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Völlig falsch verstanden

19 September 2023


“Why didn’t you say what you really thought earlier in the meeting?” I ask the Head of Sales in private, after a conference with Product Management, Marketing and R&D to discuss the disastrous sales figures in the U.S. “I just didn’t want the guys from product management to look stupid and for us to get into a fight,” he replies.

After a self-critical analysis, the sales manager had a clear idea of why sales in the USA had not developed in the same positive way as in the other regions. However, he did not want to say this because he felt that he would be stepping on his colleague’s toes and offending against his personal dignity. Especially as this particular colleague, who is responsible for product management, has already been with the company for 23 years and is therefore not only considerably older than the sales manager, but has also accumulated more kudos in the company than he himself has. In his eyes, such behavior would have been disrespectful.

This is a situation that happens every day. We don’t say what we think, because of a misconception of what constitutes respectful behavior, or because we don’t really have a proper understanding of personal dignity and prefer to avoid confrontation. In failing to do so, we basically ensure that we and our team or indeed the entire organization fall short of what could actually be achieved.


This is certainly the case if the criticism stems from a desire to gain knowledge and not from malice or a feeling of inferiority. This is why teams often remain stuck in a slew of mediocrity. They don’t want to hurt each other’s feelings; they want to behave respectfully and not undermine the personal dignity of others.

Criticism that is aimed at gaining knowledge, solving problems or improving performance and quality is inevitably going to create feelings of shame and guilt. These feelings, which well up in every individual who is subjected to substantial criticism, must be overcome. We must learn to take something positive from the criticism, to understand the point that has been made and to resist the inevitable, all too human urge to justify ourselves or look for blame in others.

That’s certainly not easy, but high-performance teams prove time and again that it can indeed be done. And when this type of interaction becomes a habit, it can even be fun, as the team members can increasingly see how much better they are than their competitors. However, this only becomes possible if the team members don’t shy away from confrontation, because this is in the best interests of all, because you are all wrangling to identify the best solutions and because you don’t hold back from saying what you really think.

Unfortunately, the majority of management teams do not follow this pattern, but prefer the familiar warmth of the nest, where things are nice and cozy. The price they pay for this is having to settle for merely average performance. The reason for this – as with our sales manager quoted above – is often a misconception of what actually constitutes respect and dignity. It stems from the mistaken belief that you are somehow violating a colleague’s personal dignity by arousing feelings of shame or guilt in that individual. As already mentioned, any criticism worthy of the name is going to bring feelings of that kind with it.

But beware: instead of being loyal to the team and the company as they see it and instead of offering constructive criticism, many managers who think they are being oh so dignified and respectful and prefer to keep their mouths shut are actually behaving in a rather cowardly and undignified manner.

A total misconception

Image: AdobeStock Valery

They are cowards because they do not have the courage to say, for example, that the design of the product mix does not work for such and such reasons, as this could offend the Head of Product Management. It is easy to make this sort of remark to subordinates. But to colleagues or even superiors? It is precisely at the interfaces of our organizations that great potential lies dormant. However, we fail to leverage this potential because we are too cowardly to speak our minds.

We are reluctant to face the consequences of someone feeling offended, despite it being for the common good, and to use all our communicative skills to achieve something for the team as a whole with this criticism. Yes, it’s always uncomfortable when we step outside our comfort zone. But it’s the opportunities lying outside this zone that move us and our organizations forward. Criticism aimed at gaining knowledge never violates a person’s dignity – it merely creates feelings of shame or guilt that the individual just has to live with.

Instead of conducting themselves in a performance-oriented and worthy manner, managers prefer to act in a completely different undignified way without being aware of it. It helps to look at how Immanuel Kant defined dignity a good 200 years ago:

“Human dignity is violated when a person uses another individual merely as a means to his own ends.”

According to Kant’s definition, managers regularly violate the dignity of colleagues or employees because they see them only as the resources required to achieve their goals – increased sales, the necessary innovations or whatever the objective may be. For this type of manager, employees are nothing more than markers on an organizational chart that are pushed around to where they are needed and removed from the game when they are no longer required – and who are sometimes sacrificed because a signal needs to be sent to others when things are not going so well. Managing only the function and not the person is undignified.

It is not rational management; it is simply undignified behavior.

The decisive factor is the attitude underpinning the behavior: am I only interested in achieving goals and do I use people for this and only for this? Then, according to Kant’s definition, my managerial style is lacking in human dignity. However, if the individual is a means to an end not just for my own purposes, but also because I am interested in how he is doing and what may be bothering him, because I have understanding for him and want to help him to develop further, this is what I call management with dignity. In certain cases, it might even mean recommending a transfer to another department where that person’s talents might be better employed than with me. A focus on results, consistency and dignity are not mutually exclusive.

On the contrary!

I would like to illustrate the above with an example from the private sphere. Let’s say a “friend” visits us in Hamburg because he wants to see the city again. He enjoys spending the night with us and having dinner with us, but he basically doesn’t care about us on a personal level, which you can tell by the fact that he doesn’t show any real interest in us. He considers it much more important to tick off everything on his own program instead of showing an interest in others and adapting to their needs. This definitely counts as undignified behavior. My dignity is being violated because I am being used exclusively – and this exclusivity is what matters – for someone else’s purposes.

So let us always manage other people with dignity, exercising criticism where necessary but doing so with consistency!

Matthias Kolbusa


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