"Culture is about what makes us healthy.” — Alice Walker.
When I heard Alice Walker make the above comment in an interview, she was speaking about the contribution of art to a healthy society. As I turned over her words in my mind, I knew they applied to the workplace. Every company has a culture, and the root of that culture will determine that company’s overall health. Many companies can be financially successful for a period of time, even while the interactions between humans are full of behaviors that cause frustration, pain, and even trauma. But eventually, leaders will be forced to deal with the many ways people are harmed in the company they lead. To determine what causes a workplace to be unhealthy, they have to look at the foundation. Core to every human is the need to believe we are valued and respected. We all want to be treated with dignity.
Dignity is about respecting who we are, valuing our humanity, and being treated ethically. Dignity is fundamental to well-being and to human and organization thriving, and it is the core to creating safe and healthy work environments. When the behaviors displayed at work are not aligned with dignity, and there is no intervention to stop these behaviors, workplaces become unhealthy and even toxic.
When we work in a place where dignity is not the foundation of human interaction, we become defensive, are sometimes on the attack, and expend a lot of emotional energy. In unhealthy work environments, we have to fight every day to remind ourselves of our humanity and the humanity of others. This not only reduces our ability to have a good experience at work but also in life. We take the feelings of being devalued and disrespected everywhere we go. We talk about it constantly with friends and family. The quality of our lives is diminished.
With dignity at work intact, we get to work excited, ready to do our best work and contribute to the teams we work with. We are not in competition, and we work collaboratively in diverse teams where everyone’s experience and contributions are seen as valuable. Where there is dignity, we all hold each other accountable and operate by what I like to call ‘The Dignity Standard,’ where our thoughts, words, and actions align with a shared value system.
The Dignity Standard is the idea that every interaction with every human is based on dignity. Whether it’s walking into the office and acknowledging the presence of the person fixing the front door or creating a marketing campaign that will reach millions to sell a product, any time we are interacting with people, in any format, we start with dignity.
In general, dignity is fundamental, and treating others with dignity seems easy, but the ways we can disrespect and devalue others can be complex. In my career, I have worked across continents with people from all over the world, and I can tell you that what one person sees as devaluing can sometimes not even be on the value scale for someone else. And in my experience, as people become managers, they can forget what it was like to be without the power of managing others. They become a part of a cohort with a different set of concerns. They rarely become the manager they always wanted, usually taking on the behaviors and actions of their managers and peers.
Creating dignity in the workplace has to be intentional, everyone’s intention, for there to be a chance at creating a sustainable healthy work environment. But how do we get to the nuance of what it means to treat everyone we encounter with dignity?
Here are some questions I believe we can ask ourselves to help self-reflect and correct our behaviors.
Generally, these questions are for everyone at every level in an organization. I do not believe leaders or managers are the only sources of behavior modeling. We are all responsible for how healthy our workplaces are, and we all deserve to come to work and be treated with dignity all the time. Let’s take the time to reflect on our behaviors to ensure dignity is the foundation of every human interaction. Let’s start anew.