The Hard Facts: Lonely At The Top

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“While being a CEO may come with prestige and financial benefits, a study by RHR International, a global executive talent development firm, revealed that the high-ranking position is often accompanied by isolation. Public company CEOs are particularly susceptible to such moods, with nearly half having feelings of loneliness compared with 31 percent of private company CEOs.” (“Bosses Say It Is, Indeed, Lonely At The Top” ; 6/12/2012)

I’ve never been a boss.

I don’t know that I ever thought about that until writing this post, but I’ve never managed employees or had anyone report to me. I’ve never had my own office, either. When it came to the workplace, I was never in danger of being lonely. My 9-5 days were spent in open cubicles, where I could (and did) just yell across the aisle if I wanted to chat with someone.

Had I been a boss, though, especially a big-time top-of-the-food-chain type, it seems it would have only hurt my BFF dilemma.

Apparently, all those old sayings are sayings for a reason, and the whole “lonely at the top” thing holds up. The above study found that not only do CEOs feel lonely, but that loneliness can negatively affect their ability to do their job. According to Business News Daily, “50 percent of CEOs felt secluded in the position and of this group, 61 percent felt that this seclusion was a hindrance to their performance. Not surprisingly, first-time CEOs were more negatively affected by this loneliness, with 70 percent reporting that it hurt them…”

I used to dream of being a magazine Editor-in-Chief. I know that’s not the same as being a CEO, but it was as close to that role as I ever wished for. It’s a rough gig, though. All that power doesn’t earn you any friends. I hate to think that people have to choose between career success and social success, and that’s probably why I’d be that annoying boss who met you at the water cooler in the morning and was all “So, how good is the new Bieber song?” (Hint: This is the exact wrong way to earn the friendship of your employees. Unless you work at Tiger Beat. Which would make you awesome.)

Any bosses out there? Have you found that it gets lonelier as you climb the career ladder?


Filed under The Search

6 responses to “The Hard Facts: Lonely At The Top

  1. I too have been a boss. However, I did have the “Big Office”. I’m now retired from all that. But, I am still reminded of those days as my wife is now “The Boss”. Today I see a lot of my old days in the grind. She is very lonely. I’ve often pointed out to her that she has no friends that she/we socialize with. I sometimes think that at this point she has actually lost the ability to have any friends. I also feel this issue has effected our marriage. She comes home from work, grabs her glass of wine and her iPad – And that’s it ’till 10:00 P.M. when we go to bed. There is no conversation most nights, intimate or otherwise. If, after 40 years of marriage, she can’t do this, why would I expect her to have, and maintain, any friend(s). She has also pointed out how many friends I have, both male and female. I think the bottom line (business term) is that the corporate success will not only damage your life at work, it can also damage your marriage.

  2. I wonder if it makes a difference how many friends outside of the workplace these individuals have. When I have been in supervisor positions, I did find it difficult to be friends with the people under me (they could just be faking it because they HAVE to be nice to me), but it didn’t hurt my friendships outside of work. I’ve never been a big fan of making friends where I work anyways, all you would ever talk about it work when hanging out.

  3. I’ve never been a boss, but I think it is whatever personality you have becoming a boss. I have had bosses that were nice and would stand behind you and you felt loyalty to that had plenty of friends. I have had bosses that lived at work and micro managed everything you do and didnt trust any of their employees work, completely alienating themselves from the natural ebb and flow of the work environment.

  4. Lynn

    This is a phenomenal commencement speech given at West Point in 2009 on leadership and solitude. It’s an oldie but a goodie, reinforcing the reality that being a good leader means being comfortable alone.

  5. Great question! I’ve been the boss/manager. It sucked and I sucked at it. I’ve since learned a lot. Once when I thought I had a true friend at work which felt good by the way, something happened to make me realize that she was just sucking up to me. My co-workers couldn’t just be themselves even though I kept everything they said confidential and to myself. They were always afraid of their jobs and that was how the company I worked at liked it.

    At the end of my corporate life, I didn’t manage people, just projects. I had an office, they had cubes.Getting to know them for real left me vulnerable and less effective in my work position. The times I opened up became huge liabilities. For me, it was better not to know too many details about the worker bees especially when my opinion was asked when it came to layoff time. I feel sad as I write that because it doesn’t have to be that way. It just was.

    Until the kids grew up and I divorced, I worked too many hours to invest in relationships outside work. I’ll spare you the details on that. So, my response is that you can have outside friends if you invest the time and energy into it but friends at work while you are the boss? Didn’t work for me; at least not where I worked.

    • Shannon

      “Getting to know them for real left me vulnerable and less effective in my work position.”

      I totally agree. I was a manager once and also I don’t think I was very good at it. If I could avoid managing people the rest of my career, I would, but it will become inevitable as I (hopefully) climb the ranks.

      I, too, learned a lot from the experience, but unfortunately the closer I got to my team the harder it was to provide feedback. Come review time, it made it more difficult to point out areas for improvement (which we ALL have) while teetering on that line of friend/manager. I actually had a former supervisor at the time kindly tell me I may have been getting too close to one of my employees and it turned out he was right. It became even more awkward when I tried to slowly pull back on that friendship in order to maintain effectiveness in my job, which is really what I was being paid for.

      I think if you’re able to connect with peers, however, it doesn’t have to be so bad. For a CEO, that’s clearly more difficult, but if they were someone who was promoted from within the company, would the friendships built along the way suddenly just disappear? Change, sure…but just go away? I’d hope not. The article definitely makes sense, which is really too bad. Maybe the CEOs of the world should form their own bff circle…just saying 🙂

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