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Dignity Intelligence: The most critical leadership intelligence

Updated: Sep 25, 2022

By Workplace Peace Institute

Reimagining organizations by devising an innovative model that encourages productive, fulfilled, and engaged employees.

When we lean into the fullness of who we are and what has brought us together and invite wholeness and dignity into the workplace, we experience the very best of ourselves. —Dr. Robyn Short, CEO, Workplace Peace Institute

Dignity is our inherent worth and value as individuals. The ability to experience dignity in all aspects of our lives, including the workplace is a basic human need. When we experience dignity in the workplace, we experience emotions such as joy, happiness, and motivation. The experience of having our dignity honored in the workplace allows us to experience vulnerability with one another, which leads to trust and loyalty. When we experience dignity in the workplace, we lean in and contribute at our highest levels.

Workplace Peace Institute president and CEO Robyn Short developed the leadership intelligence category “dignity intelligence.” Dignity intelligence builds on the scholarly work and research of Donna Hicks. Hicks is an international peacebuilder and Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. She developed what she refers to as the “Dignity Model” based on her multidisciplinary research and two decades’ experience working with warring parties around the globe. What she discovered is that the concept of dignity is the missing link in understanding human conflict. Through her research and professional experience, she determined humans are particularly vulnerable to being treated as if they don’t matter, and that treatment, or disregard, wounds something very profound in the human spirit. In her book Dignity: The Essential Role in Resolving Conflict, Hicks argues that this vulnerability “explains why it hurts when our dignity is violated, and it gives us the knowledge, awareness, and skills to avoid unknowingly harming others.”

Understanding the role of dignity in the workplace enables us to repair and rebuild relationships that have been broken because of conflict, and illuminates paths to reconciliation. By honoring the dignity of others, we can experience the freedom necessary to invite positive connections. We all share a longing for dignity that, when experienced and recognized in one another, creates a sense of safety for all parties, something necessary for growth and human development.

Dignity is so vital to the human experience that when a person’s dignity is violated that violation is experienced similarly to the way the brain processes a physical threat. The amygdala can become triggered, and the person may experience the fight or flight response. In her book, Donna Hicks writes,

The feeling of loss is at the heart of human vulnerability — loss of dignity, loss of connection to others, and loss of life itself.

The experience of worth and vulnerability is an emotional experience that is derived from the limbic system. Therefore, our responses to dignity violations are also rooted in emotions — dread, shame, anger, disgust, and myriad destabilizing feelings that cause us to experience pain and aversion. Most people will go to great lengths to avoid these negative feelings.

The human brain is wired for connection, and dignity plays a crucial role in fostering connection. So, while the limbic system supports survival by producing hormones in the amygdala that serve as a means of self-protection (cortisol and adrenaline) and fuels the body’s ability to fight or flee the scene of danger, it also supports human connection by eliciting oxytocin and other feel-good hormones that support human connection, bonding, and trust. And dignity plays a crucial role here as well. The more we honor, support, and encourage the intrinsic value in others, the more we can connect with them, and these social connections build upon one another in positive and prosocial ways. In her book, Hicks explains,

Being treated with dignity triggers the limbic system to release those pleasant feelings of being seen, recognized, and valued — all the life-expanding experiences that come with human connection. Instead of being flooded with fear, anger, resentment, and revenge, we experience safety in a new way. After treating one another with dignity repeatedly, after having multiple reciprocal experiences of recognizing another’s value and vulnerability, we will be well on our way to discovering the possibilities that lie before us. With our inner worlds free from the turmoil and uncertainty that accompany our fear of loss of dignity, we can explore a new frontier together, what it is like to feel safe enough to be vulnerable.

Watch the Creating Positive Connections in the Workplace webinar to learn more about the neuroscience of dignity.

So, while the brain has two innate ways in which to seek safety and ensure survival, self-preservation seems to have been the dominant default mode of survival which has resulted in myriad conflicts and widespread human-inflicted suffering throughout history, and this certainly includes the workplace.

The Neuroscience of Peace
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Read The Neuroscience of Peace to understand how the brain responds to dignity violations.

By cultivating dignity intelligence, we create the possibility of a paradigm shift — a roadmap for a new way of being in relation with one another. Dignity intelligence also offers a proactive approach to peacebuilding in the workplace, an approach that cultivates peace as way a of being rather than as a response to conflict.

Dignity intelligence includes the ability to consistently honor the Ten Essential Elements of Dignity, as well as actively avoiding the Ten Temptations to Violate Dignity.

