Leadership with Dignity

  • Tracey Groves
  • March 04, 2021

When we experience leaders acting in a way that does not live up to our expectations, our sense of a promise or a commitment being broken is palpable and feels very real. Why is that? How can a leadership interaction have such a tangible effect?

Social Pain
The sense of betrayal and disconnection that we feel when leaders fail to deliver on their commitment to us is called ‘social pain’. It can occur through misalignment of what leaders say and do, for example, or by distancing themselves from the standards, principles, and values that they hold others accountable for. It feels as real to us as physical pain.

Social pain and physical pain share the same neural pathways in the brain – we are genuinely wounded when leaders use words that hurt our dignity, defined as our ‘sense of inherent value and worth’. When the former chairman of a consulting firm told consultants to “stop moaning” during a conversation about their work conditions during the pandemic, not only was he demonstrating a distinct lack of skill in leading with empathy and humanity, he was also genuinely hurting them with his words.

The imprints left by others who wound our dignity can last a lifetime and impair our ability to bring the best of ourselves to the workplace. Our dignity can become frozen in self-doubt when we are hurt by being treated unfairly, not accepted for who we are, or don’t feel that we belong. This is because dignity is a hallmark of our shared humanity. It explains an aspect of what it’s like to be human and is something that everyone deserves, no matter who we are or where we come from. But, how many of us, as leaders, know how to honor our own and each other’s dignity, by taking responsibility for our actions and activating empathy?

Empathy is a critical asset in a leader’s toolkit when it comes to building connections and relating to others. But, too much empathy can lead to ethical blind spots and emotional exhaustion.

In my recent podcast, How much Empathy is Enough?, hosted by Adam Pacifico, I explored whether empathy without skill could be as damaging as a leader having no empathy at all. Yes, empathy is a critical asset in the leader’s tool kit when it comes to building connections and relating to others. But too much empathy can lead to ethical blind spots and emotional exhaustion, and too little can physically hurt and permanently disconnect leaders from their people, as we have witnessed.

The use of empathy skillfully, with integrity, and with constant assessment about its impact on self and others, is a vital part of leadership effectiveness.

A Lesson to Take Away
There are so many lessons to be learned from the recent episode of leadership without dignity. Vulnerability, acting with humanity, kindness and adaptability are all leadership traits that are attracting more and more attention as we strive to be effective as leaders in the world of today.

But the one lesson that stands out above all is arguably this: never underestimate the impact that you have as a leader on your employees. Not just what you say (words) and do (behaviors), but just as importantly, how you make others feel (experience). Everyone wants to be treated in a way that shows they matter. Otherwise, in the ever-relevant words of Rob Goffee and the late Gareth Jones, why would anyone want to be led by you?

Eisenberger, Liebermann, and Williams, Does Rejection Hurt?
Hicks, Donna. Leading with Dignity. Yale University Press, 2018.
The Leadership Enigma Podcast Series (Apple, Spotify)
Harvard Business Review, Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?

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