Dignity and humiliation in executive coaching

Earlier this year in a virtual meeting, a high-level executive told his employees to “stop moaning” about the pandemic. This led to his eventual resignation after a leaked video of the meeting made headlines.  

In times of pandemic and protest, an increased demand for understanding and fairness in the workplace has caused riffs between executives and staff. With so many livelihoods affected by lockdowns, restrictions, and lost jobs, problematic executive behavior has become less acceptable and more easily exposed through social media. The result for those on top is often a humiliating public step-down.  

While the present seems to heighten such conflicts in the workplace, dealing with humiliation has long been a difficult topic for executive coaches to tackle. For its 12th podcast episode, Campus 10178 spotlights the ESMT Berlin Coaching Colloquia, inviting Professor Konstantin Korotov to discuss the theme of its upcoming installment, dignity, and humiliation.  

Exploring humiliation in the colloquia 

The ESMT Berlin Coaching Colloquia is a training series for executive coaches with learnings that are then incorporated in the MBA and executive education offerings. It functions as a learning tool for participants while complementing business education by personalizing the experience through insights gained from the colloquia.  

“We look at various themes that might be important for coachees and see where coaches stumble upon challenges and how they’re actually resolving those challenges in their work,” said Korotov. By taking a closer look at the more disruptive topics, important questions regarding management, leadership, and organizational behavior may better prepare students for a range of situations. 

According to the colloquia’s track record, humiliation has repeatedly come up as one of the difficulties in coaching work. Reports of either feeling humiliated, concern that one may have humiliated others, or even using humiliation in managerial practice and being afraid of the consequences thereof show the varying scales in which it manifests in the workplace. 

Understanding dignity 

…dignity is positioned as something that we all have the right to. Respect is something that we need to earn…so dignity is something that is the fundamental human right, versus respect – respect from your coworkers to respect from your bosses, respect from your clients – as something that we need to earn. 

Understanding the dichotomy of dignity and respect, separate from the topic of humiliation, may provide the humane element that is sometimes missing in professionality. Overlooking the mechanisms of these qualities, particularly dignity, may result in humiliating experiences during feedback processes or a lack of empathy when it is needed.  

Accountability and embracing error 

Executives as representatives of the company image show how individual behavior may have serious long-term repercussions. Understanding accountability and how to properly handle frustrating situations may grant an executive the foresight to avoid humiliation on a public scale. Coaches can better prepare their clients by teaching them how to identify emotions before acting upon them. 

However, the purpose of coaching should not only be to avoid mistakes, but also to handle the aftermath. Processing the consequences of humiliation, whether public or private, may help in establishing a long-term strategy for better leadership and management in the future, and provide a deeper understanding the core of the issue.  

But again, so just thinking about how we create the environment where we if we make a mistake we know how to use this as an educational opportunity, how to restore relationships, and how to leave an awkward situation without making other people both debased and angry, right? So that’s exactly the challenge that we have. 

Listen to a discussion with Professor Konstantin Korotov via Campus 10178, the ESMT Berlin podcast. 

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