Here’s something that not many people talk about when they discuss leadership: The higher you go, the fewer friends you have at work. Fair? Maybe not. But the effects are real: These changes can affect our sense of belonging, well-being, and emotional security in the workplace. And science tells us that loneliness isn’t just a state of mind; it can also be hazardous to your health. Former surgeon general Vivek Murthy says that it can put you at risk for heart disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety.
There are strategies that can combat the isolation while embracing your role as a leader, and enjoying a sense of safety and camaraderie in the workplace.
Here are the top reasons why leadership can get lonely, and how to deal with them:
You have new and privileged access to information
As you rise through the ranks, you’ll have more access to information, but less likely be able to share it. Yet when you have something others want (in this case, information), holding back can create a divide between those in the know, and those wanting to know more.
Some leaders believe that if they tell their team everything, they’ll stay on their side. But too much information can overwhelm them. In my case, I’ve learned that while a team may want to know all the nitty-gritty details of company politics, it’s rarely helpful. More often than not, those details can create spin, doubt, and even fear among the team.
Your best bet is to be honest about what you can and cannot disclose. I recommend talking through your philosophy about information sharing early in your relationship building with the team. For instance, can they expect to know every play-by-play, or will you loop them in on a need-to-know basis?
My philosophy is that if it’s helpful and actionable for you to know, I’ll share it. If the information won’t result in any change of action, strategy, or understanding, it isn’t worth disclosing just yet. Discussing this up front helps set expectations with your team, and shows them that you have considered this carefully–for their sake, for yours, and for the business. It also sets you free to make quick decisions without feeling guilty about who can know what. And it’s reassuring to know that you’re taking a thoughtful approach while looking out for yourself and your team.
You have to put on a brave face
Humans are hardwired for connection, and one of the ways we connect with others is by confiding in each other. But as a leader, you must strike a balance between being honest and being comforting. When things get tough, it’s your job to keep the team together and steer the ship to certainty. That means that even when you’re uncertain, you have to put on a brave face. Depending on company culture, you may be able to get real with your team and show some vulnerability. Even then, you’ll have to be careful. If your team sees you worrying too much, they’ll start to worry too, precisely when you need them to be strong.
This emotional masking can make it very difficult to forge honest connections with your team. Perhaps they can confide in you, but who can you confide in? The tip to combatting this loneliness trigger is to find your own confidant in the company–someone who isn’t on your team (and even better, someone who works in a totally different part of the business). You’ll need someone who understands the context of your situation, but who can be trusted not to leak information, and who isn’t likely to be affected negatively by your honesty. Look to build relationships with peer leaders in other parts of the organization.
You are no longer “one of them”
You used to be able to pal around with the team, but now you find them changing the conversation when you join them at lunch. You used to share your opinions of colleagues, but now you find it’s best to defer judgment. By withholding your opinion, you become unknowable to your team. They may have already started to exclude you the minute your promotion came in.
Employees will be looking to you to set an example by watching to see how you react, behave, treat those higher up, and those far below you. Set the tone right away by doing your best to honestly and diligently lead your team, but don’t let your new title and the team’s perceptions create a disconnect between you.
Lean into what you still have in common with your team: be it a love of breakfast foods, a favorite sport or pastime, or something else. Just make sure that bond isn’t built on a hatred of a certain colleague. Lead by example to let them know that it’s okay to goof off sometimes in front of you, and welcome them to treat you as a human who just happens to be a boss.
Combat the inevitable loneliness of leading a team by finding ways to keep connecting with them, while also building outside support networks. It’s key that you nurture a strong identity outside of the workplace as you rise through the ranks. Remember your passions, your hobbies, and your community outside of your 9-to-5, and connect to them. You’ll be a better leader because of it.
Ximena Hartsock, PhD, is the cofounder and president of Phone2Action.