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Dignity in the Workplace

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(Article changed on October 10, 2013 at 15:18)


by Berrett-Koehler, 2006

This is the fifth part of the serialization of All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (Berrett-Koehler, 2006). The ideas in this book are further developed in my recent novel The Rowan Tree.

CHAPTER 4: DIGNITY IN THE WORKPLACE

This is the age of the Resume Gods...in which it is immoral to discriminate according to race or sex, but discrimination according to career status is so thoroughly baked into society that it governs everything from restaurant table assignments to elementary school admissions prospects.
--David Brooks, political columnist and commentator

A vital part of leadership is the detection and elimination of rankism and malrecognition. Good leaders know this instinctively and seek to instill non-rankist behavior in others by exemplifying it in their own relationships with subordinates. As Jim Collins shows in his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't, the founder-leaders of companies that excel neither indulge in abuses of power themselves nor tolerate it among the ranks.

They create an atmosphere of unimpeachable dignity from top to bottom in their organizations. As Robert Knisely put it: "For his book Good to Great, Jim Collins sifted through the 1,435 firms that have ever been in the Fortune 500. He found only 11 firms that demonstrated periods of exceptional performance. Notably, all 11 had CEOs who were...humble. "Humble' is Collins's word, and by it he means a CEO who would listen to anyone, anytime, who might have something to offer to the CEO's quest for success. In other words, these CEOs eliminated every trace of rankism from their work lives--and they, and their companies, won big."

Ten Ways to Combat Rankism in the Workplace

If companies that reduce rankism are more efficient and productive, the question becomes: How can rankism be rooted out of an organization? How can a corporate culture of rankism be transformed into a dignitarian one? Here are ten methods for doing so.

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1. Recognize and Listen

Soon after his appointment as director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Dr. Noel Hinners had an epiphany:

I realized that the hierarchy was inverted--that the most important people, in terms of their daily contribution to the mission of the museum, were not those with the highest rank. To my surprise, it was quite the opposite.

Ten million people visit the museum every year--the highest attendance of any museum in the world. When you have that many people tramping through your living room, it takes an incredible effort, for example, to simply keep the chewing gum off the floor.

The janitorial staff did an unbelievable job keeping the museum clean and presentable. The security staff has to cope with the public and treat them with respect, but also make sure that no one vandalizes the exhibits. The education department was providing a service to a lot of school kids in the district. Without the restoration staff, which restores old airplanes and space artifacts to pristine condition, you couldn't put the exhibits together. And without the exhibits there was no reason to have the curators who do the research and collect the artifacts, and without them there'd be no need for my director's job.

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After having this realization at his first "all hands" meeting of the museum staff, Dr. Hinners acknowledged the importance of every job and the individuals who held them. Subsequently, he practiced "management by walking around," a tactic made famous by Mayor John Lindsay, who walked the streets of New York City during the racial strife of the 1960s. Throughout his tenure, Dr. Hinners would wander through the museum visiting with employees. He says, "You don't know what goes on in an organization unless you meet people where they work, see for yourself, and listen, listen, listen."

Obviously, making a display of listening is not enough. Leaders have to put what they hear to use and employees have to see that the information they are volunteering is making a tangible difference.

Selectively ignoring subordinates sends a message of disrespect that can have unexpected consequences. At an open house for parents, the principal of a public elementary school in the San Francisco Bay Area introduced every teacher on the staff, save one. That woman, who taught computer use to over three hundred students, interpreted the omission as a snub deriving from her "instructor" status, which set her apart from the accredited teachers. The next day she submitted a letter of resignation in which she wrote:

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