Debugging the Boss: The Isolationist

The Isolationist manager takes their job as a “crap umbrella” to a dysfunctional extreme. They try to limit interactions between their team members and other people in the organization. They take their responsibility toward their team very seriously, and their isolation is a misguided attempt to make them more productive.

Behavior in meetings: The Isolationist isn’t so much identified by behavior in meetings, as much as by the influence they have on organizing meetings. They do their utmost to prevent their team members from attending meetings with external teams. This makes them a huge bottleneck.

Impact on team: The Isolationist may have some team members who are very happy to be isolated, some who chafe at their lack of interaction with other teams, and some who are indifferent. The major impact to the team, however, is not lowered morale.

Teams need exposure. Seniority comes with experience, and if a team member’s only point of contact to the world is their manager, they aren’t going to get the experience of working with many people. That makes them poorly positioned to work in any other environment. They also need exposure so that their colleagues know, challenge, and respect them. Without contact with a larger team, they won’t feel like part of a larger team.

Impact on product: Increased risk of failure! Isolated workers are always going to be missing major parts of the story, so they won’t get why what they’re doing matters. These circumstances vastly increase the risk that requirements will not be correctly understood. If, for example, you don’t understand the concerns of your colleagues on the business side, you can’t help catch a mistaken assumption.

Trait gone wrong: Protectiveness, primarily. Isolationism is most often motivated by a sincere desire to help their team. This can be exacerbated by their skepticism of the capabilities of other teams, which, unsurprisingly, may derive from their having been managed by an Isolationist themselves. As well, they might be overconfident, if they think can handle the throughput of syncing their team members with everything they need to know from the meetings they don’t get to.

Debugging: The Isolationist is motivated by concern for their team, so debugging requires refocusing that concern on their team members long-term effectiveness and career development.

Usually an Isolationist has learned the behavior from a poor example, and it’s important to present them with specific examples of ways that problems that cropped up could have been prevented had their team members been more involved in cross-team communication.

One exercise for de-isolating is to select a single team member, and a single project they are involved in, and send them to one carefully chosen meeting (maybe a recurring one) that they could contribute to, or benefit from. Bring an engineer who wrote the code on a project to the next brainstorming meeting for that product.

*Not to be mistaken for: The Politician.