Listen: Rachael Robertson chats to Laura Bennett
By this stage of the COVID-19 fight, forced isolation is either making or breaking you. Some of us have deepening family bonds, and others, a new and persistent eye twitch (in both eyes).
Antarctic Explorer and leadership expert Rachael Robertson is more familiar with isolation than most, and believes we can both survive and thrive in this unfamiliar ‘new normal’.
Leading a team of 120 people on scientific expeditions, Rachael (pictured) lived in Antarctica for a year doing climate change research and maintaining base stations on site. During the (even colder) winter months, contact with other humans was limited, with much of the team returning home after the peak summer season.
The teams lived in close quarters, so it was important to keep their relationships strong. To do this, they followed some rules of thumb that were simple, yet powerful for keeping the team united.
1 – Respect is More Important Than Artificial Peace
Rachael’s team developed the mantra, ‘Respect Trumps Harmony’ – meaning, voicing your challenges was more important that swallowing them for the sake of superficial peace.
“You really need an ability to speak up if someone or something’s affecting you,” said Rachael. “That was our mantra: that we weren’t always going to see eye-to-eye, and we weren’t always going to be great friends, but we would always treat each other respectfully.
2 – Avoid Triangles
On Rachael’s team, triangulation – or bringing a third person into a dispute – was banned. The rule, “No Triangles” simply meant, no talking behind peoples’ backs.
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“If I have a problem with him or I have a problem with her, I go direct to her – I don’t take it to a third party,” explained Rachael. “It was all designed just to build respect in the team.”
3 – Get to the Heart of the Bacon Wars
Freedom to communicate openly is a vital ingredient to coping well with isolation. As we’re up against the little niggles in our households for extended periods, and those bags on the floor or dirty mugs in the sink become more and more irritating, we need to address the root cause of why they frustrate us.
On Rachael’s team, a rift began developing between two parties over the smallest thing: bacon.
“It started off as a bacon war,” Rachael said, “about whether or not the bacon should be soft or crispy – (I know!). “When I got to the bottom of it I found out that one team thought that the other team were deliberately cooking the bacon the opposite way to irritate them.
“I had this epiphany that this is not actually about bacon, it’s about respect.
“And believe it or not, the number one ‘Bacon War’ in Australia is dirty coffee mugs…As we’re living together those little things will drive us bonkers and that’s why: because they’re a symptom of a deeper issue.”
4 – Choose Your Words Carefully
Whether you cohabit with small children, elderly parents, adult siblings, a spouse or a close friend, your words will help create an atmosphere of calm, or fear.
Choose language that instils a sense of security, rather than chaos and fear, suggests Rachael: “I tell my son I have concern, not worry – that’s a different word.”
5 – Project Calm in Your Body Language
Be aware of what your physical stance is communicating: “You need to be poised and calm,” says Rachael. “If the adults in the room are running around the room saying, ‘This is horrible, this is terrible’ the children will pick up on that.”
6 – Lead By Your Behaviour
As an adult in your home, you have a chance to lead well. Your response to circumstances can set the tone for everyone else. “When you’re a leader in a family or community people are watching you,” Rachael says. “They’ll take their [cues] from… the shadow you cast as a leader.”
7 – Focus on What You Can Control, Not What You Can’t
Instead of fretting about things we can’t change, Rachael’s advice is to instead focus on the things that we can influence.
“What we can control is: we can stay home,” said Rachael. “We can control the calmness and the poise, and keeping our family and friends emotionally close.
8 – Help Others; Lead Without A Title
Rachael is a big advocate for taking initiative without needing a title, and without being asked.
“Every one of us can show leadership; every one of us can check in on our elderly neighbour, every one of us can go and get groceries for someone who’s housebound. That’s leadership,” she said. “And we’re going to need every single person to demonstrate that kind of leadership behaviour.
“We all have that capacity and ability, we just might not have seen it in ourselves yet. We don’t think of ourselves as a leader, but ‘cometh the moment cometh the man’ – this is the time where everyone of us needs to step up.”
Rachael’s new book, ‘Respect Trumps Harmony’ is out now.