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What to do when leadership feels isolating and awkward

Most of us have heard the phrase "It's lonely at the top." It turns out that being responsible for the work and development of others is both lonely and awkward at every level.

A decision to lead is a choice to shift the nature of your relationship with those around you. And while intuitively, we understand things can no longer be the same with our new charges when we move from team member to team leader, adjusting is challenging for many.

Some experienced managers never adapt to the feeling of being disconnected from the group. In this article, I share the reasons why many in leadership roles feel out of place, and I offer ideas to help overcome the loneliness of leading.

Cases in feeling isolated

The topic of leaders and managers feeling isolated is one that isn't regularly discussed in the workplace. It's more of a quiet problem and something slightly ironic given the constant involvement anyone in management has with team members and peers. 

One senior manager I spoke with described himself as a charter member of the "Island of Misfits." When I asked why he offered, "I'm constantly around people, but I don't belong to any group. I'm not part of the team, and my peer group offers little support. They're busy with their challenges and teams, and there's little reason for them to form tight relationships with others at their level." 

Another individual level at the director level offered, "I'm not quite in senior management, and I'm now two levels removed from the individuals doing the work in my area of responsibility. I'm rowing alone."

The loss of water-cooler and lunchtime talk, coupled with a decline in camaraderie with group members, all contribute to a creeping sense of isolation. And while there's no law against having lunch with team members, the conversations are never quite the same. One manager observed, "Our conversations when I'm with the group are stilted. People pull their punches on topics they are passionate about, and everyone seems filtered in how they communicate when I'm around the group." 

4 items you must acknowledge when you sign on to lead

1. You're always "on"

Your responsibilities don't end at 5:00 p.m. or social events. You need to live your role around the clock. 
 

2. You're being watched

While you might be having a bad morning or not feeling well, your brief comment to a team member or a less than welcoming look on your face will send individuals off wondering what they did wrong. 

One top executive recalled learning why one of his teams was so out of sorts. They had interpreted his facial expression during a presentation to him as a sign of displeasure. "The only thing I can think of was that I was trying to suppress a sneeze at one point during the session," he offered. "I actually liked their presentation," he added.
 

3. People impute your intentions

Much like the facial expression example above that was misread, individuals will inevitably interpret your words to mean different things. One manager shared with me, "I offered my thoughts on an approach to one part of a project, and by the end of the day, I heard back that everyone was convinced I was going to kill the project. That was 180-degrees off my intention." 
 

4. People filter their communication with you

Your sense that you aren't getting the whole story in many circumstances is spot-on. While you might strive to be authentic and encourage individuals to freely share their feedback and viewpoints, many will filter and adapt their conversations and comments in your presence. It may not be you as much as your title. However, they're still going to give what I call the "value-added translation" when they engage with you.

5 ideas leaders can use to move beyond feeling disconnected from the group

1. Accept it's not all bad operating as a misfit

Your disconnect from the group is potentially a positive in helping you level-up and contribute to your organization at a greater level. You have a larger vote in your team and firm’s success, and you are free to create and innovate in ways different than group members.
 

2. Reframe your sense of mission and purpose

We all crave social connection, particularly in this time of distance working and managing. The challenge for those new to leading or anyone struggling with feelings of isolation in their role is to anchor fast on purpose. 

Accept that your job is less about belonging and more about creating that sense of belonging and purpose for those on your team. You control the weather, you set the pace, and your actions and behaviors catalyze high-performance. Focus on helping, building, and creating the right working environment, and your sense of isolation will diminish as you see your efforts turning into results.
 

3. Create a kitchen cabinet

No, I'm not talking about where you store your dishes. The term "kitchen cabinet" ties back to elected leaders creating an informal group of trusted advisors willing to share ideas and opinions. In political circles, these meetings often took place in someone's kitchen. 

While we'll leave your kitchen out of it, cultivating a group of individuals you can share ideas with and who can share their honest assessments of your thoughts is a tremendous help. One top manager I know viewed her informal board of advisors as the most critical part of her drive to remain focused and grounded on her mission. 
 

4. Focus on leading with curiosity 

I've come to view curiosity as a critical leadership attribute in our world. The drive to ask questions, learn, and strive to understand is essential to building cultures where people and teams are comfortable innovating. 

Questions are a powerful and under-utilized leadership tool, and they offer the opportunity for you to engage with others in mutual learning. Your curiosity about how things happen and your use of "What if?" will spur exploration across your group. Just remember to ask questions in a manner that doesn't make them seem like a courtroom cross-examination. 
 

5. Create structured listening sessions to help you refocus

I love one-on-ones that offer both structure and opportunities to freelance on workplace activities. However, once a quarter, I encourage you to take these sessions to a new level and turbo-charge your fierce listening. Use a 3Ws approach and ask your team members to address the following questions: 

  • What's working?
  • What's not?
  • What do you need me to do to help you succeed?

Listen hard, ask clarifying questions, and find opportunities to help. This process is invaluable in helping you re-center on your role and purpose.

The bottom line for now

If you've signed on to lead, there's no doubt you're not one of the gang. The feeling of being a bit of a "misfit" is understandable. Instead of lamenting this state of existence, seize the opportunity to do more of what you're supposed to be doing -- leading by engaging and helping.

Find more and different ways to engage, teach, ask questions and offer support. Get this right, and that nagging feeling of not being one of the gang will give way to one of increased focus and excitement for your work developing others and catalyzing success for your organization.

 

Art Petty is an executive and emerging leader coach and a popular leadership and management author, speaker and workshop presenter. His experience guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership comes through in his books, articles, and live and online programs. Visit Petty’s Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles.

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