Why Loneliness is a Problem for Leaders and What to do About it

by Jun 25, 2020Constance's Comments, Leadership

The phrase “lonely at the top” may be true but it is also fatalistic. Some may think that loneliness is the price of success for those who achieve a significant role, recognition or financial reward. Leaders themselves may think that loneliness is an unalterable condition they must endure. Well-intended advice to increase social contact seems logical since it is often assumed that loneliness stems from being alone or being the “only one.” However, the most important factor in loneliness is not the number or frequency of contacts, but a lack of meaningful connection with other people.

It can be hard to acknowledge a lack of connection, especially when a leader’s schedule is likely to be full of conversation and back to back meetings, but these are examples of contact not necessarily connection. In the absence of connection, activity and conversation may keep people busy with little sense of accomplishment and an empty feeling.

Why does it matter if a leader is lonely? 

It matters because loneliness has a dampening effect on people. While loneliness is a subjective experience, it shows up ways that people see in themselves and others. Four things are common:

1. Loss of enjoyment, a sense that things are more gray than usual. Tamping down one’s emotions can dull the discomfort of loneliness, making it less noticeable, but it also reduces the capacity to experience and therefore express, enthusiasm.

2. Tension, fear, and anxiety such as a sense of clenching the jaw or holding the breath.

3. Loss of empathy and limited tolerance for one’s own and other’s imperfections makes people irritable, judgmental, and hard to be around.

4. Uncertainty and distress about what, if anything is amiss, other than the extreme circumstances.

When a leader is distressed, especially when they are unable to acknowledge it, they may create echo chambers for their  comfort. This is a sure way to shut down genuine dialog, the sort that leads to meaningful connection and better performance. Even subtle signs of discomfort on the part of a leader will affect what those around them do and especially what they won’t do, namely bring their best thinking and strong motivation to work.

The phrase “lonely at the top” may be true but it is also fatalistic. Click To Tweet

What can leaders do?   

  1. Take your emotions seriously. Amidst the pandemic of 2020, many leaders are stretched to the limit and stressed as never before. While it’s not surprising in this environment for people to feel extremely disrupted, exhausted, and just plain “over it”, these things should not be ignored. Often people disengage when stressed and may feel and act numb, a subjective feeling associated with loneliness. While unpleasant, loneliness also bodes poorly for performance and is associated with profound and negative health outcomes including heart disease, cognitive decline and depression. Vivek Murthy, MD, former Surgeon General of the United States, details the experience and consequences of loneliness in his book Together. His book, draws on extensive research including work by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD and colleagues, in which they reviewed 148 studies including 300,000 participants, globally. These studies show that the relationship between loneliness and poor health outcomes is significant, rivaling obesity in its consequences.
  2. Think small to create big effects. Leadership is often associated with big decisions, big announcements, and major initiatives. Those are all important, but they don’t build up personal connections, even when the leader is admirable and trusted.

Connections are more readily built in small ways that take intention and attention but not necessarily a lot of time. Leaders who create connections have things in common, they:

  • Tune in to what others are saying
  • Observe what others are doing, how they are doing and inquire
  • Asking for ideas, opinions, and volunteers for interesting work
  • Asking questions about the ordinary, routine matters that happen in their business and showing curiosity about what they hear. How does that work? Do you have ideas about how we might do that differently or better?
  • Pay attention when someone seems distracted and ask how they are doing without expecting yourself to solve every problem
  • Deliberately interact with people whom they don’t typically spend time with

One executive, with whom I work, selects people he either doesn’t know at all, or hasn’t spoken with recently, and calls them. He does it without an appointment or agenda. He asks – 1. How are you?  How is your family? 2. What challenges do you see for us? 3. What are your ideas? He’s learning and importantly, feels a sense of satisfaction that he didn’t before he began making the calls.

  1. Take the long view. The current crisis is what Dan Pink, author of Drive and To Sell is Human, aptly calls, “the great unmasking.” Crises are always revealing but when they are events, the revelations can be quickly forgotten. Now, we are in a long-term period of extreme disruption that is showing us more about ourselves, and each other, than a disaster that comes and goes. Leaders who don’t assume that what they are observing is caused solely by the pandemic will learn far more than those who brush aside what is unpleasant, especially when they engage others in understanding what is being unmasked and create new ways of operating.

Leaders can help themselves, and others move through the current crisis together, by prioritizing genuine connection which will benefit them, their team, their organization and the communities in which they operate, for a long time to come.