Dignity and Respect
We all deserve it. So should we all bestow it.
If audio is more your style, you can listen to this essay here:
“To forsake truth is to pay too high a price even for the priceless gift of life—for life thus purchased we could not live out in dignity and self-respect.” — Ethel Rosenberg, 1953
We all deserve dignity.
It may not sound like an earth-shattering bit of wisdom, but it’s worth reminding ourselves of this fact.
Dignity, put simply, is self-worth. And it is inherent in each of us.
In The Extraordinary Power of Leadership Humility, Marilyn Gist writes, “Dignity implies that each person is worthy of honor and respect for who he or she is, regardless of status or accomplishment.”
In 1486 Pico della Mirandola explored the idea that that humans could continually improve themselves through the exercise of their intellectual capacities in his groundbreaking Oration on the Dignity of Man (De hominis dignitate).
While this may not sound like news in the 21st century, it was a profound endorsement of the dignity of human existence in earthly life in the 15th century. It placed humans at the pinnacle of God’s creations.
The root of this dignity lay in Pico’s assertion that only human beings could change themselves through their own free will, whereas all other changes in nature were the result of some outside force acting on whatever it is that undergoes change. He observed from history that philosophies and institutions were always in change, making man’s capacity for self-transformation the only constant.
Dignity is a fundamental aspect of what it means to be human. When you disregard or even violate the dignity of others, you make them feel like nonentities.
What’s a violation of dignity? Name-calling, bullying, cutting people off, stereotyping, sexual harassment, taking credit—anything that shows you don't appreciate someone’s unique contribution or humanity.
“A snub is the effort of a person who feels superior to make someone else feel inferior. To do so, he has to find someone who can be made to feel inferior.” — Eleanor Roosevelt, 1935
As Eleanor Roosevelt indicated in her comment regarding an incident with a cabinet member, trying to make someone else feel inferior requires a sense of superiority. (In fact, it formed the basis of the quote commonly attributed to her: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”)
When we work together on common goals, whether we’re part of an athletic team, a corporation, or a community, we have expectations that we each have something to offer. Whether you’re a president or a plumber, your human contribution to an effort is worth something. And there’s dignity in it.
In my time at Ford, we all had badges that included the famous One Ford plan on the front, and a list of “Expected Behaviors” on the reverse. In the list of behaviors, there were a couple that implied that dignity was at the core of them:
Include everyone: respect, listen to, help and appreciate others.
Enjoy the journey and each other; have fun—but never at others’ expense.
We saw these behaviors exhibited by our leaders and by each other on a regular basis; such actions were a powerful reminder of the importance of dignity and the power each of us held to build a stronger team.
Over the last four years, we’ve seen public discourse take a drastic slide, where respect and dignity were all but eliminated from traditional behaviors from the most public personae as well as from people with whom we interacted online.
Part of this slide is due to the pseudo-anonymity that the web affords us. A Twitter username that’s a first name followed by a string of eight numbers effectively dehumanizes the dialog, and we feel no compunction in throwing digital punches.
Interestingly, the advent of real-time audio interaction (such as Clubhouse) has made things reverse course a bit. It seems more difficult to treat someone disrespectfully when you’re actually talking with them rather than slamming your thumbs onto your phone.
Another aspect of the decline of civility is simply due to not caring. Now we have CEOs, politicians, athletes, and other public figures who seem to think they can speak however they wish, consequences be damned. They just don’t care whom they offend.
When greeted with the consequences of their actions, they revert to calling it “cancel culture,” arrogantly avoiding what it actually is: accountability.
Howard Behar, a former executive at Starbucks, said:
“Arrogance denigrates performance in any organization. People think arrogant, autocratic leadership enhances performance, but it doesn’t. You lose people—good people. There’s no trust. They worry about protecting themselves. So, it’s hard to have a dynamic organization. And turnover is high. People only stay out of fear. If the economy is bad, they may stay, but as soon as it improves, they are gone.”
We see plenty of arrogance every day.
Great leaders understand that humility, not arrogance, is what will motivate people. And that helping their people to respect and honor the dignity of everyone will result in a more cohesive team for the purpose of working together.
We’ve unlocked Friday’s newsletter (normally exclusive for premium subscribers), where we explore the dignity of work and how great ideas can come from anywhere:
President Biden is bringing dignity to the office of the president again. He told his staff, “I will fire you on the spot” for disrespecting others.
He has led a life of dignity and respect, so this is consistent with his character. When it was discovered that a White House deputy press secretary threatened a reporter, the staffer understood how it looked in light of the president’s pledge and he resigned.
There are plenty of people out there who are callous and disrespectful. Shane Parrish has a solution for that:
This idea of omission is an important one. You can show respect for the dignity of others not only by what you choose to do, but also by what you choose not to do.
You don’t need to have an opinion on everything. You don’t need to lash out, even when you’ve been attacked. You don’t need to put others down to make yourself feel better.
Everyone deserves dignity.
Leaders maintain their own dignity and gain trust by respecting the dignity of others.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
Preview of Friday’s curated content:
“Overwhelmingly people will say, ‘You know, he looked me in the eye and shook my hand, and I’m a housekeeper.’ If you treat people like they deserve to be treated, as human beings with the same kind of dignity that you would treat senior people, it will flow through the organization.” Who is this inspirational leader?
As long as society subscribes to the notion that some individuals are fundamentally superior to others, people have a hard time feeling humiliated.
This week’s book recommendation:
This landmark book from an expert in dignity studies explores the essential but underrecognized role of dignity as part of good leadership. Most people know very little about dignity, the author has found, and when leaders fail to respect the dignity of others, conflict and distrust ensue. Learn three components of leading with dignity and how you can create a culture of dignity in any organization, whether corporate, religious, governmental, healthcare, or beyond.