Dignity in my organization

Dignity in my organization

Dignity is/isn’t a problem for my organization. Why should we bother talking about it?

Talking about dignity, particularly in a group of people who have had mixed experiences, may seem either dangerous or pointless. Is there any reason to invite people to share stories about their loss of dignity? Conversely, what if no one has really felt their dignity was denied? Is there any point in having dignity-related conversations among people who feel largely respected in their everyday life?

To learn more about what happens if we encourage or omit cues to talk about dignity, we assigned about 450 people to write either about their prior day, an experience where they felt they were not treated with dignity, or an experience where they were treated with dignity.

We then showed them one of three sets of cartoons that have been used in prior research to understand the way that peoples’ minds were working.

The first group saw a cartoon related to what’s called “Theory of Mind” – the extent to which we’re able to predict what other people are thinking. People saw the first three panels:

And then selected a concluding panel that reflected what they thought the main character should do next:


People assigned to the second cartoon saw three-frame strip related to empathy – and were asked what the person in the last frame should do to make the other character feel better.


And in a third group, people saw three frames that set up the beginning of a causal story about a sandcastle on the beach. They were then asked to choose the frame that showed what would happen next.


Not surprisingly, our neurotypical adult participants were able to choose the right cartoons. But we also knew the amount of time it took them to choose that cartoon. Past research suggests that when something is more cognitively accessible – easier to activate – we tend to do it faster. Therefore, we could use this data to learn about how thinking about dignity changed peoples’ access to certain cognitive processes and mechanisms.

To account for peoples’ general processing speed, we controlled for the amount of time they had spent writing their story about dignity. As you might expect, in all three cartoons, people who wrote for longer amounts of time also spent longer choosing their third frame – these people may have simply been more likely to take their time when making decisions, in general.

But beyond that effect, thinking about dignity or not didn’t seem to affect the speed with which people could apply their theory of mind or make causal inferences – everyone got the umbrella-opening-the-door intention and the wave washing away the sandcastle equally quickly. Talking about dignity may not turn people into faster mind-readers or explainers.

But we did see that people who had wrote about dignity – whether it was affirmed or denied – were significantly quicker to identify the empathetic action than those who hadn’t written about dignity.  The differences between the non-dignity-discussers and dignity-discussers were the same, no matter how inherently fast or slow people were in processing other information.

The good news is that these findings suggest that either way – people will be in the right frame of mind to listen when they’ve talked about dignity. Empathy is more accessible when dignity is part of the discussion. That heightened accessibility can help us to hear one another in ways that facilitates connections.

By contrast, if you don’t talk about dignity, you keep empathy at a longer arm’s length than you need to.

Our next step on this product is to see if those differences in the accessibility of empathy lead to better understanding between people, more forgiveness, or better teamwork. We’ll keep you posted as we learn more. And if you’re interested in joining the exploration, let us know!

By Professor Cait Lamberton, Dr. Neela Saldanha & Sakshi Ghai.