In a wide-ranging interview in 2016, five years after taking over from Steve Jobs, Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke candidly about the challenges of running one of the world’s most iconic companies. “It’s sort of a lonely job,” he admitted.
Is this evidence that the familiar phrase “It’s lonely at the top” is true? Yes and no.
In that same interview, Cook hints that the phrase is more a saying than anything and not necessarily a truth backed up by hard evidence. He also implies that the real problem facing CEOs and top leaders is not loneliness but rather isolation.
Is this just a quibbling over semantics? I would argue that the two words point toward what leaders and executives can and should do to deal with their isolation and to address the larger problem of workplace loneliness. There is common ground between the two issues but important differences as well.
Despite the acceptance of the phrase as a truism, and despite a survey finding that half of the CEOs report feelings of loneliness, loneliness as a subject of study by behavioral scientists has a precise meaning. Pioneering loneliness researcher John Cacioppo described it as a “perception that one is socially on the edge.” It is fundamentally a sense of feeling left out.
Workplace loneliness throws in an additional complication. Employees who feel lonely at work not only feel disconnected from those around them, but also from the organization they work for.
However, with the trials executives face, they do not feel on the edge, and they do not feel disconnected from the organization. Generally, they also do not feel powerless, another hallmark of those who suffer from loneliness. In fact, one of the few rigorous studies of the lonely at the top question finds that a CEO’s sense of being in control of their own fate is a buffer against loneliness.
The same study acknowledges isolation as a distinct problem, one that Tim Cook touches on as well. To avoid becoming insular, he says, you have to go out of your way to solicit different points of view. Otherwise, you will find yourself living in a bubble, an echo chamber.
Build a silent advisory board—a support system
The danger of the bubble is a consistent theme in the literature on executive isolation. To counterbalance isolation, I work with my executive clients on consciously and mindfully building a support system. Doing so is essential for both strategic reasons and for emotional reasons.
I had a client who hired me because he felt isolated, trapped and paralyzed in his decision-making process. He found it helpful to bounce ideas off me (an unbiased coach). He referred to me as his “silent advisory board.”
A silent advisory board differs from a formal business network. Yes, it is important to solicit input from your board of directors and other key players in the company. Even this circle, however, can become its own kind of echo chamber.
Tim Cook talks about how easy it is for a CEO to develop blind spots. In my work as an executive coach, I help leaders see the world through multiple lenses. Expand your circle, and you will expand your worldview.
Sometimes you are not seeking advice or feedback so much as meeting the need we all have to confide in others. Just as working out our thoughts and emotions in our mind or a journal can be a therapeutic exercise, sharing your challenges with a silent advisory board can provide a fresh perspective and keep you from getting stuck. Your silent advisory board might consist of fellow executives at other companies, mentors, or a coach. They all bring something valuable to the table.
Be a champion of connection
Loneliness is a real problem, both in the workplace and in society. A former Surgeon General calls it a “modern epidemic.” Research shows it increases the odds of early death by 20%. One of the few studies focusing on the workplace, “Work Loneliness and Employee Performance,” finds that loneliness undermines individual performance, team performance, and a sense of connection between employees and their organization.
Leaders and executives are uniquely positioned to combat such loneliness and to replace it with connection. Connection—between a company and its purpose, a company, and its employees, and a company and its customers—is treasure, and leaders are the guardians and stewards of that treasure.
Leaders are at the very center of nurturing that first connection in particular. Indeed, there might not be a more critical leadership role than ensuring a company is aligned with a clear and compelling purpose. Generous leaders develop the gift of making all employees feel a part of that connection and a sense of belonging. By acknowledging and celebrating how every role contributes to a company’s purpose, leaders can help prevent employees from feeling left out and on the edge. The most engaged employees feel at the very center of things.
Gratitude can complement generosity as a way to build connection and fight loneliness and isolation. Research shows that the mere expression of gratitude is a powerful tool in cultivating a positive mindset. Used intentionally, it can be a transformative organizational practice.
Every year, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi writes hundreds of letters to the parents of her senior executives, telling them how their child contributes and is a gift to the company. This simple act of gratitude creates ripples of connection between her team and the company, and beyond into their families. I imagine it makes Nooyi feel less isolated in her position atop one of the world’s biggest companies.
Cultivating connection should be a core leadership mission. When you act on that mission daily, you will ease your executive isolation. You will also foster a culture that reduces workplace loneliness by celebrating the importance of every employee, every contribution.
Success is a team sport. Authentic leaders affirm the connective glue that holds an organization together by openly sharing both successes and challenges. They set the tone for an organization where everyone feels invested, engaged, and acknowledged.
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Published on Forbes on Sep. 26, 2018
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