5 ways to overcome isolation in a leadership role

Close up of businessmen shaking hands in conference room

Being “lonely at the top” isolates leaders and can be toxic for the work environment, says Sharad Verma.

Close up of businessmen shaking hands in conference roomThe saying “it is lonely at the top” is often true and falling victim to it can adversely impact careers. Positions of power and responsibility can isolate leaders from others and limit effectiveness. In this article we will look at how being in a leadership position can cause loneliness and increased stress levels and specific ways leaders can overcome isolation. Increased self-awareness and an inclusive leadership style are worth it for the leader as they not only improve effectiveness but also create a healthy and constructive work environment that increases happiness levels & productivity in their teams.

Reasons for loneliness and isolation in a leadership position 

Lack of trust: Many leaders become mistrustful of others’ motives after growing into a leadership position. They check and recheck facts, building multiple layers of control and supervision. This distances them from the feelings of team members and makes it hard to win over confidence and trust through reciprocity.

Alignments and groupism: Alignments and groups form as a result of perceived bias. Leaders’ actions are watched and sometimes misinterpreted to be what they are not. A leader might be perceived to be close to some people versus others. Such perceptions might have been formed as a result of more time spent or listening more to a few, handing out prize assignments or using some people to convey messages to others. Such actions cause fissures within the team and isolate the leaders from others.

Dealing with insecurity: Leaders might be insecure about many things – their own position, organizational success, their acceptance level etc. While many of these are natural and everyone has some insecurities, how they translate into actions and dealings with others is critical. Insecurities may result in irrational and aggressive behavior, need for control, mistrust and allocating blame. At a personal level, insecurities result in stress and unhappiness.

Need for confidentiality: Most senior positions require high degrees of confidentiality. Leaders usually have knowledge about a situation that they cannot share with others. More often, they have some but not adequate levels of information resulting in uncertainty and ambiguity. Communicating about a situation in the midst of lack of clarity is difficult both for the leaders and also the teams. Need for confidentiality means guarded communication and the ability to deal with stress alone.

Lack of objective on-ground information: Many times, leaders do not have access to what is happening on the ground. This could be a result of hierarchy levels, lack of systems for employee connects, surveys etc. In such situation, leader’s action become disjointed from ground reality. This could result in loss of credibility and a drop in the quality of decisions.

Need for control: Some leaders have a high need for control. This results in over managing or micro-managing. Teams feel suffocated and unable to express their creativity.

Not paying attention to own intuition and inner voice: Listening to one’s inner voice is one of the rare gifts of great leaders. Our intuition is always aware of the right thing to do and like a compass is able to navigate us to take corrective actions. However, the little inner voice can get muted amidst the external noise when various interested parties try to convince us of their own arguments and actions. Not being in touch with own self can add to the stress levels for leaders.

Justification and defensiveness about shortcomings: There is a need to be right for leaders. There is also pressure to present the good picture about their area and the organization. Various constituencies and stakeholders demand attention, ask questions. The leader ends up spending considerable amounts of energy explaining their actions, mounting defensive actions and justifying past actions.

Lack of self-awareness: The most important point and one which also wraps up many of the previous issues is lack of self-awareness. Losing touch with oneself, sacrificing simplicity is the costliest price to pay for success as a leader. Unaware leaders do not know the impact of their actions on others and this manifests in various problems. Also, self-awareness is a journey and it only becomes more complex as one approaches decision points that impact others.

Ways to overcome loneliness

There are several actions leaders can take to overcome the limiting impact of loneliness and isolation. The tips below can serve as a path to overcome and reduce some of the toxic effects on the workplace and their teams. The importance of investing in self development and growth and nurturing one’s soul cannot be emphasised enough in today’s demanding and complex times.

  1. Anonymous 360 survey
    An anonymous 360 degree survey involving key stakeholders, team members, peers can throw light on the impact the leader has on others. It can also uncover some of the blind spots that might have been ignored.
  2. External executive coach
    An external coach can help the leader in seeing things objectively and increasing his/her own effectiveness level. Sometimes a one-hour discussion with a knowledgeable coach can help clear up self-doubts built over years and pave way for fresh energy and action. The Coach can serve as a sounding board and help to take corrective actions. Apart from experience and expertise it is a good practice to choose a coach who can call a spade a spade.
  3. Diverse team
    A diverse team – in terms of regions, gender, age group, functional areas can help the leader to look at an issue from different angles and keep him/her grounded. This also ensures that all interest groups are represented and the perception of bias is not formed among team members.
  4. Informal style
    An informal and easy style helps leaders to connect easily with others. This also encourages team members to approach the leader with issues without fear. An informal style helps to form genuine and authentic relationships. This helps the leader to feel less vulnerable, to admit own shortcomings and to be self-critical without losing focus on overall performance.
  5. External peer group networking
    Lastly, there is great value in networking with peers who are in a similar situation in the industry. They maybe in similar jobs, or sometimes even in unrelated industries. Such networking can be done through formal channels through informal contacts. The peer group can then provide best practices, precedents and solutions.

 – Sharad Verma

Share your thoughts and drop in a comment below. 

Sharad Verma is currently Global Head

12 thoughts on “5 ways to overcome isolation in a leadership role

  1. I like this article Sharad because it looks at the back story – so often leaders are criticised for bad behaviour without any appreciation of what the underlying causes might be.
    Another reason for isolation can be that people are too afraid to tell the truth to their leader. This is where getting a 360 degree survey, or even better a coach to talk to the leader’s colleagues and staff can radically transform the situation. Blind spots are common and the good news is you can throw light on them if someone outside the situation will shine the torch.

  2. Excellent article. Agree 360 degree feedback and external coach are of great help. Least thought of, is interaction with external peer groups, but I realize that too gives a great insight into similar situations which the peers face and hence can give required solutions. Good read.

  3. Very fine read Sharad. I fully believe that personal development is the key to become more acceptable by your team. A leader at work is no different from the person he is otherwise. Therefore if one doesn’t have acceptability otherwise then it would be no better at work. No matter how much your position holds. Plus discussing with peers is helpful so don’t overthink before opening up with your peers.

  4. Many of the points discussed are mistakes one makes, but ideally can turn to nobody for discussing. Good to see an article which throws light and shows the way ahead. Thanks Sharad for the aritcle hope to see many such in coming times

  5. Good attempt. It covers almost all the common causes of loneliness. But for every unique situation the solution will be unique. Real leaders lead & other follow…

  6. Excellent article. It is good to those who are ready to accept change at any given time with 360 degree.

  7. Insecurity & Need for control are related . A leader needs to be self assured & open to learning from anyone. Its important to focus on people’s strengths rather than their weaknesses . We must appreciate people for even small achievements. Its said that Durga , Saraswati & Lasksmi for a resource needs to be managed effectively. Durga is emotion , Lakhmi is money & Saraswati is knowledge . We usually miss the Durga as the western concepts of goals , objectives does not value the essence of subjectivity which plays an important role in taking decisions.

  8. Really this is great despite of my limited time, it has attracted me to go through. Would you please guide me how to overcome feeling of disappointment being so sincere in work and liked by my team and admired by my direct directors and COO as well but unknown by my CEO who had disliked me at certain stage due to wrong information conveyed to him about me by other employers from other section who had no work except climbing shoulder of successful people , knowing that it was impossible to me to contact him for justification.

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