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How dignity lights up the workplace
Dignity at work: why we should focus on the new Values and Behaviors Framework
1 Sep 2023

One answer to the question above involves discussions of the role that dignity plays in the workplace. This article illustrates the links between dignity, the Values and Behaviors Framework and the work of the United Nations Ombudsman and Mediation Services (“UNOMS”).

The concept of dignity allows us to assert what we think is right without antagonism. I do not use the word “antagonism” lightly. The presence of antagonism or any of its synonyms – hostility, friction, discord, or acrimony – corrodes the organizational mandate in quantitative and qualitative ways: qualitative because this type of scorn breeds distrust and without trust, teams cannot function; quantitative because it becomes a negative reinforcing cycle – each incident of scorn makes a reciprocal incident of scorn more likely.

Here is a small thought experiment: think about a recent work disagreement. If you were to describe that other person, what adjectives would you use? My guess is that those adjectives include negative judgments reflecting either their wrongness or their moral character. Imagine this one interaction multiplied by 10 or 20 additional interactions and you can get a sense of how simple disagreements morph into belligerent feelings.

Judgements in themselves are not negative. After all, judgment—the ability to combine relevant knowledge to form opinions and make decisions—is, according to some scholars, the core of exemplary leadership . But there is a dark side to letting judgments pervade our interactions. Judgments trap us in a world of ideas about rightness and wrongness. The tragedy is that when we express our values and needs through judgment, we increase defensiveness and resistance among the very people whose behaviors are of concern to us, writes M. Rosenberg in his book “Nonviolent Communication.”

The UNOMS’ Civility, Communication, Community Workshop (C3)” tries to demonstrate the pitfalls of being quick to judge. One video clip in the workshop features the civil rights lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, who says:

“I have come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done. … I think if somebody tells a lie they are not just a liar. I think if somebody takes something that does not belong to them, they are not just a thief. I think that even if you kill someone, you are not just a killer and because of that, there is this basic human dignity that must be respected by law.”

In the discussions that usually follow, the workshop participants usually comment upon the complexity of human experience and how the reduction of an individual to a single adjective often diminishes them. After this clip, we often discuss how to balance accountability with dignity.

The Framework manifests an emphasis on dignity in many ways. The guidelines to the Framework, for example, tie the concept of dignity to the larger UN mandate: “We demonstrate humanity in everything that we do. We are committed to upholding human rights and dignity for all.” The Framework also speaks of “taking action to create an environment of dignity”. But how does one implement the concept of dignity in the workplace? In the UNOMS C3 workshop on dignity, we discuss some possible answers. The workshop relies on the work of Donna Hicks. In her book on dignity, Hicks provides a very operational definition of dignity, asserting that it is the baseline for our interactions: “We must treat others as if they matter, as if they are worthy of care and attention.”

The Framework embraces similar aspirations. The four values (inclusion, integrity, humility, and humanity) embody many of the same ideas that make Hicks’ book so pragmatic and operational. At its heart, Hicks introduces and elaborates upon dignity’s 10 essential elements: acceptance of identity, inclusion, safety, acknowledgment, recognition, fairness, benefit of doubt, understanding, independence and accountability. After a suggestion by one group of participants during one of the UNOMS C3 workshops, we added an eleventh element: interdependence. This element, added before the release of the Framework, aligns nicely with the Framework’s essence. In explaining humility, for example, the guidelines to the Framework use the following example: “recognize the complexity of local contexts and the value of local knowledge, incorporating both into decision-making.” This combination of different experiences in decision making is a perfect example of interdependence. One can find similar examples of the other 10 essential elements reflected in the Framework.

The Framework is part of an organizational trend to make the UN more inclusive, equitable, and accepting. At UNOMS, we help operationalize these aspirations. There are times, for example, when we must hold one another accountable or provide feedback about personal boundaries. 

These situations do not necessarily need to escalate or become confrontational. At UNOMS, we use the lens of dignity in viewing internal workplace interactions. It is the key to assertiveness without antagonism. In this way, dignity becomes a lighthouse in the stormy sea of interpersonal interaction. 

* Nicholas Theotocatos, Regional Ombudsman, United Nations Office at Geneva.
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