How people treat us is something over which we normally have limited control--we can behave well ourselves, but this behavior only goes so far in influencing others.
On top of this, recent studies have shown that unconscious assumptions shape our thinking and decision-making. Some of you may have even taken tests that aim to surface any biases you may have. The results can compound a sense of helplessness or fatalism, especially if you happen not to be part of the dominant group in your workplace or society.
But there is a complementary reality out there, which I learned about from observing my mentor, Frances Hesselbein, the diminutive former non-profit giant and serial CEO. It is that how we treat ourselves can affect both our own subconscious and that of others.
In 2013, Frances and I were attending the Learning Network retreat in California and found ourselves in the same yoga class. I’d profiled her 22 years earlier for my book, The Female Advantage. Now still at the peak of her influence and in her late nineties, she lay next to me on her mat, tiny legs in the air, beaming joy and a spunky openness that caused me to think,
God, I hope I’m half as cool as her when I’m in my nineties!
Then it dawned on me that should I be lucky enough for this to be the case, I would be mid-career at age 65, with as much of my work life in front of me as behind me. This inspiring thought led me to make Mid-Career at 65 my personal mantra, transforming my conception of my place in the world and gradually but profoundly changing my relationships.
Now, nearly 10 years later, I’m convinced that our own daily practices can not only mitigate problems but actually help reverse the thinking and actions that led to those problems in the first place.
Let me explain.
Prior to my epiphany on the yoga mat with Frances, I was on the cusp of what I assumed would be a winding down of my career as I entered my mid-sixties. It seemed like a given that publishers, speakers’ bureaus and the corporations that hired me would begin to question my relevance and my ability to relate to average readers or younger leaders, those who made up the bulk of my followers and clients and who are often half my age.
In addition, I felt frustrated and embarrassed about not being more technologically savvy. And a bit resentful at having to continually master new software and platforms in order to keep up with my audiences.
A vicious cycle had begun where I was thinking of myself as almost “over the hill.” It was only a question of time before this became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Yet it was clear to me that Frances did not buy into the notion that her value and relevance inevitably declined as the years progressed. In fact, she seemed to assume the opposite.
But how did she manage to convey this belief in a way that assured she would be treated by others as worthy of respect? As someone whose contribution was valued, not despite her age but because of it?
As they say in activist circles, she had become the change she wanted to see in the world.
Always inclusive of others, she had the insight to “include” herself in her own estimation of what was worthwhile. This enabled her to incite respectful behavior in others, which in turn allowed her- and them- to thrive and to rise together.
This is the challenge that many of us face today: how to create an inclusive workplace, one that engenders solidarity and allows the creativity and strength that follow from it to flourish.
This is in fact the topic in my upcoming book, Rising Together, due out in February 2023. I will be investigating how to avoid the triggers that most often harm workplace relationships, and how to put in place inclusive practices that allow us to contribute what is best in ourselves while eliciting the best responses from others.
Frances Hesselbein understood long ago that by paying attention to her every word and action, she could inspire others to do the same. Obviously bias exists-- it’s a proven fact. And its unconscious quality makes it hard to root out. But people like Frances show us by example how to use intentions, practices and daily discipline to great effect. These pioneers have rejected the limited industrial-era paradigm that ties ages rigidly to stages, and genders rigidly to roles.
It’s up to all of us to keep what they started going, to minimize the number of people getting sidelined-- or sidelining ourselves, as I was starting to do-- simply because they are not part of some “sweet spot” or dominant social group.
I look forward to exploring these topics with you in this new, free, weekly newsletter. I hope we can help one another work to build greater workplace solidarity, relationship by relationship, in as many settings as possible, all over the world.