Leadership Loneliness and Aloneness
I have just ended a 6 month’s period of working as an interim manager, leading a group of 60 people through a transformative change, based on principles of self-organization. During my first months, the job was tough and I felt lonely and despondent. I found it hard to get things moving in a sustainable way. I had to withdraw and seek seclusion. Looking back, I think I was moving back and forth between loneliness and aloneness. There is a defining difference between these words that seem so similar. Loneliness is what you feel when you are disconnected from others; it is an undesired state, unproductive and leads to underperformance. Aloneness arises from the discipline of wanting to be alone. It is a desired state that induces a sense of wholeness and makes for creative productivity. I would say that in organizations there is too little aloneness and too much loneliness. If we knew how to turn segregation into solitude, we could increase productivity and creativity in the workplace. So, how do you create a new pattern to re-engage and transform loneliness into aloness?
When we are alone we can be engaged
What is the difference here that makes a difference? I believe we have become conscious of a new dimension of intimacy with the arrival of the digital communication. We can work effectively together even when we are physically apart. This phenomenon has been described as perceived proximity, the paradox of ‘far-but-close.’ This means we can feel connected when we are physically close, but we can also feel connected when we are dispersed. Think of high-performance, virtual teams. Conversely, we can feel disconnected when we are close. This is what happened to me in my interim job. I felt isolated even to my closest colleagues. In other words, proximity, the sensation of closeness, is not bound to a physical state but is primarily a psychological state. You can feel less connected to a colleague who works across from you than to a projectmember in Lithuania whom you have never met. In other words, the container is not spacial but psychological. My physical container of the department became oppressive. I yearned to be alone, to withdraw, so I went for walks, thinking about what could be my act of change. It took some courage to break the pattern of loneliness but it paid off: I was able to establish a new psychological container where all of us could re-engage.
Containers, Differences and Exchanges
How did this happen? The Human Systems Dynamics Institute defines a pattern in terms of containers, differences and exchanges. Breaking a pattern is changing one or more of these elements. In my example, the defining container was my team and the exchanges in this team were often indirect and negative. The biggest difference that caused widespread isolation was the uncertainty about roles and processes. During my walks and in my solitary reflections, I envisioned a way to break the pattern that was keeping the department from performing. I called a meeting of team delegates to discuss immediate issues and make decisions there and then. Afterwards we exchanged the resolutions by sending an email to the entire department. These ‘soundboard meetings’ congregated weekly. Gradually, tensions between and among employees decreased. Sometimes small project groups were formed to resolve more complex questions. As weeks passed by, there were less differences in interpretation and people naturally moved from isolation to engagement. We had created a new container: a decision making unit of team delegates resulting in new self-organizing subcontainers of discussiongroups. The difference that made a difference was a container shift.
Systemwide change towards productive isolation
From then on the system became more reflective. What I had started to do on my own, the group started to do as community. In the midst of all the turmoil, crossfunctional groups self-organized and boldly isolated themselves temporarily to reflect on the best ways forward. New containers were formed. Trusting the power of seclusion, people found ways to turn disconnectedness into engagement. They sought a kind of aloneness in new psychological containers that were perceived as far-but-close and productive.
Three bold steps into engagement
1. Create a new container. Loneliness is always the result of some larger elusive pattern. So, create a safe place to convene and bring to light the things that keep people from being productive. Curiosity is fired up when differences show up in a new container.
2. Engage the differences. Feelings, thoughts and behaviours are potentially alienating when people are in working mode. In reflection mode, however, differences have a natural tendency to be resolved. With time, noticing and choosing alternatives turn judgment into curiosity and make for connection and engagement.
3. Choose to take action. Conscious steps forward, by common consent creates coherence. This gives a sense of progress being made, however modest. Small steps made together, carry further than big steps made by yourself.
Loneliness is widespread, in families, communities, schools, cities, organizations. We confuse loneliness with aloneness. Because we are afraid to be lonely, we shun to be alone. And that is a mistake. We need to be alone sometimes to evaluate our situation. The steps above show how to reconnect and trust the time it takes for the healing powers of engagement to do their work.
Please share your thoughts and explore this subject further using the references below.
More about adaptive action and breaking patterns (Container, Differences and Exchanges): Glenda H. Eoyang and Royce J. Holladay, Adaptive Action: Leveraging Uncertainty in Your Organization. http://www.hsdinstitute.org/