Over lunch, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah bin Mubarak Al Sabah of Kuwait shared his view of the problematic spring in the Arab world. He was quick to point out that the issue was not driven by political interference, autocratic rule, or even unemployment, as most commentators conclude. His strong hypothesis is that the uprisings were caused largely by dignity, or, rather, a lack of dignity. The underlying cause for Mohammed Bouazizi of Tunisia setting himself on fire, to Tahrir Square, Bahrain, and even Syria, was a cry to be recognised – and, in other words, a demand to be treated with dignity.
Echoing this insight, a Syrian caller to Al Jazeera news station said: “We don’t want 1,500 Lira, we want 1,500 units of dignity.” Dignity is the innate right to be treated respectfully.
Discussing Sheikh Mohammed’s premise led me to think about what dignity means in the workplace. If dignity is such a fiery issue among the jobless, is it also a hot issue for the gainfully employed? Well, it is. Employees want to be recognised and treated with respect.
While governments and the private sector are working to create jobs, the issue of dignity needs to be a top priority action item as these young people may release years of pent-up frustration into the workplace.
So, what can employers do to build dignity?
Leaders need to build respectful relationships with their employees – all of them and among the different groups. As hard as this is in a hierarchical environment, the need exists to break down the idea of ‘us and them’ or ‘suits and troops’. Treating people with respect on a daily basis is one of the most helpful actions a leader can take to offset tension in the workplace. Respect is an action. Leaders must show respect, they need to act respectfully, and they should speak with respect.
How can leaders make respect a forefront topic? By taking an interest in others – this is more than making statements like, “everyone is important from the tea boy to our senior leaders”.Taking an interest means taking the time to listen to what others have to say and recognising that their insights count. Additionally, you build respect by allowing your employees to choose their own actions.
Dignity is a state in which all employees have equal opportunity to succeed, but this is only actualised through hard work and performance. The trio of cronyism, wasta (who you know) and passport hierarchy is the unfortunate elephant in the room standing in the way of equal opportunities. These practices must be set aside to clear the way for equal opportunities and, therefore, dignity.
Finally, you build dignity by understanding that the face of dignity has a regional look. The perception of dignity is influenced by culture and family, peer and social relationships and, in this region, it is about honour and shame. The secret isn’t to act rightly or wrongly; honour stems from gaining respect for being the kind of person who does things according to group values.
Leaders need to be cautious and not assume that this issue is far from home because they are not located in one of the countries named above. While it is true that some parts of the GCC are not experiencing direct impact from the uprisings, with the migration of the workforce across geographical borders, soon those embedded feelings may show up and explode.