What is Executive Isolation?
If you needed advice on a career or business decision, asking another industry expert seems like the most logical thing to do, right? But what if you didn’t feel comfortable asking or didn’t have anyone to ask after years of building your career and rising through the ranks? It can be common for executives and leaders to find themselves with limited peer networks that they can confidently share information with and seek council from. These leaders often find themselves experiencing what is known as executive isolation.
How does Executive Isolation Happen?
Work is often a place where we develop good friendships, especially since most of us spend a considerable portion of our time there. However, the nature of the boss-employee relationship can make it hard for leaders and their teams to connect with the each other on a human-to-human level. Leaders are expected to hold their staff responsible for their actions and appraise their performance fairly as part of their role. Because of these expectations, leaders might create social distance between themselves and their team to avoid perceptions of favoritism or bias.
Competition among peers and the desire for career progression can create fears of appearing vulnerable that perpetuate executive isolation behaviour. Those climbing the corporate ladder learn early on that it is safer not to tell people what’s going on in our head for fear it could be used against them.
Organisational perceptions of people in leadership roles also contribute to executive isolation. The notion of “heroic leadership”; that a leader is able to solve problems and provide guidance, precludes the perception of leaders as people and friends, resulting in further isolation.
Why is Executive Isolation Bad?
Peer group networks are vital for career and life success. So, it makes sense that when this need to belong is not met, feelings of loneliness often arise. Executive isolation leaves the individual with no one to brain storm or debrief with, and no one to mingle or socialize with in a relaxed setting where they can let their guard down. In fact, CEOs claim the biggest issue they face in their roles is having no one to confide in.
Executive isolation can quickly become problematic and affect happiness, resilience, and performance. Up to 61% of executives agreed that isolation hinders their performance at work. Unfortunately, very few Australian managers believe that there is any kind of support available to them from workplace relationships.
Our Hands-on Experience with Executive Isolation
Dr Toby Ford has worked with thousands of top-tier executives in corporate health and wellbeing for over 20 years. He says that executives who display executive isolation behaviour are not only putting their careers at risk, but also their health and wellbeing:
“Underpinning this isolation behaviour is usually a strong sense of self-reliance. Top tier executives with isolationist behaviours will have usually demonstrated years of being self-reliant. While it can be a great driver for success, self-reliance is a double-edged sword and can mean that we believe it’s not necessary to ask for help or that we can’t recognise the value in asking for help… the resulting development of isolation can be particularly destructive.”
-Dr. Toby Ford
Image: Brent Spranklin, Exercise Physiologist (left) and Dr. Toby Ford, CEO of Ford Health (right) at Ford Health’s Brisbane Office
What can I do to Combat Executive Isolation?
Because of the unique demands of the roles, executives and senior managers require customized work–life balance strategies. Organizations should engage special plans in line with top executive needs to combat the negative effects of executive isolation. High performing individuals must understand the value of meaningful peer networks and discussions, which is why our medical teams have three recommendations for leaders:
- Build a confidential support system.
This is essential for both strategic reasons and for emotional reasons. While it is important to get professional input from your board of directors or other senior leaders in the company, it is valuable to seek out an executive coach or trusted advisor and meet with them regularly. It may not always be about seeking advice or feedback, it may just meet the need we all have to confide in others.
- Reflect on thoughts and emotions.
When there are things that leaders feel they can’t share with others, sitting down to work out thoughts and emotions (in our minds or in a journal) can be a therapeutic exercise.
- Cultivate connections.
Our doctors recommend thinking of cultivating connections as a core leadership mission. Connection—between a company and its purpose, its employees, and its customers—is valuable. Leaders and executives can be at the forefront of that connection.
If you are feeling isolated in your role and want to learn how to build your peer networks and connections for success in work and life, get in contact with our friendly team at Ford Health.