Isolation, connection and leadership in COVID-19
‘We are all in this together. And yet increasingly, we are all in this separately’.
Tim Harford’s article in the Financial Times of 23-24 May 20 ‘Reopening economies will divide societies’ looks at the range of criteria that could be applied to the phases of lockdown and at what rhythm. Moral and ethical codes. Statistical, economic, societal criteria. Maximisation of health or wealth? None of it, he says, brings any sense of connection or integration, but rather fragmentation and separation.
Isolation obstructs the human need for connection
The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have created many more questions than answers, and more uncertainty and unpredictability than stability or discernible pattern. The isolation that has been a feature of life worldwide ever since the known beginning of COVID-19 in Wuhan is fundamentally at odds with the fact that human beings need to connect with each other in order to survive and to maintain our mental health. But we have had to isolate in order to protect ourselves.
In isolation employees experience more intense communication, unpunctuated by the casual water-cooler conversations that oil the social and psychological wheels, that provide space in which people can take a few minutes’ time out, and that broaden, consolidate and enrich connection. The excitement of being in crisis mode has, in some workplaces, given way to a less energetic engagement with work, a weakening of connection between colleagues and an intensifying of relationships at home.
Medical staff and their patients need human connection
Medical and care staff are separated physically from their patients by their Personal Protective Equipment at a time when those patients desperately need the human connection. And those medical and care staff members – as I know from my work with Coaching through COVID – need to feel connected, supported and heard, whether during the peaks that will probably go on for some time, or the intervening periods of relative calm when it is anticipated that mental health issues will emerge and may well get worse over the forthcoming months and years.
Team leaders are exploring individual and team purpose more than usually
Leaders are having to work hard to keep (or become) connected with their teams, while equally it can be hard to spot the team member who’s becoming disengaged, as psychological distancing follows physical distancing. Team members can lose touch with what it means to be involved and engaged, and in fact with what their purpose is. I’m finding that the leaders I’m working with are interested in questions of personal and team purpose more than usually.
When common purpose can tip into heroic behaviours
Fascinatingly, the Coaching through COVID team, which came together as an entirely new team, experiences a profound sense of connection, which I suspect is related to a deeply held common sense of purpose, besides its high level of psychological safety, mutual support and compassion. We are conscious, however, that that passion and connection could – if we don’t pay attention – tip us into heroic behaviours that could mirror the behaviours of the frontline staff we set up to serve. We occasionally see this in the wider community of coaches who also clearly connect with the cause and in some senses over-identify with it.
Under threat we need social contact
I’m curious about whether this commitment, passion and connection to a cause might be serving as a search for compensation for the lack of social contact and isolation. Looking at it systemically, that could make sense: we are social creatures who, under threat (such as a pandemic), need social contact. And social contact is the very thing we’re being denied, in the interests of physical survival (as, for example, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, Dr Stephen Porges’ extensive work on this topic, including the polyvagal theory, demonstrates).
The polyvagal theory – and the need for connection
So what can leaders and managers do in the context of a team at a distance? Dr Porges, in his work on the polyvagal theory, comments that through evolution, mammals couldn’t survive as isolates. They needed interaction with others of their species. Our purpose as human beings is to be connected, because without being connected, our minds and bodies wither and waste away.
How to build connection in isolation
Dr Porges tells us that we can create ways of helping ensure that colleagues feel connected. He recommends particular awareness that a lot of modulation in a voice – rather than monotone delivery – along with a friendly face, and open body language, maintain calm and nurture engagement. Similarly, smiling conveys cues of safety and empathy because it involves movement in the muscles round the eyes which, in a smile, convey the message ‘I’m happy to be with you’ – and a sense of safety encourages both engagement and learning. In terms of tone, it pays to know that a higher tone of voice can convey anxiety, while a lower tone of voice can convey threat. Neither of these is conducive to safety and engagement.
Remember too that reflective listening techniques (seeking to understand a speaker’s idea, then offering the idea back to the speaker, to confirm the idea has been understood correctly) can help people feel a connection.
Isolation, health and team effectiveness
Connected team members will benefit from a reduced sense of isolation – and that in turn can help build team health and effectiveness.