Observers believe that those who don’t act to stop bullying and discrimination support that behavior. From the point of view of the victim, particularly, inaction is interpreted as agreement. Otherwise, any decent person would intervene, they say.

Do bullies also  believe that passivity on the part of observers denotes acceptance or approval of their behavior?  That is exactly what we’ve found over and over in industries (e.g., oil, chemicals, manufacturing, +) where women were entering “non-traditional” jobs and received intense bullying, hazing and disrespect from a few men. The other, observing but not interceding, men were often horrified to learn that they were tarred with the same brush– that the women believed that they were fully in support of the ugly behavior. Once that conversation was opened up, the rules of engagement rapidly changed. The observers now stood to be personally blamed for what they allowed to go down.

Organizations can foster a culture that resists bullying, but that requires top leadership to show the way – treating each other with real dignity and respect, consistently demonstrating respect for subordinates, and holding everyone accountable to do the same. Laissez-faire is a lousy way to lead and manage, yet it almost seems the norm when it comes to disrespectful behavior.

Donna Hicks, at the Harvard Leadership Institute, has laid out ten “Essential Elements of Dignity”, based on her research, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in conflict zones around the world. They identify what she calls “triggers to connection” that, when violated, become triggers to disconnection – behaviors that devalue and disrespect, and potentially create an environment where bullying can occur. Environments where these elements are positively present are also apt to be inclusive of a wide range of diversity, thus less likely to foster discrimination as well.

Working with this kind of cultural focus is attractive to me because it has the potential to improve the environment on several levels at once. Of course, easier said than done. Still, introducing this language / this conversation generates conversation about experiences we don’t want to repeat and moments of being honored or respected that are uplifting years and decades later. We’ve found that helping people connect to this topic through their own poignant personal experiences of dignity (or disrespect), really helps them feel the impact of uplifting (or degrading) acts in the workplace. From that touchpoint, they can talk about how things could be better around here, and what they could personally do to improve the daily culture.

Essential Elements of Dignity
(What we extend to others and would like in return)

  1. Honoring Identity—to be respectful of others’ identity (e.g. race, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation, etc.) so that they feel free to express their authentic self without fear of being negatively judged, and that they feel seen and valued for who they are without prejudice or bias.
  2. Recognition and Acknowledgment—for whom they are, what they have experienced, and that as a human being, they matter.
  3. Inclusion—they feel a sense of belonging—at all levels (family, nation, community, organization) of relationship; they are included in the decision-making that affects their lives.
  4. Safety—they feel safe and secure both physically and psychologically.
  5. Fairness-they feel they are treated justly, with equality, and in an evenhanded way according to agreed upon laws and rules.
  6. Autonomy—they feel free to act on their own behalf, free from domination and in control of their lives. They feel hopeful about their lives and their future.
  7. Understanding—they feel they have been given the chance to explain themselves and their perspective—they feel understood.
  8. The Benefit of the Doubt—they feel that they have been trusted with good intentions.
  9. Responsiveness—they feel listened to and heard—not treated as invisible. They feel their concerns have been responded to.
  10. Righting the Wrong—they feel you have taken responsibility for the hurt you caused if you have violated their dignity.

If you’d like to delve further, here is the book by Donna Hicks and Archbishop Tutu:

Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays in Resolving Conflicts