When we commence our careers we usually work in the fat bit of the organisational structure triangle, somewhere near the bottom, where it’s anything but lonely. Everywhere we look there are people we can talk to, people to ask questions of, people to have a whinge with and people to share a laugh with. Very often we form friendships when we’re at this level. This sense of abundant connection is something that can contributes significantly to our feelings of wellbeing and happiness.
As our careers progress, if we rise through an organisation the picture changes drastically. The organisational structure triangle starts to narrow, and by the time we get to the senior levels of an organisation the number of people who are our peers is small. Those we do have are often too busy to catch up or they may work in different locations. We usually have plenty of direct and indirect reports we can talk to but these relationships are different since our ability to be completely open is usually more limited. Office layouts add to the problem, with leaders often tucked away behind walls rather than working in amongst the collective bustle and noise.
As a result it’s all too easy for leaders to become isolated and lonely. This leads to various problems. First, isolation makes us less happy. According to research having a good friend at work is often cited as the strongest factor for happiness at work. Conversely, people who don’t form these close connections at work will be less happy. Second, isolation makes us less effective in performing our roles, since we don’t get access to the free-flowing generation of ideas and the feedback that comes from spending regular time among peers. Finally, being lonely or isolated makes us less healthy. An increasing number of studies have shown that loneliness is one of the most significant predictors of poor health and reduced life expectancy. Work is not the only place we can connect meaningfully with others, but it’s one of the most important and one of the most convenient.
If you’re a leader and you’re feeling lonely or isolated here are some ideas:
- Try to view connecting with others as a critical aspect of your day-to-day activities (rather than something that you do after the “real work” is complete)
- Don’t let differences in organisational levels stop you from being human and authentic in your interactions with people. Friendships can be difficult to build between reporting levels but its very possible to have real and valuable connections.
- Arrange regular informal catch ups with your most trusted peers, in a private situation where you can share what is happening and provide each other with support and encouragement. Doing so over a coffee or a glass of wine usually works well.
- Find a mentor or a coach who can walk alongside you as a source of support, a sounding board for your ideas, a challenger of your perspectives and a checker of your progress.
- Join a professional group where you will meet others in your industry or profession. Once you join get involved and make a point of attending events regularly.
- Abandon your office regularly and spend plenty of time out amongst the people in your team listening to them, talking with them and forming relationships with them.
- Cultivate regular social connections outside work with long-term friends and family members. Start by picking up the phone and calling a few friends you may not have seen for a while.
You’re probably already doing some of these. I encourage you to choose a couple of the others and give them a try. You’ll certainly feel a greater sense of connection, and you’re very likely to experience greater happiness and better work performance as a result.