How to lead without violating dignity

A little thought goes a long way.
A little thought goes a long way.
Image: AP Photo/Thomas Peipert
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Any evolutionary biologist or psychologist will tell you that we do not come into the world as blank slates; instead our brains have a complex inherited architecture that predisposes us to act in certain ways, especially under threat.

Our mental environment has evolved to set us up for actions and reactions that promote our survival. The problem with these instincts is that although they may act in the service of self-preservation, they have the capacity to wreak havoc on our connections with others.

Although most of us know that we are hardwired to fight, flee, or freeze when we confront a threatening situation, what we don’t know, as biologist E. O. Wilson points out, is that many other “inherited mental regularities” are part of our evolutionary legacy. Below are ten examples of these instincts that can lead us up to violate our own dignity and the dignity of others (along with strategies for outsmarting those impulses):

Taking the bait: Don’t let the bad behavior of others determine your own behavior. Restraint is the better part of dignity. Don’t justify returning the harm when someone has harmed you. Do not do unto others as they do unto you.

Saving face: Don’t lie, cover up, or deceive yourself—tell the truth about what you have done.

Shirking responsibility: When you have violated the dignity of others, admit that you have made a mistake and apologize for hurting them. 

Image for article titled How to lead without violating dignity

Depending on false dignity: Beware of the desire for external recognition of your dignity in the form of approval and praise. If we depend only on others for validation of our worth, we are seeking false dignity. Our dignity also comes from within.

Maintaining false security: Don’t let your need for connection compromise your dignity. If we remain in a relationship in which our dignity is routinely violated, our need for connection has outweighed our need to maintain our own dignity.

Avoiding confrontation: Don’t allow someone to violate your dignity without saying something. Stand up for yourself. Don’t avoid confrontation. A violation is a signal that there is something in the relationship that needs to change.

Assuming innocent victimhood: Don’t assume you are an innocent victim in a troubled relationship. Open yourself to the idea that you might be contributing to the problem. You may not be aware of it. We need to be able to look at ourselves from an outside perspective so that we can see ourselves as others see us.

Resisting feedback: Don’t resist feedback from others. We often don’t know what we don’t know. We all have blind spots (undignified ways in which we unconsciously behave). We need to overcome our self-protective instincts that lead us to resist constructive criticism and instead consider feedback as a growth opportunity.

Blaming and shaming others: Don’t blame and shame others in order to deflect your guilt. Control the urge to defend yourself by trying to make others look bad.

Gossiping and Promoting False Intimacy: Beware of the tendency to connect with others by gossiping about someone else. Being critical and judgmental about others when they are not present can feel like a bonding experience and makes for engaging conversation, but it is harmful and undignified. If you want to create intimacy with others, speak the truth about yourself—about what is really happening in your inner world—and invite the other person to do the same.

The good news is that we are much more than our hardwired instincts: we have what it takes to mediate these forces within us. Educating ourselves about the reality of the traps that evolution has set for us helps us to navigate around these survival impulses.

We can increase our capacity to manage these emotional reactions, but it will require awareness that they exist, and a willingness to work at it.

This article was adapted from the book Leading With Dignity: How to Create A Culture That Brings Out The Best in People.