By Jai Thade, Head of Content
Here’s a question to reflect on: do you feel lonely?
This question is a crucial one because feeling a sense of loneliness & isolation is not just painful, it is dangerous. Research indicates that it can be as dangerous to life expectancy as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and that it can decrease your life expectancy by up to 8 years (Cigna US Loneliness Index, 2018)! At work, this sense of loneliness is also a major predictor of professional burnout (Moss, 2021).
With data like that, hopefully, this issue has got your attention, especially since we are now in a time of remote working and lockdowns, physically separated from many of our colleagues for close to two years now. And the lockdowns have only exacerbated the already increasing trend of “urban loneliness”– with people in cities feeling more isolated than ever despite being surrounded by people.
There are, however, some individuals more vulnerable to certain kinds of loneliness than others. Within the context of organisations, one such group of people is leaders (Rokach, 2014).
You may have heard the figure of speech “it’s lonely at the top”, and there does seem to be some truth behind this. For instance, one study reported in Harvard Business Review found how half of the CEOs surveyed reported experiencing feelings of loneliness, and a vast majority of them believed it hindered their performance (Saporito, 2012). Back in 2016, Tim Cook had a highly self-reflective interview where he admitted how running Apple was “a lonely job” (Washington Post, 2016).
You might doubt this, thinking to yourself “Who spends more time in meetings and interactions with key stakeholders than leaders?” However, it’s important to note that the loneliness leaders feel does not stem from a lack of social interactions, it stems from a lack of being able to form deep, meaningful connections.
One key aspect of such connections is relatability. When we are able to relate to the experiences of others, and others are able to relate to our experiences, it is easier to feel connected. A leadership position, by virtue of its responsibilities, however, takes a lot of that relatability away.
Leaders are held to a different standard than other employees, and as the last line of defence, they have a different level of accountability. They are often subject to more scrutiny (even public scrutiny in the case of more visible organisations). They have to be more cautious about what they communicate and how (NY Times, 2015). Even slight doubt, uncertainty or helplessness on your part can create amplified ripples of panic throughout the entire organisation.
In certain cultures and contexts, people may treat leaders the same way they treated authority figures like parents or teachers (Cooper & Quick, 2010). Moreover, leaders may purposely distance themselves from their employees in order to stay fair, objective and impartial in their assessments and appraisals of them. Even if their approach to leadership is empathetic, the completely free & open sharing of emotions is somewhat hindered.
And then of course is the time constraints leaders face due to overwork being their norm. As reported in a 2018 HBR article, the average CEO works many more hours than the average employee (“How CEOs Manage Time”), leaving them little time to cultivate relationships both within and outside of work.
Some may shrug their shoulders and say this just comes with the territory, but as the findings earlier in this article showed us, this loneliness is a matter of serious concern for the health & performance of leaders, and consequently the health & performance of the organisations they lead.
One troubling pattern we have noticed is how there is a subset of leaders who may be more likely to engage in the above-discussed patterns that exacerbate loneliness – men.
For instance, it is widely believed that men’s social relationships tend to be more instrumental, and men are less able and less interested than women in building emotional and supportive relationships with others. It is also frequently discussed how men may be less willing to express emotions and vulnerabilities, instead preferring to maintain a stoic demeanour. These lines from Charles Bukowski’s “Bluebird” capture the ethos that men often adhere to:
“There’s a bluebird in my heart,
that wants to get out,
but I’m too tough for him,
‘stay in there,
I’m not going to let anybody see you’…”
Research also indicates that men put in more hours at work than women (Forbes, 2016). All these combined may just exacerbate leadership loneliness for male leaders.
The knee-jerk response to this discussion is to speak about the importance of men acting differently. However, some research indicates that simply “acting differently” may come with its own set of negative consequences. For instance:
- when male (but not female) leaders ask for help, they are viewed as less competent, capable, and confident (Rosette, Mueller & Lebel, 2015)
- men who are more agreeable (e.g. warm, caring, supportive, sympathetic) make significantly less money than more stereotypically masculine men [Judge, Livingston & Hurst, 2012)
- male (but not female) managers who displayed empathy (as reported by their employees) were rated by bosses as being more in danger of career derailment (Mayer, 2018)
In other words, simply prescribing alternative behaviours to male leaders might not be enough, as they will likely be penalised for straying from masculine norms.
Of course, the dynamics we’ve described might not be the only ones at play. For instance, a recently published paper showed how occupying a leadership role may be associated with greater loneliness for women than men (Ong, 2021). Moreover, even ideas like men being more predisposed to workaholism and that patterns of social connectedness among men are less emotional and supportive may be more of a “truism” than an accurate description of the status quo (Dudek & Szpitalak, 2018; McKenzie et al, 2018).
Regardless, the larger and more important message here is to ask ourselves what we expect from our leaders and to reassess this. We also need to recognise the need for expanding the range of qualities we deem acceptable in men – both at the workplace and outside it. There is a need for changing organisational cultures, perhaps by celebrating men who engage in positive behaviours (e.g., humility, vulnerability) through praise and acknowledgement.
Moreover, it is important for leaders, especially male leaders, to analyse their social networks and give special emphasis further building them, especially outside the context of work where they can be seen as individuals and not merely as their job title.
As Arthur C. Brooks said in his 2020 article ‘Why It’s So Lonely at the Top’:
“…loneliness is not a necessary condition of success; any more than unpaid taxes are a condition of making a lot of money. It is just a cost one must face honestly and manage. And, unlike taxes, loneliness can be defeated.”
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