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Lonely at the top: The danger when leaders are out of the loop


By Miriam Moeller, Senior Lecturer, the University of Queensland Business School

Very few of the spotlights trained on the world’s political stage, light up leading women.

Still accounting for a disproportionate minority of elected representatives globally, women who reach the pinnacle of politics often find they occupy a lonely and isolated position.

Take, for example, Angela Merkel. German Chancellor since 2005, she has faced a growing, open rebellion within her own party, yet she continues to lead the world’s fourth largest economy based on GDP.

Theresa May, elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 2016 (until she was replaced by Boris Johnson in July this year) faced relentless internal opposition as she attempted to broker a Brexit deal with the potential to impact the UK, Europe and the world at large.

     When leaders become ostracised, it diminishes their ability to do what we need them to do – lead.
Key advisor to the United States’ Trump administration, Ivanka Trump is continually belittled and dismissed by political opponents and critics within the White House alike as she petitions to advance her policy agenda for paid family leave.

These women sit at different points of the political spectrum, but share the unenviable trait of being shunned: By their own parties, by their constituents and by the world.

When leaders become ostracised, it diminishes their ability to do what we need them to do – lead.

While ostracism is not limited to politics, this toxic practice of social rejection puts individuals, organisations, and indeed, entire economic systems at risk.

We may expect ostracism to occur in our personal lives, but when it happens in the workplace or in politics, it becomes confusing and impacts on countless stakeholders.

There is no easy way to eradicate ostracism at the top level, but understanding its forms and motivators makes it easier to approach and address in an organisational context. There are three main types of ostracism:

Physical ostracism: The deliberate removal of oneself or others from a social situation.

Social ostracism: Emotional withdrawal such as refusing to make eye contact or avoiding conversation.

Cyber ostracism: Exclusion via digital interactions such as deleting someone from an email list or ignoring them in a chat room.

Across all its forms, ostracism can lower psychological wellbeing and self-esteem, provoke greater levels of anxiety and generate symptoms of depression.

Some neuro-scientific research suggests prolonged experiences of ostracism can influence a brain to believe it is experiencing physical pain.

Those who witness ostracism also report experiencing the pain of others’ rejections as their own.

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that “minor” acts of ostracism are not harmful, however, even a few snubs can trigger a “spiral of silence”.

This concept begins with an idea that speaking up or offering viewpoints is unwise unless other colleagues share the same perceptions and thoughts.

The spiral occurs when employees begin to adopt silence as they withhold opinions and concerns about organisational problems.

This quickly creates a vicious culture where speaking up is not considered acceptable and people fear the punishment of ostracism for speaking out.

An ostracism audit is one managerial intervention technique that can be employed to prevent or resolve this spiral of silence.

Key to this is engaging an internal champion who can raise awareness, not only about what will occur if ostracising behaviours continue unchecked, but why it is necessary for a workplace to intervene.

Objectivity is key to this operation to eliminate bias and ensure quality in the process.

An ostracism audit requires a trusted external auditor responsible for actions, including:

Highlighting strategies relative to what a manager might do to recognise ostracism in their own behaviour.

Direction on how to approach individuals who experience ostracising behaviour versus those who observe ostracising behaviour.

Direction on how to address the concerns of those who do not speak up about ostracism among others.

Direction on assisting ostracised individuals to become re-engaged.

It is vital to keep in mind that employees are vulnerable to the process – some more than others – be they bystanders, “ostracisers” or the ostracised.

No one is immune to ostracism in the workplace and a plan to correct an organisational culture to clearly delineate what is acceptable behaviour, and what is not, can be timely.

It is unlikely ostracism will be completely eradicated from workplaces, but clear guidelines and frequent checks must be implemented to ensure this toxic practice of rejection is minimised, managed and branded as unacceptable – starting from junior staff right up to the very top.

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