Hicks identified ten essential elements that are critical to a person’s dignity and that serve as a guide for how to communicate with and treat others. It is critical to become familiar with the Ten Essential Elements of Dignity, because only by knowing what they are can people develop the awareness necessary to ensure they do not unintentionally violate the dignity of others. Although we innately know when our dignity has been violated, we do not innately understand why or know what to do to ensure we do not violate the dignity of others — or even our own dignity.

Of course, not violating the dignity of others is only one aspect of honoring dignity. It is also imperative that a person not participate in the violation of one’s own dignity.

Dignity intelligence is as applicable to leaders of warring nations as it is to leaders in the workplace. Developing competencies in honoring the dignity of all our coworkers is critical to creating a highly-engaged work environment in which all contributors are actively involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace.

Dignity intelligence goes beyond honoring the Ten Essentials of Dignity and avoiding the Ten Temptations to Violate Dignity. Dignity intelligence also includes our ability to adopt a dignity consciousness. In her book, Leading with Dignity: How to Create a Culture That Brings out the Best in People, Hicks asserts that dignity is an immense source of power that endows each person with a capacity to develop mutually beneficial connections that create positive change in all relationships, including those that are cultivated in the workplace. Developing a dignity consciousness is paramount to activating this power. In her book, she writes, “I have concluded that dignity can be summed up in the following way: it is about connection, connection, and connection (the “three Cs”). She goes on to explain,

Dignity consciousness means that we are connected to our own dignity (the first C), the dignity of others (the second C), and the dignity of something greater than ourselves (the third C). The third C can take on different interpretations — for some, it can mean a connection to a higher power, but it also includes a connection to the natural world and the planet that is home to us all. Additionally, it can include a connection to a purpose that contributes to the greater good — something that gives meaning to our lives.

The development of a dignity consciousness is a three-stage process that evolves over the course of our human development. According to Hicks, dignity consciousness is derived and understood in these three stages:

  1. Dependence — As children, we are wholly dependent on our caretakers, and our sense of worth is grounded in how well these caretakers acknowledge our needs and make efforts to meet them. Adults too can get stuck at this developmental level. Without healthy relationships, without repeated doses of love and attention, anyone could get trapped into believing that because others mistreat them, they must not be worthy.

  2. Independence — This stage of understanding our dignity is knowing that our sense of worth depends not only on how others treat us, but also on building upon repeated experiences of having been shown love and attention (i.e., having our dignity honored throughout our childhood). At this stage, we internalize the source of our dignity, and gain clarity that our sense of value is derived from internal sources. At this stage, an inner confidence develops that helps to ground our feelings and actions. We no longer seek constant praise and approval in order to feel good about ourselves; however, we remain vulnerable to the negative judgment of others when we think that they are questioning our value and worth, causing resistance to perceived criticism as a means of preserving dignity.

  3. Interdependence — In this stage, the recognition that all people have limits to what they can know about themselves develops, and people begin to acknowledge that they may be the source of someone else’s trouble. In other words, people begin to recognize and acknowledge that blind spots exist.

To help us see those blind spots, and to help us gain an awareness of how we might be violating our own or others’ dignity, we need extra sets of eyes. We have moved beyond simply internalizing our worth to seeing the advantage of receiving feedback from others, even if it feels uncomfortable. At this stage, we have the capacity to stay grounded in our worth and, at the same time, make ourselves vulnerable. We are back to where we started — needing the love and attention of others — but at this stage we need them for very different reasons. We need the love and attention not to discover our dignity, but to experience how much we are dependent on each other. In this way, we come to understand that vulnerability is where our truth resides. —Donna Hicks

Cultivating dignity intelligence relies on our ability to also have high intelligence competencies in the other three leadership intelligences: social intelligence, emotional intelligence, and cultural intelligence. The behaviors, skills, and competencies associated with each of these intelligences are not often learned through informal experiences or through modeling. Rather they are learned through formal leadership training. A lack of leadership intelligence in the workplace is one of the catalysts of the Great Resignation that is currently rippling through Corporate America. To transform the Great Resignation into the Great Reimagined Workplace, leaders will need to significantly grow their competencies and understandings in the dynamics of human behavior.

Leadership intelligences can and must be learned to create a work environment in which all employees contribute at the highest level. Workplace Peace Institute Leadership Academy provides leaders with the knowledge of human behavior, communication skills, and conflict resolution competencies to create highly engaged workplaces where dignity is consistently honored. If you are ready to reimagine your workplace, contact Workplace Peace Institute today for a complimentary consultation.


Workplace Peace Institute is an organizational systems design and research firm that brings a holistic and multidisciplinary approach to organizational development. We support small to mid-sized businesses in optimizing employee engagement, maximizing organizational productivity, and improving profitability by infusing human security and dignity as foundational attributes of their business model.


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