C-Suite Advisory

How leaders can navigate their way through isolation


I have banned myself from using the word unprecedented!

However, the very real issue remains; how do leaders navigate through isolation for themselves and those that they lead?

Isolation is not a new concept, but it is a challenge for those facing it. Just ask my 89-year-old father (who has received his letter from the Government) as a member of the vulnerable community who now must self-isolate for 12 weeks. A challenge for anyone yet compounded by the fact that he lost his wife of 63 years only 3 months ago. Ask the submariner who said, ‘routine is crucial’, the astronaut who will mention ‘know your mission, then give yourself objectives for the day, week or month.’ Or how about the former hostage, who said ‘take one day at a time and keep hopeful.’

I remember my own period of isolation. I was a member of the large police team deployed on surveillance duties during the Mardi Gras bomber investigation. Night after night spent isolated in a surveillance van watching an ATM machine in West London. Fear, the passage of time, boredom, negative thoughts (cognitive fusion) and the feeling of vulnerability were just a few of the associated challenges.

To follow up on this theme I spoke to friend and colleague Kevin O’Leary, CEO of Red Leadership and former Head of the Metropolitan Police’s Covert Policing Command. “When you are in an isolated situation, it’s still important that you try and see the value that you can provide” he said. Kevin’s correct.

When we are isolated it is easy to hunt for and digest data from multiple sources and simply pass this on. “On that basis you quickly become transactional as regards, what I heard, what I saw, what I feel etc. Isolation does however provide us with an abundance of…..time. Time to think, reflect, ask questions, pause and listen to what is not being said and piece together information that appears seemingly disparate or isolated in its own right.”

Kevin continues “It’s about remaining vigilant. When you lose one sense, we know our brain, like a supercomputer can re-direct efforts to other senses. Similarly, in isolation we have to consciously redirect our efforts at finding our value within the situation by asking ourselves different questions and being vigilant; ensuring we remain relational even if we have lost the physical proximity”.

Tracey Groves, former partner at PWC and now CEO of Intelligent Ethics specialises in helping leaders define and embrace what ‘doing the right thing’ means to business and stakeholders. “We are living in a paradox at the moment” Tracey tells me. “Only by working alone and together can we conquer the pandemic.” She is so right. “Can we compromise our own lifestyles to save other people’s lives?” We only have to look at the incredible work of our amazing NHS staff to know we can. But can we all? We are so used to working in tribes, families, communities, teams. So, is social isolation the death knell of our ability to foster inclusion? Tracey also reminds me of the obvious benefits the current situation offers us all. “Now is the time for us to really hear what is being said, to question, to probe, to feel deeply, to reflect, to empathise and importantly to connect on a level that we, until recently resisted, due to how busy we all are, or think we are.”

Tracey refers to an excellent quote from Dov Seidman, CEO of LRN who stated, “When you press the pause button on a machine, it stops. But when you press the pause button on human beings they start…… you start to reflect, you start to rethink your assumptions, you start to reimagine what is possible and, most importantly, you start to reconnect with”

However, let’s not underestimate the very real issue that isolation (home working) enforced or not can create. Grenny and Maxfield’s HBR article (Nov 2017) outlined their study of 1,100 employees and found that remote workers feel shunned and left out. Their article reported that 52% said they work, at least some of the time, from their home office, and when they do, many feel their colleagues don’t treat them equally.

Remote employees are more likely to report feeling that colleagues mistreat them and leave them out. Specifically, they worry that co-workers say bad things behind their backs, make changes to projects without telling them in advance, lobby against them, and don’t fight for their priorities.

When remote members of a team encountered common workplace challenges, 84% said the concern dragged on for a few days or more, while 47% admitted to letting it drag on for weeks or more.

So how can leaders help their teams? 

I offered this conundrum to Dr Katie Best, Founder and Director of Taylor Best. She outlined three critical areas.

Team norms: “Leaders need to re-set their team norms (working practices) if necessary” she immediately told me. “Small talk is so important even in the virtual space. People still need to connect, catch up and check in with each other. The creation of psychological safety remains paramount.” Katie also mentioned the importance of creating realistic and appropriate team norms that take into account “That each team member has different circumstances at home. They might not have a choice but to work in their bedroom because their partner is in the lounge and their kids are working at the kitchen table. They might not have the energy today to get dressed up just to work from home. And perhaps that’s alright. Try to walk in their shoes before you judge them for their choices – what’s really important is that we show up for work, and one another, at all.”

Trust: We know that many large organisations have a high trust culture. Katie explains, “People need to feel that they are trusted in the virtual world too. Leaders need to rethink presenteeism especially. Don’t think short term and be driven by input. People have different obligations at home and in a time of crisis they each may have their own unique way of working…which might involve late nights, early mornings, and a lot of flitting between tasks. Don’t think input, think output. Give them your trust.”

Be brave: With each person working remotely in their own way, this also requires leaders to consider and balance the issue of fairness with business efficacy. “Some people may genuinely be able to do more than others in the virtual world; no kids, no dependents, no travel and so on” Katie tells me. “Strong and established teams may be able to withstand a team reconfiguring so that not all is equal or fair but the whole team will succeed for the greater good without any feelings of resentment.” Katie recognises that newly constructed teams may not be quite as open to this approach, not having successful past examples of trust and cooperation. However, her advice for leaders is clear, “Be brave.”

As I sit here typing this article after my sixth Zoom call of the day and based on the fact that I don’t even know what day of the week it is, I also realise that there are benefits too with our enforced isolation. Human Centred Leadership, a topic that featured in my recent co-authored book “The Leader’s Secret Code” with Ridley, Laker and Mills, remains of paramount importance. If I think through the last few days, every email, phone call and video conference has started with a genuine focus (on both sides) as to wellbeing, family and health. The relationship is truly more important than the transaction that may follow.

Stay safe.

Written by Adam Pacifico.

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Adam Pacifico
Adam Pacifico is the co-author of The Leader's Secret Code: The Belief Systems That Distinguish Winners, Chief Learning Officer at PCA and a barrister. Adam Pacifico is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with him on LinkedIn.