,” as an HBR article stated.

Why should anyone need an economic rationale for affirming the agency and dignity of any group of human beings? Harvard Business Review, 2020

Having the right percentages of under-represented groups, and ensuring there is some equality of pay and conditions, is a must. But it doesn’t mean everyone in the organization is anywhere close to feeling supported, inspired, and ready to contribute their full self to the vision and ambition.

Without a high level of shared trust, reciprocity, and commitment—in what we call Transformational Teams—it is very hard to deliver the kinds of business model innovation, business transformation, and everyday adaptation that are needed to stay future-fit.

We are not experts at ED&I, although we are often asked to share our thoughts on it as people who work with leaders of all types, shapes, and places. I was recently on a panel at a Future of Work Conference for the Financial Services industry, and one of the points I made seemed to go down well with some of the more technical D&I people on the panel and in the audience.

I shared that my understanding of human nature, based on 30 years of professional study and practice, has led me to believe that perhaps the simplest human need—after safety, food, and shelter—is to be seen, heard, and appreciated as a person of equal worth in the great chain of human being. This is at the core of our ideal of dignity.

Dignity is a core human need, but it is that many generations assumed they could never have in the conflictual labor vs. capitalist organizational dynamics of the 20th Century. I think Gen Y, and even more Gen Z, are making it a must-have for attracting the best talent: those who have the self-awareness to know that they deserve it. I truly honor them for that.

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Dignity is a thick word that means different things to different people. There has been some academic work looking at how it shows up in the workplace, particularly how to measure it. One practitioner has suggested that “[d]]ignity embraces two aspects: respect for the individual and respect for the work they do.”

For us, dignity is about a shared sense that we all have the same essential worth as human beings, no matter our role, pay grade, or our value to the business. One of the best ways to measure the levels of dignity in a company is how people treat those they think they command and control: for example, cleaners on ‘zero-hour’ contracts and the low-power vendors serving their needs. How we are treated as a leadership consultancy by potential clients speaks volumes both about the culture of the organization and the company’s readiness to truly unlock the value of the kinds of transformational, adaptive, and wise leadership we can help cultivate.

Dignity means that, whether I am a paper boy (my first paid job) or an esteemed keynote speaker, I am treated with the same level of respect. It also means that I treat the make-up person powdering my pate and the CEO of the company that has booked me to headline their event with the same level of respect; and with the same amounts of care and attention.

Now, I may be paid more as a speaker than as a paper boy—for my contribution to the business’ aims and objectives—but I am not seen as any more worthy or worthwhile as a human being. The CEO will definitely be paid a lot more than the make-up person because their value to the business justifies this (we hope). But they are just as worthy as human beings working on the same team to manifest a shared vision.

This discernment and distinction between worth as a person and value to the business as a role afford us a “middle way” between equality and meritocracy. We can blend the best of—what I call in my book Now Lead the Change: Repurpose Your Career, Future-Proof Your Organization, and Regenerate Our Crisis-Hit World by Mastering Transformational Leadership—generative hierarchies and flatter, co-creative networks.

I recently discovered the work of Professor Elizabeth Anderson (also at Michigan), the only philosopher I know of with a feature in the New Yorker. She has written some influential ideas—attempting to break through the impasse between valuing libertarian freedom with progressive ideals of equality—about what she calls “democratic equality,” which is predicated on having equal levels of reciprocity and respect in our social relations. This feels a lot like our notion of dignity in the workplace. And everyone is responsible for democratic equality, not just the D&I folk.

However, according to recent research that I heard on this podcast, the number of employees reporting that they have felt that someone had been rude to them in the last month went up from c.45% to c.75% from 2005 to today. Now, a lot of that is a lack of respect from customers on the frontlines.

But a lot of the everyday stress of feeling disrespected, which seeps creativity and optimism from our bodies and minds, is the result of managers speaking to their team members in ways that diminish themselves and their reports. The famous Whitehall Studies have demonstrated that low levels of dignity, respect, and fairness increase risks of coronary incidents and impaired health.

The state of play in neuroscience suggests that the more overwhelmed, stressed, and tired we are, the more we fall back on old habits. This is how the brain conserves energy for survival needs. Old habits often include treating people with incivility and reverting to old cultural and personal biases around race, gender, disability, class, and any other prejudice. Just as hurt people hurt people—which is why all our leadership programs start with self-mastery and some degree of self-development—exhausted people exhaust the patience and goodwill of others!

Treating people with dignity is something everyone can do. But leaders can, and should, lead the way. One simple yet truly powerful practice leaders can institute to unlock the power of dignity is to call attention to moments where we sense that someone (and that can include ourselves) has just demonstrated an unconscious bias, microaggression, boundary violation, sharp comment, or stereotype.

This has to be done with the utmost compassion (see Trend 4, compassion and kindness in the workplace.). It cannot be the trigger to a shame cycle. It has to be done with wise leadership—with sensitivity, humility, and curiosity—in the spirit of co-exploring and co-correcting the behavior with those who enacted it. Ideally, we never question the core value of those enacting such an undignified behavior, others we then are no longer treating them with respect either.

An agreed catchphrase can be used to signal to those present that a dignity killer has arisen. In our home and workplace, we say “ouch!” or Code Red for a sharp comment and Code Blue for a statement that may be loaded with bias and so not insightful or helpful. The benefit of a phrase like “ouch! is that it maintains the ownership of the pain in the person saying it, so it minimizes the huge risks of projection and conflict. Some use “bias alert.” Some use the term “purple flag.

Whatever you choose to use, the ideal is to ensure it is easy to say, brings no shame to the caller-outer or the maker of the utterance or act, and opens up a curious conversation. The phrase could also be designed to be used when people, particularly senior leaders, speak from within assumptions that may be leading the organization down poor strategic pathways; when leaders are being smart but not wise.

This is not about wokeism running rampage over every conversation, stifling a sense of ease and so creativity, and intimacy, in our teams. It is not about spreading a culture of victimhood and over-sensitivity, where people do not have to take responsibility for their own fragilities and meaning-making frames. It is not about resolving the rich nuances of fragile beings—full of foibles from their own upbringing and experiences—into comfortable and easy dualities of ‘good’ and ‘bad.’

This is about everyone learning together how to treat each other with maximum dignity… when so few of us were shown how to do this when we were kids or were treated with such respect in our formative years. This is about all of us being on a collective journey towards more wisdom and maturity as we bring into our awareness biases that are outdated and outmoded; honoring the protective role they have played; acknowledging that we all have them… and gently but firmly challenging them for the dignity of us all.

When we have a team, and company culture, with a shared sense of dignity, people will tend to contribute more, be more innovative, and go the extra mile with discretionary efforts. Dignity, and the trust and safety it unlocks, recalibrates the alliance between labor and capital, between managers and workers, between leaders and followers, and proves that everyone really is in this together.

And so, we come full circle in this series on the top 5 trends for leaders to attend this year. With dignity, compassion, wisdom, nature-based innovation, and AI-enabled business models, we can be truly transformational leaders that can confidently, creatively, and consciously lead our teams and organizations toward a flourishing future.

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