Empathy in an Era of Ageism

The sad news arrived on February 6, 1952. The BBC interrupted its regular radio programming to announce that George VI succumbed to lung cancer in his sleep. Upon hearing the news, a twenty-five-year-old princess on tour in Kenya stiffened in her chair as successive tears rolled down her cheeks. The King is dead. Long live the Queen.

Today we said goodbye to George VI’s heir, Queen Elizabeth II, a pillar of longevity who served as monarch of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland for over seventy years. For most of us, Elizabeth II has always been the Queen. Journalists, artists, and commentators have opined about Elizabeth II’s life and legacy, exploring topics ranging from her rapport with sixteen prime ministers to her management of numerous scandals within the royal family. One subject that will not receive the airtime it deserves is the durability of Elizabeth’s leadership. Well into her tenth decade of life, the Queen capably inspired her nation to live resiliently and prosper. Some British pundits wonder if the royal family – and the nation for that matter – will wobble forward now that Elizabeth no longer guides the ship with an empathetic touch. While I am not much of a monarchist, I have always admired Queen Elizabeth II’s steely resolve and willingness to change with the times. She was the ultimate “older worker.”

Naming Ageism in the Workplace

Too often, businesses and organizations dismiss the value of older workers by trading in stereotypes that do not pass the proverbial smell test. Patty Temple Rocks of Forbes Communications Council notes that many of the most destructive stereotypes depict older workers as “technologically incompetent, stubborn and dead set against any professional development.” [1] Rock goes on to say that stereotypes that prop up ageism are just lazy. In my observation, I can note that ageism is alive and well.

What does this mean for those of us in leadership? For starters, we must accept that ageism exists in our organizations – on both ends of the age spectrum, sadly. Everyone reading this piece has some unconscious bias shaping perceptions of younger and older workers, workers with disabilities, etc. If you lead, take the time to explore your biases using tools that tease out the blind spots. Harvard’s Implicit Association Test (IAT) is an excellent place to begin.[2] After coming to grips with your own biases, help your team members get a handle on theirs. Again, the IAT provides a good starting point. As Rocks contends, once you understand the source of the stereotypes, you can do something about them.[3]

Begin with Empathy

Research shows that leaders who practice and model empathy in the workplace elevate their employees’ sense of well-being. An uptick in well-being cultivates innovation and productivity while honing a competitive edge within the marketplace.[4] Brian Tait of Forbes Coaches Council adds that empathy “will help you understand where each person is coming from and what influences their behavior.”

Empathy implies a deep connection with the other. When leaders take the time to learn about their employees’ stories, skills, and passions, the stereotypes begin to fade away. Further, when employees sense that their managers care for them, they become more likely to seek good counsel when interpersonal problems arise within the team. Empathetic leaders also model empathy for those they lead. If you develop a strong bond with the sixty-something-old the Millennials talk about, your younger charges will recognize that they should do likewise. If you sense that intergenerational bonds thrive in your environment, then empathy must already have a home in your leadership style.

Long Live the Queen

We love the Queen because she demonstrated robust wisdom and empathy in challenging times. Thrust into leadership in her twenties and still ruling into her mid-nineties, Elizabeth II showed that age extremes do not predetermine competence and performance. Indeed, the Queen’s deft command of the monarchy improved with each decade.

Age is just a number, colleagues. Jettison the stereotypes learn now how your older employees improve you and the business.

[1] Extracted from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescommunicationscouncil/2019/08/14/addressing-and-removing-common-stereotypes-about-older-workers/?sh=2cd78e536e4c

[2] Extracted from: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2009/mar/07/implicit-association-test

[3] Extracted from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescommunicationscouncil/2019/08/14/addressing-and-removing-common-stereotypes-about-older-workers/?sh=2cd78e536e4c

[4] Extracted from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2020/02/06/the-importance-of-empathy-in-leadership/?sh=731408432d16

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