An Evening with Dr. Donna Hicks: Leading with Dignity

26 Jun 2018 3:27 PM | Anonymous

Irina Hoffmeister

I had the pleasure of attending a wonderful evening organized by the OD Network of New York. I listened to the inspiring Dr. Donna Hicks share her thoughts and insights about dignity in the workplace, its impact on team dynamics and especially its importance in creating an inclusive and healthy work culture. Her impressive 20-year background of facilitating international conflicts across the world as well as her approach to honor dignity, which she defines as, “inherent value and vulnerability,” made this night a passionate conversation amongst the ODN of NY community members.

Why honoring dignity in the work place is key to a healthy work culture                                                 

Today’s most successful organizations understand and value the critical contribution people make to their success. The most essential part to an organization are its people; they keep the company and its mission alive. They bring skills and competencies to the table that make the organization function. And finally, they provide work and effort that result in services and/or goods that an organization puts out in the marketplace.

That being said, while many leaders show strong IQ coupled with technical knowledge, Dr. Hicks raised the question if there is enough understanding about ‘the human’ and our emotions amongst today’s top leaders. If we understand that people are the key to success, why do some organizations struggle to build a culture of dignity? Way too often, employees find their dignity violated at work leading to demotivation, a fear driven culture and poor interpersonal dynamics. Dr. Hicks discussed the importance of leaders modelling trust, vulnerability and dignified behaviors to build a culture of dignity that fosters an inclusive work environment where employees strive to be their best. Honoring dignity has also proven to give employees more energy at work, boost productivity and most importantly strengthen the sense of belonging to an organization. When dignified actions are modelled, dignified relationships are built and employees become more emotionally skilled to create a healthy emotional infrastructure in an organization that feels safe for its people.

The impact of dignity violations                                                 

Dr. Hick shared the interesting finding about how we experience the violation of dignity.  When a person’s dignity is violated, the brain receives signals in the same location that gets triggered when a we experience physical injury. Thus, “when dignity is impacted it literally hits the core of humanity.” Dignity violations that occur in the workplace amongst people pose an imminent threat to its culture being toxic, spreading quickly from team to team resulting in a culture of dysfunction. In order to drive a culture of dignity, it is useful to understand the ten elements that honor dignity. Dr. Hicks shared that list with the group and it includes: acceptance of identity, recognition, acknowledgement, inclusion, safety, fairness, independence, understanding, benefit of the doubt and accountability. These elements derived from many years of her work with parties in conflict across the world. Her research showed that safety was the most violated element in today’s work environment often leading to employees not speaking their mind and feeling disconnected from the organization’s mission.

Dignity is connection, connection, connection….  

Looking further into the breakdown of dignity when implementing change in an organization, Dr. Hicks classified three focus areas: connection to our own dignity, connection to the dignity of others, connection to the dignity of something beyond self.

To create a functional culture of dignity, the people of an organization firstly need to be able to connect to their own dignity. If feelings of depression, failure, insecurity or worthlessness are detected, the process of change needs to start with the individual. Secondly, the connection to other’s dignity is a vital piece of driving strong interpersonal connections through acknowledgement and understanding of others. Thirdly, only if people are connected to their own and others dignity, can an organization create a culture where individuals connect to something beyond themselves such as a mission or a work environment.

As the night went on, Dr. Hicks guided us through a journey of her incredible experiences and told many stories of fascinating and eye-opening events she collected throughout her extensive journey across the globe. This evening was a great investment in one’s personal and professional development, created amazing dialogue among the ODN NY community and provided guidance to implement new strategies at people’s work places in support of dignity.


Irina has led Learning & Development as well as Talent Management for over 10 years globally across 3 continents (Asia-Pacific, Europe & North America). As a Talent Leader, she has consistently pioneered new L&D and Talent Management initiatives, built positive employment cultures, coached top performers and built new L&D functions from the ground up. Irina holds and MA and BA in international business and is fluent in German and French.


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