CEO loneliness is a real problem affecting our society. Have you ever felt lonely, isolated and there is no one you can speak to, as a leader? Well, you are not alone!
Harvard Business Review reported that 61% of CEO’s feel that loneliness hinders their job performance. The higher you move up the ladder the greater the responsibility, pressure to deliver results, expectation to remain calm and the level of confidentiality, increases. Has CEO loneliness invaded your life?
CEO’s may find it difficult to speak about their biggest challenges, complex problems or strongest fears with their boards, senior executives or colleagues. They also struggle to confide in their friends outside of the organization as they feel they don’t have the depth and breadth of understanding the challenges that they face. There is also the risk of sharing information and doubts as it could catalyse rumours.
The lack of privacy that has occurred, as a result of technology, has opened the door to greater public and media scrutiny, and therefore a grey area of what is and isn’t private and public life. To compound this, there are also developing expectations that CEO’s should increase their transparency, vulnerability and openness to become a better leader.
“With great power comes great responsibility”. SPIDERMAN
As a result, CEO’s quite often experience social isolation as the number of people they can confide in shrinks. Sometimes the number of people CEO’s confide in reduces to a level where they don’t feel comfortable speaking with anyone about the important topics, things that keep them up at night and the tough decisions that need to be made. This occurs because they find it difficult to make it relatable to people who are not experiencing the same challenges and also the risk of confidentiality being breached.
When pressure comes on and issues arise, many CEO’s will try and fix them without reaching out for help, both internally and externally. Poor decisions and escalated problems can occur, and it is at these times when you need to depend on people you have built trust and relationships over a number of years.
According to a study completed by the University of Chicago, social isolation affects human behavior and how the brain operates. fMRI scans showed there is a decrease in the activity of the parts of the brain associated with rewards and a seeing things from other peoples perspectives in lonely people versus non-lonely people. The research suggested that loneliness might be accentuated as lonely individuals may seek to “find relative comfort in nonsocial rewards”. (Cacioppo et al. 2009)
In the PNAS Journal in 2015, research by Cole et al, identified how flight-or-fight responses triggered by perceived social isolation (PSI) and loneliness can lead to illness and premature death. PSI and loneliness can adversely affect sleep patterns, stress hormones, inflammation in the body, production of white blood cells, and executive function, learning and memory (Bergland, 2015).
As a CEO, it is critical that you learn how to overcome the feelings of loneliness to improve your health, home-life and work productivity. It is important to proactively build and develop emotional connections with a broad range of people, as it leads to increased collective positive emotions and well being.
The important question is – Who can you speak with when the going gets tough and the challenges become overwhelming?
Here are 4 Ways To Overcome CEO Loneliness:
1. Build a Team of Mentors
These are the people whom you can consult with when faced with challenges and problems where the answer may not be clear. They are people who are curious, like to ask questions, be prepared to listen and at times make you feel uncomfortable by challenging you to consider other approaches. It is valuable to have a diverse range of mentors, who aren’t just like you. You want people who you trust their advice and opinions, but most importantly will provide the hard truths and perspectives from a different angle. Personally I ensure that my mentors come from different industries, cultures and age ranges. Having a mentor who is younger than you is just as powerful as having someone older with lots of wisdom. Who are the 4 to 8 people you need in your life that give you the confidence, clarity and perspective you need.
2. Create Work-Life Integration
Successful people are congruent with their values and character whether they are at home or in the workspace. Work is part of life, so the theory of work-life balance may not be the best approach. Work-Life Integration is all about understanding that work is part of life and we need to effectively manage the boundaries between when we are working and we are doing other components of our life. Your body and mind needs the space to recharge, rejuvenate and reimagine. Having space in your life for relationships, exercise, freeing your mind and other passions is important in providing opportunities for an outlet, growth, success and diversifying your perspective. It also can provide motivation and inspiration not only to yourself, but other people when you have a passion or two outside the workplace. The relationships; whether family, social or work-related, in your life are important. If you have a partner and/or children then it maybe useful to leave the office before dark and create a cue to ensure you are present when spending valuable time with them. What changes will you make in 2020 to ensure that you have an outlet and focus outside of work?
3. Join a Support Group
Having a support group or mastermind is different to a team of mentors who you are likely to consult and confide in individually. Support groups meet on a regular basis, whether that is weekly, monthly, quarterly or even yearly. It’s a group that is likely to be diverse in nature and provides the psychological safety to discuss, brainstorm and challenge solutions to problems, ideas or challenges that people in the group face. These groups provide a sense of belonging; an honest feedback mechanism where they act as a nurturer, mirror or provider of truth; and can also function as celebrator, motivator and inspirer. They enable you to find clarity and most importantly perspective. An extra bonus is that support groups allow you to form connections that help alleviate stress, anxiety and improve mental health. What mastermind or support group will help you go to the next level in 2020?
4. Embrace the Inclusivity of Courage and Vulnerability
In the past vulnerability maybe seen as a weakness, when in fact it is actually a strength. We grow through adversity, changing our environment and challenging the status quo. Courage and vulnerability are inclusive. Without vulnerability we cannot be courageous and without courage we cannot find the strength to speak up and be vulnerable. As a CEO it is ok to say you don’t have an answer, that you were wrong, are feeling a lack in confidence and that other peoples answers are better. Having vulnerable discussions helps to build psychological safety within your team or between stakeholders. Vulnerability cultivates trust and respect from others, while creating the space for others to speak up about problems, issues or feelings they have. It fosters discussion about key problems and allows people with different perspectives to provide solutions that may not have surfaced before. As a CEO you need to lead by example by taking the first step to showcasing that vulnerability is positive and a key pillar to growth in your organization and life. How will you let your guard down, put your ego to the side and create a space for vulnerability and courage to flourish in your work environment?
It is important to remember that we do not succeed on our own. There is no instant solution or cure to CEO loneliness, and it requires patience and time to create a strong support network and environment. It is important to that as an influential leader that you identify and build strong team of mentors and support group for valuable guidance when there is uncertainty, difficulty confronts us and we need to celebrate successes in life. Take the time to reflect and then recognize how the 4 Ways To Overcome CEO Loneliness can you help you rise up and become a better leader in 2020.
- Cacioppo et al. (2009) What Are the Brain Mechanisms on Which Psychological Processes Are Based? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2009; 4 (1): 10 Link
- Bergland, C. (2015) Loneliness: Perceived Social Isolation Is Public Enemy No. 1 Psychology Today, 23rd November 2015. Link
- Comerford, C. (2018) Loneliness: The Executive Challenge No One Talks About. Forbes, 7th July 2018. Link