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Dignity in the Workplace

By       Message Robert Fuller       (Page 2 of 9 pages) Become a premium member to see this article and all articles as one long page.     Permalink

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I feel this is a classic example of rankism. I am under contract as an instructor, but I am not being recognized in this position. In addition, I am not included on the staff e-mail list and yet I'm expected to attend meetings and make presentations without seeing the agenda ahead of time. If I am expected to act like a staff member, then why am I not treated like one? I enjoy my students and my teaching job very much. But I also feel that you must recognize my position as a staff member of this school.

In this case the principal listened, perhaps because many of the staff, as well as parents, came to the defense of the aggrieved instructor. The principal not only apologized for her omission to the teacher--who subsequently withdrew her resignation--but also initiated an inquiry into rankism in her school. As is often the case, a single incident, and someone willing to put his or her job on the line over it, precipitated a broader transformation. But this happened only because the leader chose listening over defensiveness and turned an instance of malrecognition into a policy of respect.

2. Facilitate Questions, Protect Dissent

A fundamental characteristic of a healthy work culture is that everyone, regardless of rank, exhibits a questioning attitude. The freedom to challenge any action, any condition, and any assertion cannot be maintained in an environment laced with rankism. Only by continually demonstrating respect for all opinions and those who hold them will an environment be maintained in which a spirit of inquiry can thrive. Silicon Valley companies such as Intel and Hewlett-Packard, whose continuing success is vitally dependent on innovation, pioneered corporate cultures in which everything technical could be questioned by anyone, regardless of rank or seniority. The phenomenally successful Google has not only followed in their footsteps in this regard but breaks new ground in creating and implementing a nondiscriminatory workplace and a dignitarian corporate culture.

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The U.S. Navy nuclear power program employs the method of a minority report. Whenever a complex issue is under discussion and the answer is not obvious, a minority report must be prepared. Even if everyone agrees on an answer, the group leader asks someone to provide a report that presents the best case for the other side of the issue.

Making it the manager's responsibility to seek a minority view lifts the burden and stigma from potential dissenters. Rather than discourage whistle-blowing, good managers create an open environment in which doing so never becomes necessary.

3. Hold People Accountable and Affix Responsibility

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An indispensable element of a dignitarian work environment is accountability. In some highly technical arenas, errors in calculations can cost lives. Bridges have collapsed because of such mistakes. The important thing is to catch potential problems in a way that protects the dignity of workers so they won't be inhibited about voicing their concerns.

In many engineering workplaces both the originator of the work and an assigned checker must sign off on calculations and drawings. To qualify as a checker, a person must be capable of authoring the same work as the originator. At one nuclear plant, two signatures are required to issue a result. If it is later found to contain mistakes, the manager of the two individuals is informed. The manager in turn informs the two workers and records each name. Should one of the names emerge later as either the originator or checker on another calculation containing errors, a tick mark is placed by that person's name.

You don't want to get that second tick mark. This is accountability in a dignitarian manner: the expectation of accurate work is conveyed at the outset and the consequences for anything less are applied equally regardless of rank.

Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the creator of the nuclear navy, hung posters in his office and the officers' quarters that read: Responsibility can only reside and inhere in a single individual. You may share it with others, but your portion is not diminished. You may delegate it, but you cannot divest yourself of it. Even if you do not recognize it or admit its presence, you cannot escape it.

Creating a dignitarian culture in an organization--and ultimately achieving a dignitarian society--requires more than an absence of rankism. It necessitates understanding that responsibilities will vary with rank and station and that individuals must fully comprehend and own those responsibilities. A dignitarian society is one in which each of us is accountable to every other person for fulfilling the tasks we take on.

4. Incorporate "Flex-Rank"

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Temporary rank-leveling is nowhere more prevalent than on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. A strict hierarchy pervades every branch of the military. During an interview, Hal Gehman, chairman of the Space Shuttle Columbia Accident Investigation Board, remarked that people wear their rank on their sleeve, and authority is based on that rank, not on how smart you are or your length of service. A commander aviator is senior to a lieutenant commander aviator, even if the lieutenant commander is a better pilot. But once on the flight deck, a crew reorganizes itself horizontally.

Everyone has a job and anyone is authorized to stop the whole process. When someone does this, that person is rewarded for stepping forward and is never chastised or second-guessed, regardless of his or her station. Flight crews are very hierarchical, but crew members can become peers at a moment's notice.

This same flexibility is now practiced in the cabins of commercial aircraft. Formerly, the captain was treated like a god. Challenging his authority, even in dire circumstances, violated cockpit culture. However, after several fatal crashes that investigative bodies attributed to pilot error, a new system was developed. Known in the airline industry as CRM--Cockpit Resource Management--it encourages subordinates to raise any question at any time. The goal is not to undermine the captain's authority but rather to make it safe for other members of the flight crew to be more assertive, and when necessary, to override a captain who is operating the aircraft in a dangerous manner (for example, while intoxicated or when taking actions without the go-ahead from air traffic controllers).

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