I was invited to speak to another company's gathering of UX managers a couple weeks back. We talked about the practice of UX management, some of which I have touched upon here like the Qualities & Traits I believe are important for anyone practicing UX, my latest ideas on how to manage based on individual motivations, and a framework for management that I practice. I hope to share my thoughts on the latter two in the near future.
I took the opportunity to talk about dignity as it relates to management. It's something that I haven't spent a lot of time talking about before but have been thinking about for years; it seemed to resonate with the folks in the room.
A good working definition of dignity is "the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect." Dignity is an important but uncommon subject of discussion when it comes to management, regardless of industry or discipline; it is often ignored or taken for granted at work. I've committed many of these transgressions, and it pains me to remember.
When reviewing a job applicant's résumé or portfolio, they may not be in the room, but it's there. Don't belittle them or their work, especially if there are others in the room. If you don't think they're qualified, there's no need to trash their reputation. Take the necessary notes and move on.
Many managers might say that the most difficult thing to do as a manager is letting someone go. It is an inherently undignified position for the person losing their job. How can you keep that experience from being worse than it already is? It may be by saving them the embarrassment of walking out with a box of their stuff with everyone staring at them. It could be by giving them the respect of telling them directly rather than delegating it to Human Resources to deliver the bad news. I haven't always done a good job of this.
Aside from letting someone go, one of the most difficult things I've had to do as a manager is to talk to someone about their body odor and hygiene. Yes, I've had to do this. It's as awkward as it sounds.
This person had no performance issues and was generally liked by their teammates, but body odor had become a chronic problem, especially for those who sat nearby. I had obviously noticed it as well, but when I saw how others were behaving and heard what they were saying under their breaths, I had to do something. This wasn't something that they trained you for, but foremost in my mind was managing this person's dignity.
It took me a week to gather my courage and lay out my plan. I knew what time they ended their workday, so I waited for when they were leaving the office on a Friday afternoon. As they gathered their things to leave, I walked by and said "hey, do you have a minute? I'll walk with you." I didn't want it to sound scary or ominous for them nor something serious to anyone within earshot. I suggested finding a room to chat as we walked. I found a room away from the team. Once there, I made sure to close the door and had them sit facing away from it so that they wouldn't fixate on who could be looking in or overhearing us.
I didn't beat around the bush. "I wanted to talk to you about something that's going to be uncomfortable for both of us, but I felt like you needed to hear. There's an issue with your body odor. Maybe you're not aware of it, but I thought you should know so that you could take care of it."
Awkward silence. I asked if they had any questions or comments, but aside from thanking me for letting them know, we kept it short. I didn't make a big deal of it when we walked out of the room, and I wished them a good weekend. Come Monday, the problem had been taken care of. We never spoke of it again nor did I tell anyone that I had said anything, except maybe to my manager some time later. I had hoped to address the problem in a way that allowed them to preserve their dignity. I often wonder if I succeeded.
I think the subject of dignity is a very important one, especially in today's environment. If you're a manager or someone in a position of seniority, be aware of the imbalance of power. People in superior positions have an incredible amount of influence over the dignity of those who are subordinate. The wrong word could ruin someone's day or week. The right one could have them bursting with pride.
I believe that leaders must learn to manage dignity. It's almost as important as trust. Trust takes time to build, but it's easy to destroy. Dignity, on the other hand, is both easy to give and easy to take away. But by giving people dignity and behaving in a way that you can be proud of, you become more trustworthy and worthy of respect. It's a strong foundation to build on top of.