In my capacity as a leadership coach I’ve been working with Hank, an executive in a Fortune 500 company who has been embroiled in a dispute with a particular associate for the past few weeks. The associate, we’ll call him Tom, is somewhat passive and resistant. When he feels like working he’s on top of his game and works harder and longer than any one of his team members. However, when he doesn’t feel like working, he rationalizes and justifies for not fulfilling his agreements. The more he is pushed to fulfill the less he does.

Yesterday, Hank confronted Tom about the lack of progress he was making on a particular report that was long overdue. Such conversations are always frustrating and disappointing to Hank. He has an expectation, as we all do, that people say what they mean and mean what they say. When they don’t, and when Hank has to bring people to task, well, it makes him want to yell criticisms be sarcastic and darn right cruel! He doesn’t want to shame and guilt people with his comments; it just happens!

I spoke with Hank after the confrontation with Tom. “I expect grownups to act like grownups, especially when they have been hired to be responsible in highly significant ways. How am I supposed to talk to adults that act like adolescents? What am I suppose to expect?

Though Hank was angry, he and I had to figure out a way to move forward from here with bad feelings and distance still between Tom and himself. Hank explained: “I’ve been in partnerships with passive and resistant individuals before, and generally I’ve found myself in a stalemate. Ignoring the behavior doesn’t work, nor does attempting to control or manipulate – all of those ways of being that are disrespectful and degrading but seem to be the only way to get some action. I hate this part of my job!”

Then, there was a long pause. Hank was chewing on something in his mind. Then he said “I just heard these words inside my head: Always leave them with their dignity. What’s that suppose to mean?”

Hank began to share that he wasn’t raised with this philosophy; in fact his dad took liberty with his autocratic and dictatorial leadership style. He shamed and humiliated his children and rarely acknowledged them for a job well done. By the time Hank left home to go to college it was hard for him to imagine that he had anything to offer the world. The best he could hope for was to make it through college, get a job and not expect much more. “Fortunately, once I was out of reach of my dad I began to excel and here I am today. I still don’t feel great about myself but I do my work and people respect me. Maybe that’s as good as it gets.”

Choosing how to be a Leader

Regardless of education and training, my experience is that we choose our leadership styles primarily from the experience of being around those who were our leaders; most often our parents, teachers, ministers and coaches. The interpretations we choose based on our experiences have us decide how to be a leader and how to be with a leader.

As Hank considered meeting with Tom this morning, he and I rehearsed the conversation that was about to take place. Even though he and Tom came to an understanding in the confrontation the day before, Hank was resistant to let things be, let the waters be calm and return to his normal, friendly style of leading. There was a part of him that wanted to assert a position of, superiority, of righteousness, perhaps finding opportunities to make a comment or two that would shame Tom and make him feel bad – nothing too obvious, of course; just a little remark to let him know Hank wasn’t going to let him off the hook.

I was curious and questioned Hank’s motives for being less then compassionate. He shared that he sensed that there would be something he’d lose by not making a jab or two. As we talked, he imagined letting go of making these jabs and immediately felt the hurt and agony of being a child shamed and stripped of dignity by his father and his football coach. He was surprised that these emotions were underneath his more aggressive style with Tom. He also felt that the salve for this agony was to shame others, like Tom, just a little bit. “For some reason, this makes me feel more powerful and takes away the sadness. Why is that?”

Dignity is an essential and core quality of our humanity. It gives each of us a sense of being valuable to the world and to oneself, and without it we come to feel disheartened, demoralized and depressed. In Management, it’s not uncommon to unconsciously strip away other people’s dignity through comments that shame, ridicule or embarrass. Like Hank, by stripping away the dignity of others it perhaps salves the wounds of our own loss of dignity, if only for the moment.

As Hank was finding out for himself, if he truly wanted to be an empowering leader he needed to be willing to reveal to himself his own wounds. He would also come to see the choice-making process that occurred because of the woundings that suffered as a child. Hank remarked “I need to do this so as to choose differently. I want to practice being a leader in a way that empowers people and perhaps even add to their dignity. That feels really hard to do right now – eliminating the desire to pinch away people’s dignity. Man! I didn’t realize how things like this get passed on so unconsciously.”

Fifty Ways to Shame the Other

In a transformational course of training I facilitate, leaders are given opportunities to cultivate awareness of who they be and how they be in the role of leader. Through this process each leader comes to realize that too often their leadership style is based on some form of engagement that is disempowering as opposed to empowering. They realize that by letting go of a shame-based model of leadership their employees’ morale begins to rise; communication begins to open, which results in a more collaborative and effective environment.

Every day, there are hundreds of opportunities to empower and disempower others. Whether with our employees, partners, friends or children, every gesture or word is delivered with the intention to give or take away dignity. Think about it!

We are all capable of being disempowering and we are all capable of being empowering. I encourage you to notice how you choose to choose to be empowering or disempowering. Explore for yourself what it is like for you to be the recipient of leadership styles that feel disempowering to you; Explore with a coach or thinking partner what would support you in shifting so as to always leave your employees with their dignity.