You work for years to climb the corporate ladder and you finally reach the top. This is it! Years of hard work and effort have paid off and you are an executive in charge of a team, a division, or perhaps an entire organization, company or government department.
As exciting as it is, there is a small downside when we rise up through the ranks that you may not have anticipated: It can be a bit lonely at the top. Sure, you’ve probably heard it before but for many of us, until we start to experience it, we don’t expect it.
For many, admitting to loneliness, isolation and fear equates to weakness and they feel they can’t be weak in the top job — so they try to hide it. While others, the internal conflict they feel is that when you’re an organizational leader, you’ve got power, privilege, and perks and so it might seem terribly self-indulgent or even wrong to admit you feel lonely and isolated.
For some, they haven’t yet even put their finger on the feelings because feeling lonely as a leader just isn’t often discussed.
The reality of leader isolation
If you feel lonely or isolated in your role, you’re not alone. And if it makes you feel better about acknowledging it, several years ago the Harvard Business Review quantified the impact of feelings of isolation.
According to the HBR, their survey of CEOs showed that half of CEOs admitted feeling lonely — and of these, 61 percent expressed concerns it hindered them at work.
There are many reasons why leaders feel isolated.
Leadership necessitates some distance. You can be friendly with your team members, but as the boss you are not one of them. You’re privy to more information, you need to keep some things confidential, and there will be times, where the difficult decisions you have to make will hurt those around you. As a boss you can’t let on that you don’t have all the answers and perhaps you even struggle with imposter syndrome. Many top executives are under scrutiny, not just by a board of directors or shareholders, but by the press. Protecting your privacy and safeguarding your reputation is an important consideration when you can’t be sure who to trust. There are many reasons why so many leaders keep themselves a bit apart from their team members.
Your team members may be holding back, especially if you’ve been promoted. Where you were once included in informal lunches, birthday parties, and get-togethers, team members are aware that the boss isn’t there to socialize with them in quite the same way as their peers. This might be a natural deference to authority, where they want to ensure the team leader sees them only in a professional capacity. It can also be a case where team members don’t feel their opinions will be valued or heard, so they keep themselves apart from top-level executives and watch what they say. Realistically, many team members may feel separated from the executive tier by office doors and calendar-protecting, access-limiting executive assistants.
It’s new territory. Whether you’re shifting gears from go-getting team member to leader or a veteran leader in a new role, it takes time to figure out how to engage your team members in the ways they want — and the ways they need. As you size things up, you’re likely fine with some distance and so is the rest of the team. But on some level it may feel that you’re excluded.
The damaging effects of leadership isolation
As human beings, we’re built for connection. Feeling lonely can affect our health and wellbeing.
When we feel isolated in a social context, it activates the alarm response; on a physiological level, loneliness affects our behaviour (consciously and subconsciously). Those feelings of fight or flight release stress hormones, which cumulatively can make us sick.
When lonely and stressed, many folks won’t sleep well and immunity can be weakened because stress hormones inhibit the production of those germ-fighting white blood cells.
In addition to our interior response, you can guess that your external responses could change too. If you as the leader feel alone and isolated, your actions will reflect this.
You’ve heard of the ripple effect or the butterfly effect? Your actions as a leader will not only affect your performance, but also that of those around and under you. Feeling lonely and isolated could come out as negativity, anger, or perhaps frustration. If loneliness has made you tired and anxious, it could have an impact on the kind of decisions you’re making.
It can also affect how others perceive you. They might assume you are aloof, unreachable, unapproachable, arrogant, or overwhelmed. If they think you’re miserable, will they be inspired to follow your leadership?
How to conquer loneliness at the top
We’ve established many reasons why leaders feel isolated and also the negative effect loneliness can have on you, your work, and your team.
It’s important to feel supported and connected. There are a few ways you can achieve this:
Build a support network. Some folks find professional development organizations, where they can spend time with peers who understand their unique concerns and struggles, to be the answer. Others will pull together a more informal support group, perhaps comprised of a long-standing mentor, retired leaders, or peers who work in other industries. The key is to find a few people you can turn to when you need to vent, seek advice, or brainstorm in confidence. When we have a support network that feels safe and where we belong, we feel happier and more able to weather challenges — and science even says people who feeling connected socially live longer, healthier lives. Lowering stress also improves our immunity (physical health) and feelings of anxiety and depression (emotional health).
Consider an executive coach. When you work with a professional coach, you gain a trusted advisor who can help you through any challenges you face (and many organizations will pay to coach their leaders because the ROI is higher than with other training and development). One to one coaching with Padraig is confidential and personalized, grounded in transformative change.
Find ways to connect appropriately with your team members. Even as the leader, you can connect with your team members in ways that let them see you as an approachable leader. There are many team-building opportunities and it’s good to embrace those times to foster a connection and build trust. It might be talking about shared interests like movies or sports, asking about outside interests, perhaps celebrating successes together, or having an impromptu coffee and muffin together. Stay in touch with the grassroots of your organization so that you know you’re not being given a filtered and managed perception of the business reality. This might mean holding town halls, walking the halls and chatting informally with team members, or having skip-level meetings so that you meet with more junior employees without the mid-level bosses mediating the discussion.
Take work-life balance seriously. Fostering relationships outside of work is important for feeling that sense of belonging and wellbeing. If your role as a leader makes you feel isolated, achieving work-life balance is all the more crucial. Make time for friends, family, loved ones, volunteering, and hobbies or interests. Your connection to other people and feeling well-rounded can improve your health and empower you for the hours you are at work.
When have you experienced loneliness or feelings of isolation as a leader? Are you already seeing the effects? What changes can you make to feel more supported and connected? What tools will help you cope with leadership isolation?