The Difference Dignity Makes

Every so often we receive questions that remind us, even in these tumultuous times, that some things never change—or at least, they shouldn't.

Take these three, for instance, which came in last week:Do employees have a right to know about critical decisions taken by management, such as promotions, transfers, and demotions, especially if such events do not favor them?—Colombo, Sri LankaHow do you keep talented people engaged in relatively boring work that you wouldn't want to do yourself?—New YorkWhat advice do you have for employees who work for a leader whose job is no longer secure?—Surat, India

Forget specifics for a moment. The answer to all of the above is contained in a fundamental business principle: Whether you're a longtime leader or an employee just starting out, in everything you do, value dignity.

O.K., maybe "value dignity" sounds vague, but you get our drift. Business is full of dilemmas and tough calls. You can try to solve them by going on gut instinct. You can do nothing and hope for the best. You can cover your rear end by playing politics. Or you can make your choices based on the indisputable tenet that people deserve to have their voices heard and self-respect preserved.

No, we haven't gone soft. We're only making a case we've made before. Dignity is not only "the right thing to do" from a moral perspective, it invariably makes companies more competitive. It's a win-win every time.

Teaching Moments

Let's start with the Sri Lanka query about whether managers should explain the comings and goings of key employees. Well, of course they should. Managers should never demonize anyone, but explaining why Joe was asked to move on or Mary was transferred to the Hong Kong office can be perfect teaching moments. "Joe was a nice guy, and we wish him well, but he didn't demonstrate the company's key value of sharing ideas across business units," you could say, or "Mary was transferred because she's one of our best, and you need global experience to move forward in this organization."

Ultimately, such candor gives employees the tools to control their own destiny. Instead of having to guess, they know which kinds of behaviors are rewarded and which aren't. That knowledge allows them to adjust, if need be, and plan accordingly. It gives them agency.

As for the dilemma out of New York about managing employees doing boring work, again, if you start in a dignity mindset, the solution becomes clear. As a leader, it's imperative to infuse your people with excitement and meaning, no matter how mundane the work. Celebrate small victories and milestones, and without reserve reward employees who outperform. And here's a real opportunity to give your people voice, too. Hold brainstorming sessions regularly, and make public heroes out of the individuals who come up with process improvements.

Sound daunting? It is. But to be a manager is to energize and engage your people; it is to fill them with pride for what they do.

Compassion and Decency

And then there's the matter of a "Dead Man Walking" boss, an all-too-common scenario these days, as companies cut costs ever deeper. Yes, sometimes purges are necessary to remove incompetent managers, but just as often they usher out good people who just haven't performed well enough.

In such cases, it's only human to want to keep your distance from the person "whose job is no longer secure." You don't want to be associated with a goner, or you simply don't know what to say. It's just plain awkward. And so you hunker down in your office or quietly start to ingratiate yourself with your boss's boss, just in case.

Try something else. Start a conversation, make eye contact, and resist the temptation to pull an end-run with every e-mail. Your compassion will keep your team running better, and your decency will be a testament to your character for years to come.

Look, our goal here is not to preach motherhood and apple pie. Business principles are useless if they don't help companies win. But voice and dignity, fortunately, do just that. When it comes to people, no matter the question, they're a big part of the answer.

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