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August 2, 2021

Wisdom: What It Is and Why We Need It

“Knowing a tomato is a fruit is knowledge. Knowing not to put it in a fruit salad is wisdom.”

You’ve probably heard this quip before. Conversations around wisdom are nothing new. However, in our area of expertise, wisdom is often highlighted as an attribute of mature workers which can be used to the advantage of organizations. Certainly, there are several practical reasons why the knowledge, skills, and experience of 50-plus employees should be harnessed. However, this article will take a more philosophical and academic approach to the topic of wisdom. This too, has applications for managers and business owners.

Why Wisdom is So Important

British philosopher Bertrand Russell in his 1954 essay “Knowledge and Wisdom” put forward the view that “with every increase of knowledge and skill, wisdom becomes more necessary.” However, he argued that while knowledge had increased, wisdom hadn’t followed suit. Russell posited that wisdom is the result of several factors, including the ability to consider all the important aspects surrounding an issue and assign the required weight to each.

Russell argued that wisdom can and should be taught as a way to create good citizens of the world. Without wisdom, he argued that the pursuit of knowledge could even be harmful. As an example, he noted that while modern advances in medicine could reduce the infant death rate, they could also render existing food supplies inadequate and lower the standard of living in the most populated parts of the world.

How Wisdom Affects One’s Life

Almost six decades after Russell published his essay, a professor in Concordia’s Department of Psychology said the world needs more wisdom. Dolores Pushkar, who is also a member of the Centre for Research in Human Development, pointed out that wisdom is something that benefits both self and society.

In 2011, Pushkar co-authored a study entitled “What Philosophers Say Compared with What Psychologists Find in Discerning Values: How Wise People Interpret Life.” The research team included Andrew Burr, Sarah Etezadi and Tracy Lyster of the Concordia Department of Psychology, along with Sheila Mason of the Department of Philosophy.

They analyzed data from numerous Concordia research papers as well as global studies to assess the impact of wisdom on individuals’ lives. According to Etezadi, who is a Ph.D. student, they found that wisdom helps to determine not just how people handle situations but how satisfied they are with life.

Characteristics of Wisdom

For this group of researchers, wisdom is characterized by:

  • Knowledge
  • Empathy
  • An in-depth understanding of human nature
  • An ability to see issues from other people’s perspectives
  • Contentment with life
  • An ability to see positives in a negative situation

Pushkar adds that while wise people often have common sense, they’re smarter because they follow their own advice.

Barriers to Wisdom

The Concordia researchers found that genocide, child abuse, and other circumstances that lead to high levels of stress prevent people from becoming wise. Pushkar said the greater the magnitude of the stress, the less likely it is that people will develop wisdom from their experiences. This view is based on studies carried out after wars and other major tragedies.

Etezadi and Pushkar also stated that people who are optimistic throughout their lives tend to be wiser than those who are pessimistic. People who are wise tend to be happier, while those who are bitter can’t be considered wise because they haven’t learned from their experiences, they said.

What doesn’t affect wisdom, according to Etezadi and Pushkar, are gender and age. Etezadi points out the stereotypical wise old man only came about because of women’s lack of access to education for centuries. Meanwhile, Pushkar notes that some people develop wisdom sooner than others.

What All This Means for Organizations

Wisdom, as defined by both Russell and the Concordia team, would be an asset to any organization. Despite the view that people of any age can be wise, mature people who have spent decades in the workforce often have a depth of knowledge that younger people don’t. Not only do they know the technical aspects of their jobs, but they have a greater level of empathy and other soft skills.

Still, there’s value in Russell’s belief that wisdom can be taught. Entrepreneur and advisor to Fortune 500 companies Glenn Llopis believes that leaders have a responsibility to help others discover their own wisdom. To cultivate wisdom in the workplace, he recommends that leaders:

  • See vulnerability as a strength
  • Promote reciprocity in the leader-employee relationship
  • Teach employees to overcome fear by taking risks
  • Push themselves beyond their limits
  • Prioritize respect over recognition

Reap the Benefits of Wisdom in Your Workplace with Help from WiseForce Advisors

If you want to learn how to leverage the wisdom of 50-plus employees in your organization, we can help. We offer a range of assessments and interventions that can transform your workforce. Book a consultation by contacting us at info@wiseforceadvisors.com.