Dr. Donna Hicks is an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard and she has been involved in numerous diplomatic conflict resolution efforts around the world including projects in the Middle East, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Colombia, Cuba, and Northern Ireland.  She is currently the vice president of Ara Pacis, an Italian organization sponsored by the Italian Foreign Ministry.  They’re currently involved in a dignity restoration project in Syria and Libya.

She is the author of the book, Dignity: Its Essentially Role in Resolving Conflict which was published in 2011 and her second book, Leading with Dignity will be published in 2018.

A few weeks ago, I sat down with Donna Hicks and we discussed the topic of dignity. Here’s what she has to say:

Most of my work in the past had been focused on trying to resolve conflicts in the most difficult parts of the world, in the Middle East, all over.  What I discovered working with parties in conflict was that there was this underlying desire on both sides of the divide to be treated with dignity yet that conversation never took place, they always talked about the political issues that were dividing them.

I’m a psychologist and I tend to tune into those kinds of non-spoken conversations because they’re really emotionally very volatile and they can rip through a negotiation just like a hurricane, like an emotional hurricane.  I realized that this dignity issue really had to be addressed.

And so, I wrote the book —the dignity book—because I felt that this topic of dignity was at the heart of these conflicts.  And so, I wrote the book and lo and behold, it really captured the attention of people in the corporate world, in organizations of all kinds, in healthcare, in education, etc.  What I realized was that this wasn’t a political issue or an international conflict issue—this issue of dignity—but this was an issue for all human beings and the dignity concerns show up whenever people congregate.

In the workplace, which is what I’m focusing all my attention now with the Leading With Dignity book, is trying to help people recognize the importance of dignity, of being treated as if we mattered and how fragile that concept is for all of us. When somebody treats us badly, unfairly, or discriminates against us because of something to do with our identity or fails to acknowledge who we are, and what kind of work we’ve done, and how we’ve contributed — all of these what I call dignity violations can create a toxic work culture where people are walking around afraid to be their authentic selves. And typically what I discovered in my first adventure into the corporate world was that 80 percent of the people whom I interviewed said they didn’t feel safe to speak up when something bad happened to them and especially, they didn’t feel safe to speak up to their supervisors or their bosses, whoever their manager is, and I realized that there was an epidemic going on in this one big corporation that I was working with.

As people felt that the dignity was being violated all the time, they had no way of addressing it.  And so, this is where I got this idea that we really have to focus not just on the individual and interpersonal relationships in a workplace. I mean, that’s really important to learn how to honor each other’s dignity, but the system, the whole systemic level of the organization, what I call the “culture of dignity” really is where we have to begin with trying to promote an environment where people do feel safe to speak up. If something bad happens to them and they feel humiliated or they feel violated, then they have a way to speak up to their bosses.

I went around and interviewed people all over the world and I started by asking them to tell me about a time when you felt your dignity had been violated.  You wouldn’t believe the stories that I heard, you just wouldn’t believe.  The interesting thing about it was it didn’t matter where I was, whether I was in Asia, or Africa, or in South America, the stories were all similar.

What I came up with were ways of operationalizing what dignity is — meaning ways to make it really concrete and useable.  I ended up with ten elements of dignity which are ten ways that people feel they want their dignity honored.  For example, one element of dignity is wanting your identity accepted no matter who you are.  And then there’s recognition, we all yearn for recognition for our unique qualities and our way of life and also recognition of the good work that we’ve done. Another element is acknowledgement — making sure that we give people our full attention by listening to them, hearing what they have to say, and just validating their experiences.  Inclusion is a big one — people want a sense of belonging.

And so finally, leaders have to recognize 1) that maybe there is something deeper going on and 2) I launch what I call an educational campaign because even though dignity is something that we all want, we want to be treated as if we matter, we want to be treated as if we’re something of value.

Click here to visit Donna Hicks’ website

Click here listen to my full conversation with Donna