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Musings...On Dignity and Respect


Last week I spoke with a client's team on Leading with Dignity and Respect, and as I was preparing for the talk, the above quote of Maya Angelou kept playing in my head.

Going over the events in my IT career, a few experiences clearly stood out. Contrary to what I would have thought, some of the most treasured moments were not the moments when huge goals were accomplished, but how I felt about the little things that were done in the most ordinary way. These are the memories I have carried forever - a kind word, a kind gesture, the one person who went out of their way to make me feel included, the one person who showed genuine concern about my challenges, the one person who made me feel special.

I'd like to share one such experience. My first job was at the UC, Berkeley, as a Programmer & Statistician. I was 23 years old and reporting to a distinguished medical doctor who was the Head of the Department of Maternal and Child Health, School of Public Health.

On the first day of work, the department assistant helped me complete all formalities and took me to my office. There was a workstation in one corner. The room was stacked with cartons of photocopier papers. She was apologetic about the cartons that cramped the room and promised to get it moved when she had help.

When Dr. Gould, the Program Director, came to meet me he looked at the cartons, rolled up his sleeves, brought a trolley, and personally moved each carton out of the room. He said, it was important I worked in a nice office. I was amazed and awestruck to see him take time out of his busy schedule and do this for a newcomer.

Over the next few weeks, when we met for project reviews, he also took time to ask about my family, about India, and about my interests. On my birthday, he gave me a book on places to see in California as he knew I would shortly be relocating back to India. Dr. Gould led us to a groundbreaking piece of research. He was extremely proud of what we were able to accomplish and added us as co-authors in the research paper.

It's been 35 years since my first job and Jeff and I are still in touch. Thinking back about Jeff… what do I remember?

That he was a leader with a heart; That he was humble despite his qualifications and status in one of the best Universities in the world; That he cared enough to make me feel comfortable; That he treated me respectfully; That he treated me as an expert and never micro managed… in return I ensured I lived up to his expectations and delivered results.

It is the personal investment that he made in me that made me go the extra mile and prompted me to give my best to his project.

Reflecting back on our experiences, it's mostly about the little things, isn't it? Eventually those are the ones that build our memories; those are the ones that matter.

When we listen without interrupting, when we value time and effort, when we show kindness and compassion, when we are inclusive, and when we take care of people, we show respect. And, therefore, amongst the many values, respect along with integrity and trust are most prized.

In many organizations, violations of integrity are in the zero tolerance zone. Treating people with dignity and respect is soon becoming a prerequisite for leadership positions. The negative impact of disrespectful behavior is well known. Disengaged employees, low team morale, low productivity are a few.

When we display good leadership behavior, it may not be noticed. Because, it is expected of us. When we display poor leadership - the one time we raised our voice, the one time we showed our arrogance, the one time we did not value someone's opinion, it surely gets noticed. People become uncomfortable... they feel psychologically unsafe..

Good Leadership, especially Leading with Respect, is like the air we breathe. We don't notice it ordinarily. But, as soon as there is a lack of it, we notice it. We are unable to breathe.

Psychological safety is needed for high performing teams. Let's build a culture of respect in our work and home environments. Let's raise the awareness. Let's start today. Let's create a world of good.

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