Dignity Intelligence: The most critical leadership intelligence

Updated: Sep 25

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.