ASK ALICE — Advice for All
Changing the Group Dynamic to Respect the Views of All Ages
I work for a consulting firm that employs a wide range of employees of different backgrounds and ages. I have a supervisory position, which is causing me stress. There is one person on my team who is much older than the other members. He has been with the organization for decades. There have been some difficult moments in our meetings where I have observed some team members rolling their eyes when he offers his opinion. Others are quick to dismiss or unfairly challenge his ideas. He is not being given the respect I believe he deserves. I suspect that their reaction is due to his age. He isn’t as quick verbally as are the others, but his contributions are meaningful to our team.
I don’t like confrontation but doing nothing feels wrong. Do you have any suggestions as to how to handle this?
This employee seems to be the victim of ageism. Since you, the team leader, recognize his positive contribution to the team, you have a responsibility to change the group dynamic. By doing nothing you are giving people permission to act out their prejudices. What you are describing is bullying, and you will enable it if you do nothing.
There is an opportunity here to teach your team an important lesson in civility as well as instruct them in the dangers in their prejudice. Given the behavior you are observing, addressing this in a group session could be humiliating to each group member. Ask to meet with each one individually, showing your respect for everyone in the group. Explain that you want to strengthen the group’s cohesiveness and learn what each group member’s experience in the group has been, what they are looking to achieve in the group, what their concerns are, and what could improve. Point out that your main goal for these meetings is to make the work of the group most effective as possible.
In your individual meetings, assure them that you will respect their thoughts. Listen carefully and openly. You might learn something you did not expect. Once you have given each person a chance to express him or herself, state what you have observed that concerns you without saying who is most responsible for the bad behavior. Use the word “ageism” so that each one recognizes what you see happening in the group. You may have to do some teaching about our society’s dismissal of people who are different from us. Point out that older people are often dismissive of younger ones as well because of their lack of experience, thus showing how common a problem disregarding others can be. Ask each if he recognizes the older person’s strengths. You might have to help them with their observations, naming the strengths that you recognize.
By being receptive and respectful, you will be modeling the behavior you want in the team meetings. Instead of blaming or criticizing, you will be exploring and teaching. Clarify that you will be aware of this problem and do everything to correct it going forward.
In your meeting with the older employee, go over the same ideas that you did with the others. Find out what his experience in the group has been, listening carefully as well. If he speaks of being disregarded, he has given you an opening. If not, you need to mention it, which ultimately will be a relief to him. Let him know that you are in the process of improving the group dynamics and that you will take leadership to make sure this happens.
If you observe any of the behaviors that concern you when the group reconvenes, stop the interaction and remind them of the goals you addressed with them in your meetings. You won’t have to speak to anyone directly, just make reference to the civility that is the foundation of the group. Be strong and clear, and you will shape the group into one you know is fair to everyone.