Feeding the Hunger for Dignity

November 17, 2020
  • Bob Chapman
  • Bob Chapman
    CEO & Chairman of Barry-Wehmiller

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit – causing massive unemployment and a still uncertain forecast of what a recovery will look like – everything seemed to be trending upward for people in the U.S.

After all, we were experiencing record prosperity, low unemployment and relative peace in the world! By all accounts, life was good. Therefore, people should have been happy!

Yet, most of America’s 100 million full-time employees, according to these Gallup facts, were not:

"The American workforce has more than 100 million full-time employees. One-third of those employees are what Gallup calls engaged at work. They love their jobs and make their organization and America better every day. At the other end, 16% of employees are actively disengaged — they are miserable in the workplace and destroy what the most engaged employees build. The remaining 51% of employees are not engaged — they’re just there.

Only about one in five say their performance is managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work. Employees feel rather indifferent about their job and the work they are being asked to do. Organizations are not giving them compelling reasons to stay, so it should come as no surprise that most employees (91%) say the last time they changed jobs, they left their company to do so."

Those stats certainly don’t paint a picture of a satisfied workforce. And, after all the events of 2020, do we have any reason to believe that people are any happier now and not riddled with anxiety about their job and their future?

These numbers from Gallup point to the leadership crisis I’ve been talking about for some time. There’s a reason why people aren’t happy despite peace and prosperity. Within our organizations, people need something more than what they're finding. Something deeper.


This was recently made clear to me in a column by Thomas Friedman, where he wrote:

"The poverty of dignity explains so much more behavior than the poverty of money. People will absorb hardship, hunger and pain. They will be grateful for jobs, cars and benefits. But if you make people feel humiliated, they will respond with a ferocity unlike any other emotion, or just refuse to lift a finger for you… By contrast, if you show people respect, if you affirm their dignity, it is amazing what they will let you say to them or ask of them.

Many business leaders think that people should be grateful and happy simply because they have a job. Maybe they even have a well-paying job with good benefits. But just having a job and getting perks isn’t everything."

Every one of us, no matter what our job or where we live, simply want to know that who we are and what we do matters. As leaders in business, we have the awesome responsibility to let people know that they do. We have a responsibility to recognize the inherent dignity in our people and honor that, not break it.

When so many people go home each night not feeling valued, it is no surprise that we see so much conflict in families, our communities and in the world today. We have protests and unrest in cities because people do not feel listened to and feel their dignity is continually under assault.

 When I’m nicer to my wife, she talks to me.

I often tell a story about Steve Barlament, one of our team members at PCMC in Green Bay, WI. On the suggestion of one of the leaders, I invited a group of our team members into a meeting to give a report about a project that led to significant performance improvements.

It was all the usual metrics, but when they were finished, I asked Steve, whom I’d never met before, a simple question that just popped into my head: “Steve, how did it affect your life?”

This group wasn’t prepared to walk in and speak in front of all our presidents, but without missing a beat, Steve said: “My wife now talks to me more.”

It was unrehearsed, it was spontaneous, and it was the truth. He said:

"Do you know what it’s like, Bob, to work in a place where you show up every morning, you punch a card, you go to your station, you’re told what to do, you’re not given the tools you need to do what you need to do, you get ten things right and nobody says a word, and you get one thing wrong and you get chewed out? You ask questions and it takes a week to get an answer back. They complain about your salary or your benefits. Do you know what it feels like to go home at night to your family? You feel pretty empty.

I realize now, in hindsight, that when I wasn’t feeling good about myself, I wasn’t that nice a person to be around. That was basically every day. But since we began this program, I’ve been part of making things better. People ask me what I think; they listen to me, and I actually have a chance to impact things, including my own job. The way we set up the new assembly flow really works, and I can go home feeling that I’ve done a good day’s work, not wasted the day chasing parts or feeling resentful. When I feel respected and know I’ve done a good day’s work, I feel pretty good about myself, and I find when I feel better about myself, I’m nicer to my wife, and you know what’s amazing? When I’m nicer to my wife, she talks to me."

Steve felt humiliated on a regular basis, so much so that he lost confidence in himself. He lost his sense of dignity and took that emptiness home each night.

The way we treat people at work affects the way they feel about themselves and, in turn, how they treat the people in their life.

I recently spoke with Donna Hicks, author, conflict resolution specialist and Harvard professor. I have been reading her book, Leading With Dignity, where she says this:

"Leading with dignity demands that we pay close attention to the effects we have on others. Without such knowledge, relationship problems that plague the workplace will continue. Understanding the powerful forces that are unleashed with a violation of dignity (anger, resentment, and the desire for revenge) as well as when dignity is honored (love, loyalty, and the desire to give of oneself freely) will make it easier for leaders to do what is right. When such consciousness is part of a leader’s repertoire, not only do people thrive, but the organization thrives right along with them."

I’ve come to realize that what we are trying to do at Barry-Wehmiller is foster a dignity-honoring culture, which is what our workplaces should do, rather than perpetuating ones in which dignity is harmed. And recognizing and upholding the dignity of our people is deeper that just giving them respect.

 Everyone is someone’s precious child

When I attended a wedding many years ago and had the life-changing revelation that everyone is someone’s precious child, it made me realize that leaders are bestowed with an awesome responsibility: To provide the care and inspiration and support that that precious human being needs to become everything he or she was meant to be.

As Donna Hicks said in a Forbes interview:

"Dignity is something we are born with -- it is our inherent value and worth. We have little trouble seeing it when a child is born; there is no question about whether they are something of value. In fact, we would say that children are invaluable, priceless and irreplaceable.
How do we treat something that is invaluable, priceless and irreplaceable? We give it our utmost care and attention. Even though we are all born worthy of this care and attention, we are born vulnerable to having our dignity violated. Treating others with dignity, then, becomes the baseline of our interactions. You don’t have to do anything to deserve dignity.

We in business are exacerbating this poverty of dignity in the world because we see people as objects for our success. But, for 40 hours or more a week, we have the opportunity to change the world with our leadership."

With Steve Barlament, it all started with simple listening, which was a release valve of pent up frustration and the simplest way we can begin to start honoring the dignity of others. As Thomas Friedman wrote:

"Sometimes it just takes listening to them, but deep listening — not just waiting for them to stop talking. Because listening is the ultimate sign of respect. What you say when you listen speaks more than any words.

Once Steve was listened to and his expertise was utilized, he felt valued. He felt like he was making a difference. He felt like he was worth something. And when his advice was utilized, things in his workday got better. He wasn’t frustrated. He went home fulfilled and happy. He treated his family differently. This is how we can start to heal our brokenness by ending the hunger for dignity and sending people home as better spouses, parents, children, friends, and neighbors."

It reminds me of a quote by the late Harvard Business School Professor, Clay Christensen:

"The causality of happiness is focusing your energy on helping other people be better people rather than focusing on ourselves. If what you’re trying to do in managing your company is make better people, the products that you make and the profitability you create is a byproduct of making other people better. Then it can create a business organization that’s not like anything that we have seen before.

Isn’t this the kind of company you would want your precious child to work for? Isn’t this the kind of company you would like to work for? Wouldn’t this create true happiness and engagement in the workforce?"

This is how business can be a powerful force for good, by caring enough about their people that they restore, honor and protect the sense of dignity that is a basic human need.

Leaders, it’s time to start feeding the hungry instead of starving them when they are within our span of care.

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